Berry Gordy, Motown's Founder, Talks about Hitsville USA's Stars - Rolling Stone
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Berry Gordy: Motown’s Founder Tells the Story of Hitsville, U.S.A.

In his first in-depth interview in 20 years, the legendary man behind everyone from Stevie Wonder to Diana Ross shares his stories

Berry GordyBerry Gordy


This article was originally published in RS 585, August 23rd, 1990.

On a bright Los Angeles day, Berry Gordy Jr., the man who founded Motown Records and made stars of Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and many others, removes his shirt. “We’ll do the Playboy shots now,’” jokes photographer Norman Seeff, who is shooting a portrait at the wealthy record man’s Bel Air estate. Gordy, bearded and looking quite fit at age 60, demurs: “I’ve rejected Playgirl so many times.” “Actually,” asks Seeff gently, “could I take some without the shirt?” “I’d better not,’” says Gordy, with a grin. “That could start a sexual revolution.” It was a musical revolution that Gordy launched in Detroit in the late Fifties, when, at age 29, he borrowed $800 from his family to make “Come to Me,” a simple R&B record that reached Number Six on the black-music chart. Five years later, Motown was one of the hottest record companies in the world. Looking back, Gordy would say, “I earned $367 million in sixteen years. I must be doing something right.”

Gordy’s impact on popular music cannot be overstated. Motown’s artists, songwriters and producers have influenced everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to recent chart toppers like Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Madonna. Motown artists were usually black, but the music they made — dubbed the Sound of Young America by Gordy — was indeed loved by nearly everyone who was young, or young at heart. Motown crossed over before anyone thought to use that term to describe black records bought by whites. “We were a general-market company,” is the way Gordy puts it. “Whether you were black, white, green or blue, you could relate to our music.”

Although there were other important record companies during the Sixties, Motown was the greatest, producing an unprecedented body of work. The street poetry of Smokey Robinson, the inventive productions of Holland-Dozier-Holland and the striking vocal performances of the Motown artists themselves were key elements in dozens upon dozens of classic records. Consider that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles scored twenty-five Top Forty hits during the Sixties; Diana Ross and the Supremes had twenty-three.

It is doubtful that anyone would have gambled much on the likelihood that Gordy, previously unsuccessful as a professional boxer, record-store owner and Ford auto worker, would succeed in the record business. Before starting Motown, Gordy had moderate success as a songwriter, co-writing hits like “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” for his former boxing buddy Jackie Wilson. Gordy says he just wanted to be a songwriter — but that he couldn’t get adequately paid for his efforts. “I didn’t want to be a big record mogul and all that stuff,” he says. “I just wanted to write songs and make people laugh.”

But when the royalties trickled in, eighteen-year-old Smokey Robinson encouraged Gordy to start his own company. “Why work for the man?” Robinson told Gordy. “Why not you be the man?” “I didn’t know any better,” says Gordy. “If somebody told me today, ‘OK, you’re gonna go into business, and you’ve gotta make a profit every year for the first five years or you’ll be out of business,’ I’d say that’s not a good gamble. But that’s what we did. Motown was a freak.”

In 1988, Gordy sold his company to MCA and the investment group Boston Ventures for $61 million, but he still owns Jobete Music Publishing, the gold mine of a publishing company that holds the copyrights for nearly all the Motown hits. And as head of the Gordy Company, he remains involved in the production of records, movies and other entertainment projects. Gordy lives in a multimillion-dollar Tudor-style mansion set amid a ten-acre estate in the hills of Bel Air.

It’s been more than two decades since Gordy has spoken at length about the Motown sound. While Gordy has been silent, others — ranging from Gordy lieutenant Smokey Robinson to disillusioned artists like former Supreme Mary Wilson — have offered their memoirs of life inside Hitsville, U.S.A. But Gordy dismisses most of the books that have been written about Motown. “These books are all erroneous,” he says brusquely. What follows is his version of the Motown story, a version that at times diverges from those of the people who worked for him. “For thirty years I’ve just been so goal oriented,” he says at the onset of the first of two interview sessions held in his dark, wood-paneled study. “You know, it’s like a football player running on the field. If he stops to try to bother with one of his attackers, somebody’s gonna say, ‘Let’s get him.’ He’s gotta keep running as fast as he can straight forward. So we had the various stories coming out about us, and I would never comment, because I didn’t have time. Consequently, after thirty years, people think that the things that were said were actually true. But now I realize that I do have time.”

During the Sixties, did you understand how popular and influential Motown was?
No. At the time I had no sense of how big this thing was. All these different factions were fighting each other: the police and the radical groups, the government and the Black Panthers, and the black organization groups and the bigots. All these people were fighting each other, but they were all listening to Motown music. I read about this one Black Panther leader in Chicago who was shot down in bed, and his favorite song was “Someday We’ll Be Together” [which went to Number One in November 1969]. And there was this big, big funeral, and all the blacks from all over came, and “Someday We’ll Be Together” was constantly playing.

And in Vietnam. In Platoon you see the soldiers going to their deaths dancing to Smokey’s music — “The Tracks of My Tears” [Number Sixteen, August 1965]. It gave them confidence; it gave them hope. You know, you’ve got to get a feeling when you look at that. The music pierced the Iron Curtain. And you know that on The Beatles’ Second Album there were three Motown tunes. The influence that the music had — when the Motown Revue went to England, I went with my father and my kids to meet the Beatles. And we had pictures taken of us with them, and they were so respectful and grateful to me. I’m looking at the Beatles, and I’m saying, “This is so incredible.” I mean, one of the songs they did I wrote.

Smokey Robinson was one of your first and most important discoveries. You first met him in 1957.
He had some songs for Jackie Wilson’s manager, and he was turned down, and I happened to be there that day. He was leaving the office dejected, and I went and caught up with him. ‘Cause I thought those songs were not that bad; I mean, they were pretty good songs. I went up to him, and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Berry Gordy.” And he said, “Berry Gordy! You write for Jackie Wilson.” He was like a fan. So I said, “Yeah, I heard some of your songs, and you have one there called ‘My Mamma Done Told Me.’ That’s not a bad song, nice little rhythm.” He said, “Well, I got a book of a hundred songs.” He was so excited, he sang every song, and each one either missed the point or had something wrong with it. And I started telling him, with each one, what was wrong. He kept me there for like an hour, and he went from song to song to song, and I rejected every single one of them — a hundred songs. But instead of taking this as a rejection, he was very excited that someone understood his songs and talked to him about them. So anyway, we became friends.

He started writing songs for you.
I gave him advice. I told him to go out and listen to the radio. And at the time the Silhouettes had a Number One record called “Get a Job.” So he came to the office one day so excited. He had this song he’d written called “Got a Job.” He started singing the song to me, and I liked it right away. I stopped him for a moment right after he got through the first part and told him it was great. He said, “Wait ’til I finish.” And he sang the whole song, all eight minutes of it — and I said, “It’s much too long. We got to edit it, but it’s a hit.” So we worked on it, we put it out, and it was a hit. [“Got a Job” went to Number One on the R&B charts in 1958.]

But the thing I liked about Smokey was bigger than a song. He had a purity about him, and he had a feeling of great thankfulness. Even as I rejected every song, he got stronger, and that’s hard. That’s the mark of a real kind of winner.

You called Motown “Hitsville, U.S.A.” You hung a big sign up on the outside of the offices. You were pretty confident.
Oh, yes. I also did an ad for Billboard or Cashbox in ’59 or ’60, when I was just starting my company. It’s even a little more cocky than that. It started off with little letters, and it got bigger and bigger, and it said: From out of the West comes a young man who’s gonna revolutionize the record business and do whatever — I forget what I said exactly. And people said, “That is so arrogant.” I said, “No, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

It’s been said that when you were developing Motown, you modeled it after the Ford auto plant where you had worked.
Yes, yes. I worked in the Ford factory before I came in the [record] business, and I saw how each person did a different thing. And I said, “Why can’t we do that with the creative process?” It was just an idea of coming in one door one day and going out another door and having all these things done. You know, the writing, the producing, the artist development — that’s the grooming of the act, how to talk, how to speak, how to walk, choreography, all that stuff. And when you got through and you came out the door, you were like a star, a potential star. It was just that assembly-line approach to things.

Tell me about the legendary Motown studio.
It was a very small studio. We would record everything there at first. We had a two-track machine that I had bought from a local disc jockey. I was doing the engineering. We didn’t know anything about having an engineer and an arranger. We just went down and did everything. And we all knew how to work the machines. And everybody came and played at everybody’s session. Marvin would play drums on certain people’s sessions. The secretaries would sing on the sessions. That’s how Martha [Reeves] was discovered, singing on a Marvin Gaye session. When someone didn’t show up, she ended up singing the lead on something, and the next thing you know, there’s Martha and the Vandellas.

Some of your biggest stars started out as secretaries.
The way that people could get into Motown was to get a job there and do something meaningful, and then they could come every day. I’m not even sure Martha was getting paid at the time she was a secretary. Diana Ross worked for me for a summer. They [the Supremes] had come to us, and they were rejected ’cause they were in the twelfth grade, and I had a responsibility not to have them quit school. Later they came back and they sang background on some Marvin Gaye recordings. And then Diana wanted to get a job at Motown so she could be there, but there was not really a job she could do. But I needed a secretary at the time, so I let her try that out. She worked for me for a summer, but she was so bad as a secretary that I had to let her go. You know, my messages were mixed up and everything.

There were some very unusual sounds on Motown records.
Oh, yeah. There was a sound we got on “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” with Holland-Dozier-Holland. There’s a point near the beginning of the song where the music breaks and there’s this little drumbeat [he imitates it] — da da da da da da da — and everybody around the world was trying to figure out how that was done, and it was so simple. It was just on a chair, and that was it, you know [demonstrates drumming on coffee table with his hands]. And everyone said, “What instrument was that?” And we were doing things with tin cans, we were doing things with cardboard. On the Supremes song “Where Did Our Love Go,” [Number One, July 1964] we’d get a piece of cardboard, and that was our drumbeat [demonstrates beat by slapping hands together and sings “Baby, Baby”]. We weren’t concerned about whether it was right or wrong, we just wanted to know if it sounded good.

Since you were using a two-track machine for the early records, there were no overdubs — you had to record the music and the vocals at the same time.
Oh, yes. On two tracks. And we would never be happy with the sound. I remember when we cut “Way Over There” with the Miracles [in 1959]. It was a great record with feeling and soul. So we put the record out, and it started selling, but I was unhappy with it. There was a great studio in Chicago, so I put the Miracles into that studio, and we recut the tune. I got the exact same tracks, the exact same everything, only I had strings on it. We had a beautiful recording. I was so happy and proud of that recording! Now, when we first put it out, without strings — our original version — it sold 60,000 copies, which was incredible for us because we were new. Sixty thousand copies! Then I went and recut it, ’cause I wanted to get a real home run. We switched records and started shipping the one with the strings, and the record stopped selling. It did not sell another copy. And that was such a lesson to me. ‘Cause the first version had a certain honesty about it. It wasn’t slick. So after that, we continued to produce songs in our own little studio. But we just didn’t have respect for the studio. It was a little studio that had real wonderful acoustics and magical sound, but we just never fully recognized that at the time. We took it for granted.

Every week you would hold a meeting with key executives at Motown to listen to the recordings made that week and to decide what you would release.
We had meetings each Friday, and we would evaluate all the records. Five, six, seven records, you know. A lot of stuff was being cut all week, and the one that would get released was the one that we liked best for the week. We would debate and fight over which ones to release.

What were those meetings like?
Those meetings were taped. I have the tapes. I listened to one the other day; I’ve got it here. [Gordy has an aide locate the tape and a machine to play it on.] This is maybe 26 years ago.

[The tape begins just prior to the start of a weekly creative meeting. Gordy is talking.] “I definitely want my A&R to be here. That’s $100 [fine] for Mickey [Stevenson, director of A&R].”

[Unidentified voice on the tape] “He’s got five minutes.”

[Gordy responds.] “Four minutes. Lock the door.” [As it turned out, Stevenson showed up and was only docked fifty dollars.]

So we used to lock the door. [Gordy laughs.] There was never a question in my mind — the minute you were late, you were fined. The heads of the office had to be there five minutes before the meeting started. Even though Mickey came in, he was supposed to be there five minutes early. He was three minutes early, so he got a fifty-dollar fine instead. See, at Motown, no one had any questions about the direction we were going in, because I was the leader. I was very firm and very strict. I remember the days Smokey was knocking on the door. He would be a little late, and he couldn’t get in. He’d be locked out: “Let me in, let me in! This is Smokey, I’ll never be late again!”

You earned a reputation for sending records you were unhappy with back to be reworked, re-recorded.
Yeah. Like “Baby Love” was a sad song. When Holland-Dozier-Holland finished it the first time, I said, “It’s great, but it has no life, there’s no gimmick here, there’s nothing here that makes it sound really good. There’s nothing really different about the record.” And they looked at me, and of course they disagreed with me, because they always did. But they went back in the studio and recut it. And at the beginning, they put in the little thing, ooh-ooh-ooh — that little bit. And I said, that’s perfect. It gives it something different, yet it’s not crazy. And they cut it fast. So it was brighter, and then we put it out that way. [“Baby Love” went to Number One in October 1964.] I was known for recutting things that were almost there.

As a songwriter, your best-known composition is “Money (That’s What I Want).” Your original version, featuring singer Barrett Strong, reached Number Twenty-three in March 1960. It became known to millions of people around the world when it was recorded by the Beatles a few years later.
Many psychologists have studied that song and studied me and tried to figure out why I wrote it. People have had all kinds of different reasons to explain why I wrote the song. The truth of the matter is that I was broke at the time and I had a couple of girlfriends who said they loved me and so forth. I thought to myself, I’m gonna write a song about this. I really don’t want to write about love, because everybody else is writing about love, and I don’t remember anyone writing about “I need money.” I thought that would be kind of funny. Later, a lot of people said, “Oh, that’s the way you feel, you just wanted money.” But I thought other people would find the song funny and amusing.

In 1961, Motown scored its first million seller with “Shop Around.”
When Smokey came to me with the song, he actually wanted Barrett Strong to sing it. I had just done “Money” with Barrett Strong. So Smokey sang the song for me, and I said, “No, Smokey, this is perfect for you.” But he said, “No. I didn’t write it for myself. It’s not for me.” Finally he agreed. So he did the song, and we released it. But it didn’t quite have the life that I thought it should have. I listened to it and listened to it. You go through these changes where you think that your mind is playing tricks on you. You loved it at one time, and now you don’t love it, and you just feel that maybe it’s just your mind, so maybe you should put it out anyway. And we did. But I couldn’t sleep, and finally I made up my mind to recut it. It was two o’clock in the morning when I called Smokey. Of course, he was very sleepy. I wanted him to come down to the studio with the group to recut the song. He was very, very surprised and very confused. But he did get himself together and got the rest of the Miracles, and they were all grumbling like mad. They came into the studio at three o’clock in the morning. The piano player, he didn’t get up, so I played piano. And we recorded it again. So we put the new record out, and it went straight to Number Two pop and Number One R&B.

Three Motown songs — “Please Mr. Postman,” “Money” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” — appeared on The Beatles’ second album. What did you think when you heard the Beatles were recording Motown songs?
[Long pause] Well, it was a very strange reaction. Brian Epstein’s office called for a [discount] rate on the publishing royalty. They wanted to pay a cent and a half instead of two cents per song [for each album sold]. I had mixed emotions. I was honored that they wanted to do the songs, but to ask for a lesser rate. . . . We didn’t do that unless a person would do a lot of our tunes. But three tunes! We were very arrogant about it. Maybe not arrogant but firm, because I thought that quality songs were quality songs. At that time we felt the songs would help to make their second album a success. We said no until the last minute. So it wasn’t until later that I really enjoyed them doing it.

Marvin Gaye was not only one of your biggest stars, he was also your brother-in-law for a time. Tell me about the first time you met him.
We were having a party at Hitsville. Marvin Gaye came with Harvey Fuqua [formerly of the Moonglows] and my two sisters. And I noticed him sitting in the studio, just messing around at the piano. It was a big party going on, but there was this guy at the piano. One of my sisters said, “That’s Marvin Gaye. He wants to be a singer. He’s a great singer. He used to sing with the Moonglows.” They were building him up, and I had no idea that my sister [Anna Gordy] liked him, but anyway, they brought him to my attention. He played some jazzy-type Broadway things, and I could hear the mellowness in his voice, and it was really good. He really wanted to do ballad-type things, and after hearing his voice — the velvetness of his voice — I really wanted to do that kind of an album with him. I thought Motown could branch out into this kind of music. Unfortunately, I was wrong on that one, because his first album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, didn’t sell. Marvin did a rendition of “Mr. Sandman” that was so great. It’s still one of my favorite songs.

How did you get him to do pop music?
He was a very stubborn man, and he was determined to stick with the semijazz stuff he was doing. But one day he needed money or something, and they ended up coming up with a thing, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” [Number Eight on the R&B charts in August 1962]. And it was a really nice little hit. So then we started really watching him. We said, “OK, where should this guy be?” And I realized that he was a very handsome man and had sex appeal, and I thought that we should have him work directly to the women. So I said, “Let’s write songs with you” — you are a wonderful one, you are my pride and joy. We wanted him to be direct. We right away hit with that, and he became the sex symbol — he became everything we wanted and more.

And later, of course, he would get tired of this and go on to his protest things, which turned out to be bigger than everything, even though I personally wasn’t for it. I tried to convince him that talking about war and police brutality and all that stuff would hardly make him more popular than the romantic stuff.

What was it about Stevie Wonder that impressed you?
When I first saw Stevie, I did not think that he was a great singer.

So why did you sign him?
Because he had other talents. He was 10 or 11 years old, and he was not anything that special with his voice, but his talent was great. His harmonica playing was phenomenal. But I was worried that when he got to thirteen or fourteen, his voice would change and we wouldn’t even have that. But lucky for us, it changed for the better.

You told me a few years ago that Stevie Wonder played a lot of practical jokes on you.
Oh, yes, he played tricks. His biggest trick was imitating my voice. He used to call my secretary and say, “Give Stevie Wonder $50,000,” you know, and “Hurry up, this is me, this is me.” And they would say, “Mr. Gordy?” And he would say, “Don’t ask me questions. Give Stevie Wonder a check for $50,000.” They’d be very confused, and they might come back and say, “You still want me to do that?” And I’d say, “Do what?” “Give Stevie $50,000.” And I’d say, “Are you crazy? That was Stevie calling you. Can’t you tell the difference between my voice and Stevie’s voice? Didn’t he laugh?” She said, “No, he laughed a little bit but just hung the phone up.” I said, “I never thought you’d fall for that. Call him back and tell him his 50,000’s on the way.” And then when they did, he’d bust out laughing.

Marvin would also imitate me, and they would have imitating-me contests. One day Stevie and Marvin were imitating me, and I walked up behind both of them.

What happened when they saw you?
Well, well, they both looked at me, and of course they both just bust out laughing. They were saying all the stuff I’d say. Like when I didn’t like a record, I’d always say it was ridiculous and garbage. “It’s garbage, it’s garbage, it’s garbage!” They were a comical version of everything in me. I never thought I talked like that, but everyone in the office said, “They’re imitating you perfectly.” I said, “OK, fine.”

The Temptations were with you for four years before they had a real hit. Why did you stick with them for so long?
Because they had talent. And I was always a believer that talent will out in the long run. It’s not about who gets hits and who doesn’t get hits. These guys — the Temptations — could sing a cappella and had the greatest barbershop harmony that you’ve ever heard. They had this warmthThere was so much love coming from Melvin and artistry from David, who was a superstar in his own right. You had, like, five stars there, and each one could sing lead. So the public was getting tremendous benefits for their money.

The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” co-written and produced by Norman Whitfield, was probably the most controversial record Motown released.
“Cloud Nine” was an interesting situation. ‘Cause I hated that record. Not because it was bad. I loved the record’s sound, but I felt that it was talking about drugs. That was our biggest argument. I felt that Norman was promoting drugs with that record. And I said, “Norman, we have this company, Motown, that stands for something. We can’t say, ‘I’m doing fine on cloud nine,’ referring to drugs.” He said, “This is art, and it’s not about drugs. It’s talking about something else.”

But it was about drugs, wasn’t it?
I know, but Norman convinced me that it was something other than that.

He convinced you it wasn’t about drugs?
Well, you want to believe it. Especially since I thought it was such a great record. That record was very painful for me — until it went Top Ten [laughs]. [“Cloud Nine” reached Number Six, December 1968.]

The Supremes were with Motown for at least four years before they had a major hit.
I cut stuff with them, but it wasn’t until Mary Wells left that we had a chance to really devote ourselves to the Supremes.

Why did Mary Wells leave?
I made a major mistake with Mary. I made a lot of mistakes, and one of them was that shortly before her twenty-first birthday, I put out a smash-hit record on her, “My Guy” [Number One, April 1964], not even thinking or knowing that at twenty-one, she would be able to disaffirm all contracts — which she did. I mean, the record was Number One, you understand, and all of the sudden she’s out of the pocket — she’s not talking to anybody. And I’m going, “What is this?”

That’s when you really pushed the Supremes?
I had talked to Mary’s attorney and convinced him that I was the best place for her, and then I understood that she fired him and got another attorney and left anyway. I was trying to cover up any hurt that I might have had and said, “To hell with her. Let’s deal with these new girls here who I like anyway.” I’d always wanted a female star, and Mary was like the first one. And when she left, we were down, but we weren’t out. I always had this desire to have an artist who I could really mold, and Diana happened to be that. And it wasn’t until Michael Jackson came on later that I had that same kind of thing again.

Why did the Supremes break up?
It had gotten to the point, as it does in many groups, when there’s total miscommunication between the two factions. The ones in the background were having conflicts with the one in the front. Diana never wanted to leave the girls, particularly. She was more or less pushed out, but that’s what happens when a person is up front, and people are telling the background singers that she’s stealing the show. They would complain to me, and I would say, “Wait a minute. She does roll her eyes and she does have a flirty look, but that’s helping the group not hurting the group.” It was always a problem for me having to take the responsibility for the choices. I made the choices of who sung lead, and my opinion was always that Diana had the magic and Mary [Wilson] didn’t. But Mary felt that she should be the one, and I said no and then, of course, favoritism was charged. And it was perhaps favoritism, because Diana was a favorite of mine. But she had the talent to justify that favoritism. But it wasn’t a favoritism in terms of their personalities as much as it was the fact that we had a commercial venture here, and the lead singer had to be a person that would best move the group forward. Now, the breakup of that group was very sad for all of us, but we tried very hard to make the group remain successful. We brought in Jean Terrell to replace Diana, and the group had a couple of big hits. As Mike [Roshkind, a former Motown vice-chairman now employed as a consultant to Berry Gordy] put it, we had a two-for-one split. And actually, the Supremes had a better shot than Diana. That’s right. Because the Supremes were a much, much bigger name than Diana Ross.

Over the years people have written some nasty things about Motown.
It used to hurt me a lot when those kinds of things were written. Stuff that was totally without foundation. Some people who used to be at Motown would be unhappy about a decision I had made. All the major decisions, I made them personally, and so unfortunately for me, Motown was synonymous with Berry Gordy. At other record companies, when an artist would leave, or they wouldn’t make money, or they weren’t a success, there was no individual singled out. But when one of our artists didn’t make it, it was Berry Gordy’s fault. I’d say, “Wait a minute. It’s the company, it’s the business. Everybody’s not going to be successful.” I’ve had people come to me and say, “I would love to sign with you, but I heard you ripped off several artists.” And I’d say, “Well, what artists did I rip off?” And they’d say, “Well, you ripped off Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson.” And I’d say, “Well, every artist you named is a superstar. Wouldn’t you like to be ripped off like that?” And they’d say, “You know, I never thought of that.”

Let’s talk about Michael Jackson and the first time you saw him.
Michael was a born star. He was nine years old when the Jacksons auditioned for me. He was a classic example of understanding everything. He watched me like a hawk. I recognized that he had a depth that was so vast, it was just incredible. And these songs sung with a certain amount of pain — he was a kid, so where did he get that pain from? The first time I saw him, I saw this little kid as something real special. He reminded me of a kid I used to see earlier, Frankie Lymon. I decided that I would pattern his style after Frankie Lymon, and that’s what I did. I came up with the melody for the first song we released on the Jackson 5 myself.

You came up with the melody for “I Want You Back”?
The kid inspired me so much. I walked around, and I came up with this melody. [Starts to sing] Da da da da. Because I was thinking of Frankie Lymon and picturing the kid. [Sings] “Oh, baby, give me one more chance to tell you I love you/Won’t you let me back in your heart/I want you back, yes I do.” That was it. [“I Want You Back” went to Number One, December 1969.] We had a very close relationship. When I was moving to California, I decided to move him out with me. People said, “You’re crazy — he’s a kid, and there will be expenses.” We moved him out to California anyway.

So you moved the entire group to California. Did they stay with you?
They stayed with me after they were kicked out of several houses. You see, they would make too much noise. They had their band, and we would put them in a house, and then they would get kicked out. We’d lease another place, and they would make too much noise, and they would get kicked out. Finally I said, “OK, you move into my house,” because I wanted them to rehearse.

You’ve stayed in contact with Michael Jackson.
Recently Michael came to Detroit to do a benefit for the Motown Museum. One of his requests was to go to my house in Detroit where they stayed when they were first with Motown. It has a swimming pool and an underground tunnel and a bowling alley and some other stuff. And when they would come to Detroit, that’s where they would stay, on the third floor. So Michael said he wanted to have dinner with me there. Just he and I, and we’d take off our shoes, and we would run around like we sort of did years and years before. Michael has never lost that childlike quality. We had fun. We had dinner alone, and we talked. He wanted to do some of the childlike things that he did before. And it was so much fun for me, too.

What effect did the civil-rights movement have on Motown?
I was always very conscious of human suffering and freedom. I don’t like bigotry in any sense of the word. And so I was indebted to the civil-rights leaders at that time, as everyone was, black or white. I was a very, very close friend of Dr. King’s. To have a hero, your hero, as your friend was incredible. [He gets up and brings over a photo.] That’s Dr. King and Lena Horne and myself. I was so inspired by the “I Have a Dream” speech that we released it on an album. We started the Black Forum label, where I put out various albums of people like Elaine Brown and Stokely Carmichael. But as far as the civil-rights movement, I was not so much affected by it as I was appreciative that they were moving in that direction, and I liked Dr. King’s approach, the nonviolent approach. I admired his courage. When you say the civil-rights movement, what did it do? It did a lot for me as a human being, to know that other people were fighting and dying, black and white, who just believed in people having equal rights. It was a great part of my life. I mean, it’s a great part of the lives of all of us who lived through that. You know, the Sixties is an era not to be believed in terms of what was happening in our culture and society.

Do you think you could have had the success you had with Motown if there hadn’t been a civil-rights movement?
It’s hard for me to say. I don’t see the connection to success and failure based on any one thing. It was not a visible factor as to whether a person had a hit record or didn’t have a hit record. When we went on tours to the South, we were attacked in our motorcades like everybody else.

But both sides were playing Motown music. So, you know, the whites and the blacks, the liberals and the conservatives were playing Motown music. People are people. That was the whole basis for our whole kind of musical thing. To realize that white people are people, too [laughs]. That’s a joke. That’s a joke. That all people have the same wants and likes and dislikes. That’s always been my thing — trying to get the thread between all people. We were just trying to create the type of music that would move us into a wider audience.

If rap had been happening in the Sixties, would Motown have been a rap label?
I like rap. But if rap was in when I was in, I wouldn’t be where I am today, because I would have done all my records myself. Because I had no voice quality, so if rap had been in I would have been doing all my own songs because I wouldn’t have needed the voice quality. I would have been talking many of my songs. There wouldn’t have been any need for me to have artists.

[Michael Roshkind, who arranged this interview, interrupts.] “Uh, Berry, I think we’ve got to cut this off now.”

[Gordy says to Roshkind] “You’ve already gone over [the time allotted]. It’s your responsibility. So that’s a fine for you!” [Laughs.]


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