Berry Gordy Jr. Brings His Smash Musical to His Adopted Hometown

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. views the L.A. opening of Motown: The Musical later this month as a manifestation of “a fairytale that happened to come true.”

The show begins its six-week run April 28 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It’s based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved. Packed with nearly 40 Motown classics, the musical charts his journey from Detroit street kid to featherweight boxer, hit songwriter and founder of the label whose astounding run of hits was matched by the musical quality and the cultural impact of its artists throughout the tumultuous ’60s and beyond.

In a phone interview, Gordy, who's now 85 years old and has lived in L.A. since the early 1970s, explained why this engagement of the critically acclaimed show—which has played to sold-out houses on Broadway, Detroit and elsewhere over the past two years—means so much to him: “I’m excited about every opening, but this one is special. Detroit was where it all started, but now L.A. is my home. I moved here because I wanted to do movies and television. I knew how great our artists were and it was all for them. Now I have so many friends and acquaintances here, so many people that I love. So this is gonna be an incredible opening and a lot of fun.”

In picking the material for Motown: The Musical, Gordy—whom Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, one of the show’s producers, calls “the #1 creative executive in the history of the industry”—had over 150 Top 20 Motown hits to choose from, including some of the greatest popular songs ever written.

“The songs we chose were entertaining,” Gordy told me with typical understatement. “But they also had to help tell the story. If a song didn’t help tell the story, we didn’t use it. My feeling was if you tell the truth and make it entertaining, you almost have to have a hit. But it’s hard to make it entertaining and tell the truth at the same time.”

Gordy’s roots run deep in the art and craft of songwriting, and several of his tunes are as firmly implanted in the global pop canon as they are necessary to the musical’s narrative. They include two hits he wrote for Jackie Wilson in the ’50s—the shouter “Reet Petite” (co-written with Tyran Carlo, pen name of Roquel Billy Davis) and the soulful ballad “Lonely Teardrops” (co-written with Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn Gordy and Carlo); “Money (That’s What I Want)” (co-written with Janie Bradford), a hit for Barrett Strong on Motown’s first label, Tamla, distributed by Anna Records (owned by Davis and Gordy’s sisters, Anna and Gwendolyn) in 1960 and later covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and many others; and the Contours’ 1962 hit, “Do You Love Me,” for which Gordy supplied words and music. “We [Gordy and Michael Lovesmith] ended up writing three new songs for the play to make the story work,” Gordy added.

Among the other cuts that made the cut are Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” (co-written with Ronald White of The Miracles) and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”; Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland’s “Heat Wave,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”; Norman Whitfield’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (co-written with Eddie Holland) and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (co-written with Barrett Strong); Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” (co-written with Syreeta Wright, Lee Garrett and Lulu Hardaway).

The musical limns the ups and downs of Gordy’s relationships with the extraordinary aggregation of artists he discovered, loved and nurtured. Chief among his loves, of course, was Diana Ross. Gordy first met Ross when, still in high school, she auditioned for him as a member of The Primettes. Gordy told the group to come back after they graduated. They did, changed their name to The Supremes, and, with Ross singing lead, scored a dozen #1 records. Ross went on to become a solo star and then left Motown for RCA Records in 1981.

Gordy said, “In the play, it was very important to show that many years after the artists who left me for many millions of dollars, the love never stopped. Diana left me for $20 million, and I was really in love with her.”

Motown: The Musical demonstrates that the love never stopped in the reenactment of a scene from the NBC’s Motown 25th Anniversary Show, when a number of the label’s most celebrated acts—including Ross—came together from around the world to pay tribute to the label’s mastermind.

It’s hard to overstate Motown’s role in the nascent American Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. The musical recalls the Motortown Revue of 1962, when Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and other Motown acts toured the country. In the Deep South, they were greeted with “Whites Only” signs and their tour bus was shot at.

“The audiences were segregated,” Gordy remembered. “The venues had a rope down the middle of the audience separating blacks from whites, but soon the rope was gone and black kids and white kids were dancing together to the same music. It created a bond that echoed throughout the world.”

For the next decade, Motown hits such as “Love Child,” “Ball of Confusion,” “War,” “Living for the City” and “What’s Goin’ On” would explicitly and powerfully address the social unrest of the times.

It seems almost impossible that one man’s vision could result in so many hit records that still resonate so strongly a half century later.

When I asked Gordy to reflect on his original vision for Motown, he said, “I learned early in my life that everyone has the same feelings. I wanted to make music for all people—not strictly gospel or strictly R&B, even though my roots were there. If we could translate that feeling, it was something all people could relate to—whether it’s a kid in Detroit or a kid in Vietnam or Chicago or Germany.”

On the business side, Gordy had seen the value of quality control while working on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. “At Motown, we had quality-control meetings every Friday morning, where everyone was free to be honest, to express themselves, where you were immune from retribution,” he recalled. Everyone, from producer to salesperson, was encouraged to critique the label’s latest records, and final decisions were made about which records would get released and which would stay in the can. The way Gordy recalls them, the meetings were rigorous, democratic and freewheeling.

“When a record left that room with a vote of confidence after all the criticism it was usually a very big hit,” Gordy says. He adds without exaggeration, “It usually would go directly to #1.”

 As the executive with ultimate responsibility, Gordy had veto power, but says he rarely exercised it. “I could veto a record but most of the time I would have had to veto somebody else’s record to get my own record out. Often my biggest competitor was Smokey, and he was also my protégé, and I was so proud of the fact that he was competing with me. I told them all, ‘Try to beat me and you’ll win.’ I was very good, but most of them did beat me.”

Like many who reached the top as record executives, Gordy as a youth had dreams of becoming a recording star. “At first I wanted to do it all, but I wasn’t talented enough. I really wanted to sing, but my voice was a mixture between Frank Sinatra and Donald Duck. When I would sing for The Contours, for instance, [he belts out “Do You Love Me”] in my raspy voice, I’d say, ‘No, you’re supposed to sing it good.’ They said, ‘We love that sound.’” The rasp factor, it turned out, was key in making the “Do You Love Me” an oft-covered smash.

I asked Gordy if he saw a common thread to his creative endeavors. When he gave birth to a song, he started with nothing; in creating Motown, he started with nothing. “That’s interesting...very interesting. You have to think what could be—what if this, what if that,” he replied. “Many people would say to me, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that because it’s never been done before, and there’s a reason it’s never been done: because it doesn’t work.’ But I was a romantic thinker and a dreamer. I always dreamed what could be, and I’m still doing that today. I was so confident in the romance of it all.” 

A confident romantic and a dreamer—and one more quality, he says: “Love is a very, very important ingredient. You gotta love your work, you gotta love the people you work with. And love overcomes so many things.”

For the L.A. engagement of Motown: The MusicalJulius Thomas III plays Gordy and Allison Semmes plays Diana Ross, his star, his muse, his love interest. Jesse Nager plays Smokey Robinson, whom Gordy took under his wing when Smokey was still a teenager, and Jarran Muse plays Marvin Gaye. Leon Outlaw Jr. and Reed L. Shannon alternate in portraying Gordy’s boyhood counterpart as well as the young versions of Michael Jackson (pictured below) and Stevie Wonder.

Motown: The Musical, April 28 - June 7, at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles. Produced by Gordy, Kevin McCollum and Doug Morris (pictured above left). Original cast recording available on Motown Records. 

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