By Danny Bakewell Jr.
Special to the NNPA from the LA Watts Times
The Motown sound began with Berry Gordy as a dreamer in Detroit and the music that originated from Hitsville U.S.A. ignited a sound of lyrics beats and hymns that transformed culture and was beloved by everyone.
Now, the story of Gordy is being told from the stage in the famous Broadway hit sensation “Motown: The Musical” that arrived from New York to Los Angeles.
Gordy feels “lucky”, he said, for having chosen Charles Randolph Wright to direct, since “on paper there were so many great Broadway directors he could have picked from.”
“It’s the ultimate honor,” said Randolph when asked about the challenge of directing the historical musical.
“People asked, ‘are you nervous?’ I said, ‘No, I know what this is. I’m not sleeping at all but I understand what this is. I understood every part of Motown… family, the love. All these things were important to me. [Gordy] and Smokey entrusted me with this. So, when someone believes in you, you’ll do anything in your power to do your best.”
Wright’s main goal was to tell the story accurately and organically.
“Motown: The Musical” is the true American dream story of Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more. Through his vision Motown shattered barriers, shaped our lives and made us all move to the same beat.
The musical chronicles Gordy’s life and how he started Motown. Based on his book, “To Be Loved”, it features over 40 classic songs and is playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through June 7. Bringing his story to life, presented both challenges and joys, he said.
“When you’re working on a project [sometimes] there are nothing but challenges,” Gordy said during a recent interview with the Sentinel.
“Because, we wanted to do it as truthful as possible with the amount of time that we had. But the truth has to be entertaining, otherwise it’s a documentary.”
The joy came in having “wonderful characters to write about,” said Gordy.
“These are the characters of my life, my best friend Smokey Robinson… the fact that we’re still best friends after all that we’ve been through, it’s amazing, a testament to great love.”
Gordy described Robinson as a friend who suffered with him through thick and thin, following him down roads, “even where there were no roads…”
For his part, Robinson counts it all as the record company’s inherent family environment.
“Many people have thought throughout the years, that the Motown family was mythical. ‘It could not have possibly been that way. How could all those different musicians with different egos and personalities have been like family,’” Robinson explained.
“But there is still a Motown family. For those of us who are still alive, we still have the Motown family because the love is so deep rooted. It was the foremost thing. I think we learned it from the Gordys, because their family was so together and I think that just spilled over into the way he set Motown up…”
Gordy founded Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan in 1959. Although many have come to recognize the “Motown Sound” as a brand in itself, in reality Motown’s records encompassed many different genres of music, from early rhythm and blues to soul, funk, pop, and more.
A company brochure published in the early 1960s details Motown’s goals to “satisfy a variety of preferences in popular music.” Diversity has always been a key component of the Motown legacy.
Gordy himself was inspired by the “truth- telling” of early black music. As he told Ebony magazine, “From the drumbeat rhythms… that our ancestors carried
from Africa, to the work songs and Negro spirituals of slavery, black music is a chronicle of our collective emotional journey in this world – pain and sadness, happiness and celebration… wisdom and faith.” Gordy embraced this philosophy and passed on the importance of using music to tell the truth about life to those he worked with.
One of “those”, Edna Anderson (who was an activist and Gordy’s personal assistant), and who he credits as the greatest person he’s ever worked with, was the subject of dedication for the show’s opening night. Anderson had been ill and had taken a leave of absence from the company. Her attendance was a pleasant surprise for Gordy.
“She’s just the most beautiful person I’ve known,” Gordy said. “This night is dedicated to her…”