The term “icon” is overused, but there’s no denying it’s a fitting descriptor for Berry Gordy. The 87-year-old legend, who in 2013 received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Pioneer Award, tells Billboard the secret of the Motown magic and looks back on his early days mentoring Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
Gordy, who deferred his induction from last year, will be inducted with the 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame class — including Jay Z, Max Martin, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Robert Lamm and James Pankow of Chicago, and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Also to be honored at the June 15 celebration are Ed Sheeran, Alan Menken, Caroline Bienstock and Pitbull.
Here’s Gordy in his own words.
His Early Days
“When I started out, all I wanted to do was write some songs, make some money and get some girls — not necessarily in that order, which was not unlike the majority of the guys in my neighborhood. Most of my early songs were written on some kind of truth of my own situation. For example, when I was broke, I needed money, so I wrote a song called ‘Money (That’s What I Want).’ ‘The best things in life are free, but you can give ‘em to the birds and bees, I need money…’
“Barrett Strong recorded it, and it became a big hit. A few years later, the Beatles recorded it, then the Rolling Stones… and I made even more money! Another time, I remembered back to my teenage years when I couldn’t get girls ’cause I couldn’t dance. So I wrote a song that started with: ‘You broke my heart ’cause I couldn’t dance/You didn’t even want me around/And now I’m back to let you know/I can really shake ‘em down/(Now) Do you love me?'”
Dreams Come True
“Motown was like a fairy tale that happened to have come true. Songwriting was my love and everything I did was to protect that love. I didn’t like how my songs were being arranged, so I started arranging them. I didn’t like how they were being produced, so I started producing them. I didn’t like how my writer royalties were being paid, so I started my own publishing company. Then I went on to distribute the records and Motown came into its own. Being in the right time and the right place is important. But atmosphere was the key to Motown. It allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes. And it was the process that we loved, the togetherness, the camaraderie, and the honest competition. That helped keep everyone energized, and all that was topped by the love and respect we had for each other — and the fun. At Motown we always had fun.”
What He’s Most Proud Of
“All the artists, writers, musicians and producers, who had so much faith and trust in me and the courage to follow me down roads that didn’t even exist. They are the people who worked, laughed, cried, lived and died to help make the Motown legacy what it is today, and I’ll always be grateful to them.?”
On Smokey Robinson
“He was the first. My first artist at Motown, my first writer, my first producer, the one who wrote the company song that kept our mission in focus. That’s why we called him the ‘soul of Motown,’ and he’s still my best friend.”
On Diana Ross
“I wanted to make her the biggest star in the world. She believed in me and I believed in her. Together we made magic.”
On Stevie Wonder
“When I first met Stevie, I knew he was a wonder, and he proved me right over and over again. One of the most brilliant people I have ever seen. It has been wonderful to watch him mature as a person and musically from ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder to the musical genius and humanitarian he is today.”
On Michael Jackson
“I called him the sponge. When the Jackson 5 came to Motown I was fascinated at Michael’s ability to study my every move. He learned everything I knew and everybody else he was interested in, too. I put a songwriting team together, called the Corporation. ‘I Want You Back,’ ‘ABC,’ ‘The Love You Save’ and ‘I’ll Be There’ — with those songs the Jackson 5 became the first group in history to have their first four singles go straight to No. 1 on the Billboard [Hot 100].”