Berry Gordy Jr. used a visit back to where he started to announce he was finishing.
The Motown founder was feted during a Hitsville Honors ceremony on Sunday night (Sept. 22) at Orchestra Hall in his home town of Detroit, where he started Motown 60 years ago with an $800 loan from his family trust. And as he accepted the Motown Legacy Award, Gordy used the occasion to announce his retirement from working life
With his 90th birthday looming in November, the still-energetic Gordy made the surprise reveal during a good-naturedly rambling 35-and-a-half-minute speech that caused Lee Daniels, who presented the award, to put the weighty trophy he was holding on the floor after Gordy hit the half-hour mark. He saved the “important announcement” until the end, telling the audience that “As I stand here I’m back where I started. I have come full circle, so it is only appropriate that…I should announce my retirement.”
After a response of laughter and then a warm ovation, Gordy — who started the label in 1959 — continued that, “For years I have dreamt about it, talked about it, threatened it and tried to do it. In fact, this has gone on for so many years that those trying to help me retire (have) retired themselves. It is time for me to spend my next 60 years reflection on how fortunate I am, how much I appreciate and love all of you and how wonderful my life has been, and will continue to be.”
Though Gordy sold Motown in 1988, he’s remained active in creative and business concerns, including produced the Tony Award-nominated Motown: The Musical in 2013 and staying involved with management of the Jobete publishing catalog, now administered by Sony/ATV.
Gordy said earlier in the speech that the weekend trip to Detroit “has been overwhelming to me” and that “the love I’m getting from being here is different than anything I’ve ever gotten in my life.” “People always ask me ‘What does the legacy of Motown mean to you?'” Gordy said. “The answer is simply love. The Motown legacy remains the music we made for all people that reminds us that we are all the same, that music has no color. It gives voice to honest feelings and helps us understand each other.”
Gordy and his vision were certainly the stars of the entire three-and-a-half hour love-fest, which was part of a 60th anniversary weekend that brought scores of Motown alumni, all sporting special commemorative gold LP-shaped medallions, back to Detroit for a series of events. Others receiving Hitsville Honors on Sunday included former Motown executive Suzanne DePasse (the Game Changer Award), while artist manager Shelly Berger (still handling the Temptations) and acclaimed arranger Paul Riser each received a Motown 60 Hitsville Honor and Ne-Yo, a current Motown vice-president, took home the Spirit of Motown Award. BET chief Debra Lee, the only non-Motown winner, was presented with the Esther Gordy Edwards Award of Excellence, named for the late Gordy sister and Motown executive who founded the Motown Museum during the early 80s.
The honorees were selected by the Motown Museum’s board of trustees. There are no plans to broadcast or distribute the event yet.
The ceremony, hosted by actor and Detroit native Hill Harper of ABC’s The Good Doctor, featured performances, too. Kem and The Voice finalist Beth Griffith-Manley — the daughter of Motown Funk Brothers keyboardist Johnny Griffith — opened the night with the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” while Ne-Yo, declaring that “without Motown there would be no Ne-Yo, point blank,” delivered a medley of hits that included “Because of You” and “Goodman.” A run of alumni sets including Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ performing “Dancing in the Street,” the Velvelettes vamping through “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” and an extended “Needle in a Haystack.” The Four Tops, with sole founding member Abdul “Duke” Fakir, romped through “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” followed by the Temptations’ sharply choreographed “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “My Girl.”
Doug E Fresh — who freestyled during the Hitsville Honors afterparty — spun a mixtape style singalong medley focused on Motown’s ’70s hits from the Commodores, Rick James, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, then lit up the room with a ferocious beat box jam with French harmonica ace Frederic Yonnet, joined later by gospel singer Tasha Page-Lockhart. Detroit rapper Big Sean dedicated his “One Man Can Change the World” to Gordy, explaining that “Motown is the foundation we stand on. You gave us a face. There would be no rap, no hip-hop without you.” And after Gordy’s speech most of the cast reassembled for a long rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” with Gordy returning to join the party.
Some of Motown’s biggest names were absent, though Wonder, preparing for a kidney transplant, and Smokey Robinson, who’s in the midst of a Las Vegas residency, contributed to a tribute video for Gordy. Diana Ross, meanwhile, was represented by Rhonda Ross, her daughter with Gordy, who sat at the head table with her father during a pre-show dinner and told Billboard that her mother “is here in spirit. She’s beyond proud of what she and my father and all the other Motown icons built and that it’s still standing and still matters and is still inspiring.”
The Motown Museum also used the Hitsville Honors to reveal a first look at its upcoming $50 million expansion with a video that depicted a multi-level glass and steel structure, mostly to be constructed just behind the company’s original Hitsville USA headquarters in Detroit. The facility will house more exhibits along with a recording studio and host educational opportunities in music and entrepreneurship. During a groundbreaking on Sunday morning for the first phase, Hitsville Next, Chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry, Esther Gordy Edwards’ granddaughter, announced that the museum had raised more than half of the money needed, including major contributions from the Ford Motor Company Fund and UAW Ford and $4 million recently donated by Gordy, who worked for Ford prior to starting Motown.
The 60th anniversary weekend also included a luncheon for alumni at the museum and a gospel concert on Saturday night, where the Detroit Youth Choir, this year’s “America’s Got Talent” runner-up, joined Page-Lockhart, Regina Belle, Kierra “Kiki” Sheard and others. A Soul in One golf outing is planned for Monday as the concluding event.