Shortly after sending shock waves through the music industry with his 1988 decision to sell Motown Records to MCA Inc., company founder Berry Gordy finally decided to turn the story of his life into a book. One by one, writers came with notebooks, tape recorders and hopes of becoming the “with"--as in “An Autobiography by Berry Gordy with (fill in hopeful writer’s name here).”
Not quite like being Gladys Knight, maybe, but right up there with becoming a Pip.
Instead of creating a new writing star, however, Gordy had an assortment of would-be biographers tearing out their collective hair for two years.
“I had professionals come in who were telling me how to write the book,” Gordy said in a recent interview at his lofty Bel-Air estate, his voice raspy as a result of a nine-city book tour ending that day with his return to Los Angeles.
The book is called “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” (Warner Books). By Berry Gordy--with nobody.
The writing took him three more years.
“I’d give them a tape, and they’d come back with it all nice and written up, and I would read it,” Gordy said of the first frustrating years. “The facts were there, but it wasn’t me --the feeling wasn’t there. And I would change writers and bring in other people, and I’d say: ‘OK, you’ve got to get inside my head. Talk to me. Ask me questions. Write the way I talk. Write the way I feel --and they gave me advice on how to make the book sell.
“They said: ‘If you are paying us and you are not taking our advice, then you are wasting your money.’ And I thought about it, and I said: ‘You know, you are absolutely right!’ ” Gordy recalled with a grin.
“The whole purpose of writing a book is to be understood--if other people write about you, they try to guess why you did things, or they hear things from other people,” he continued. “My own heroes, people that I have admired--Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson or J.F.K.--I would have loved to have seen what they felt about what they did, and why they did it. That’s why I feel real fortunate to write my own book.”
Gordy, 65, a former featherweight boxer who stands 5-feet-7, with a graying beard and a button nose, has an elfin quality that belies his apparent distaste for relinquishing control. But a visitor who plunks a tape recorder on a coffee table in front of Gordy cannot help but note that Gordy has a tape recorder too--and his is bigger.
Moreover, Gordy is also videotaping the interview. He is filming the entire tour for posterity. One gets the feeling that if there were no journalist present, Gordy would be more than prepared to interview himself.
And if he ever got that opportunity, Gordy might ask himself some tough questions. After years of silence, he said, he wrote his book to set the record straight with a vengeance.
Today he seems buoyed by the warm reception from friends and fans on his cross-country tour. Part of the reason he started filming the tour is that, to borrow from his book title, he loves to be loved.
“I’ve been thrilled with my success, and I was so excited when I finished the book,” he said. “But I had to reap the real rewards, which I have just gotten in the last three weeks, meeting the people.”
The former recluse has become something of a media darling recently, even singing the first song he ever wrote, “You Are You,” during a cozy at-home chat with Barbara Walters on “20/20" (suffice it to say that Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder do not have to worry about competition). Gordy also wrote or co-wrote many of Motown’s better-known hits, such as “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Shop Around” with Robinson and “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)” on his own.
He also talked about his former love affair with Diana Ross and the fact that he is the father of Ross’ daughter, Rhonda. Currently single, Gordy has eight children by five women; he has been married three times.
Locally, in September, Gordy said he “tried to avoid” (but did attend) a ceremony that honored him for making a $500,000 gift to launch the Center for the Performing Arts in South-Central Los Angeles, to be part of the African American Unity Center, which was founded by Brotherhood Crusade President Danny J. Bakewell Sr. Gordy’s gift, matched by a grant from the city of Los Angeles, will provide funds to restore an old church at 5300 S. Vermont Ave., which will become the arts center’s headquarters.
Helping inner-city youth, he said, is a lot like grooming a Motown star.
“I got hooked on people, and it turned out they had the same yearnings I did--they wanted to be loved,” Gordy said of his years of uncovering new talent. “Another thing I found out was that they all wanted to be somebody else. They all wanted to be like somebody. And I wanted them to be like themselves. I have this ability to find this hidden talent in people that sometimes even they didn’t know they had.
“Especially somebody that nobody else wanted; that was a particular thrill to my ego. I felt that I could make anybody a star. Just find out what that talent was and make them believe in it. I was pretty confident, a little cocky too--and I thought I could do it.”
T hough he is enjoying the lime light now, Gordy says that years of shunning the press left Motown artists, as well as other Motown watchers, free to spread rumors and file lawsuits, especially after Motown was sold for $61 million. Negative stories about Gordy--and the company he launched with $800 and a dream in Detroit in 1959--seemed to spread like a Malibu brush fire.
Most infamous of the conflicts surrounded Mary Wells, who died of throat cancer in 1992; the singer, who left the label in 1964, claimed that she was cheated out of royalties. In her 1986 autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” Mary Wilson charged that the other Supremes were unfairly pushed aside by Gordy to favor Diana Ross; like Wells, she also later entered into litigation with Gordy over royalties. And Gordy recently settled out of court a 1989 suit filed by Martha Reeves, also charging that Gordy owed her money.
Gordy counters that some former Motown artists continue to sue him not because he owes them anything but simply because he has money and they don’t.
“Motown is usually synonymous with Berry Gordy. RCA--where’s the name, who can you pin it on? Who is MCA, who is Mercury, who is Decca, who is Capitol? Motown is Berry Gordy. . . . Luckily for those artists, because they were with Motown, they are still able to perform, still able to make money--and still able to write books,” he grumbled.
“If I settle a case out of court, it’s because I love the person,” Gordy said of his settlement with Reeves. “That sets a precedent, and other people are going to sue too. If I don’t settle, they don’t have money, and then I feel bad. But if I (settle), people think: ‘There must be something there.’
“I did give a few artists money--I gave Mary Wells money after 27 years, because I loved her. But people mistake kindness for weakness . . . so I take the position that if it’s not some artist I have a really, really close relationship to, I’d rather just feel bad.”
Gordy said that his book helped to make peace between himself and former Supreme Wilson, since he believes background information on the financial dealings of the company explains why Wilson and other Motown artists did not reap huge profits the way, in hindsight, one might have expected. Gordy said that Wilson even called to congratulate him when his book came out.
“Of course, when she read my book and saw the truth, she was laughing. But I said"--and now Gordy is laughing too--" 'Look at all the trouble you caused, all these years!’ ”
Because of such claims--as well as an oft-repeated tale that Motown was built with Mafia money--Gordy said he was “loaded for bear” when he first started his book tour.
(Gordy says the Mafia rumor stemmed from the fact that he hired an Italian American, Barney Ales, to head his sales department and that no one could believe that a black man had become one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs all on his own.)
In an interview, Gordy goads his interrogator like a boxer in the ring, circling the opponent before anyone throws a punch: “You are here to interview me. Ask me anything. Is there anything else you want to ask me?” Then, instead of a fist, he throws out the disarming grin.
“I’m out here, and I want to make sure that it’s clear, so I say bring up whatever you want to ask, because Motown was the cleanest company in the business,” Gordy said.
Even though he sold Motown six years ago, Gordy is still plagued by ghosts, and the new ones make the old ones seem like Casper. Most recently, in April, Gordy filed a $250-million suit against the New York Daily News for printing allegations that Gordy seduced former Motown staffer Tony Turner when he was 14 years old and had pressured some singers to have abortions.
One cannot help but see similarities in the early press shyness of Gordy and that of his most celebrated protege, Michael Jackson, who grew up with Motown as one of the Jackson 5 and who also finally went public to deny longstanding rumors about hyperbaric chambers and “elephant man” bones in a 1993 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Despite his “ask-me-anything” challenge, Gordy remains reticent about Jackson, who has been quoted as saying that his years at Motown robbed him of his childhood. Gordy called Jackson “very shy” and “a very hard worker.” Of Jackson’s recent marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, Gordy said: “I would say I was pleasantly shocked. Michael is a fantasist, and I think his marriage is in that kind of fantasy world.”
Of his own treatment by the press over the years, Gordy said, “Most of it was positive. But you can read 25 positive things yourself and feel great, and then you hear one negative thing that’s a lie, and it bothers the hell out of you.
“I had too many people who loved Motown, loved the music, but didn’t understand what I was about. They thought I was in the Mafia. Inner-city kids would come to me and they were proud --'You bad , baby. They got Gotti , man.’ I would say: ‘I hate to disappoint you, but Motown wasn’t built that way.”
“When I finished the book, and (Motown artists) all read it, I’ve gotten even closer to them, because they never knew what I went through. And they never knew. It was true of almost everybody, including my own family.
“The only artist who really knows what I was going through, my side of what was happening, was Smokey, because he was with me before the company started. He would always go out and try to fight for me, and put out press releases. And I said: ‘Smokey, don’t defend me, just do your music. I’ll take care of myself. I’m numb to all that anyway, and someday, I’ll set the record straight.’ ”
Does Gordy now regret his reticence? “No, because if I had talked to (the press) sooner, I would have gotten involved with a lot of stuff that was taking me away from my vision and my goal and my focus on the artists and what I was doing,” Gordy said. “I always tell (artists): ‘Less than 1% of the people in the world reach their full potential--and the reason is they take their focus off what they were doing.’ ”
Gordy said he regrets nothing that he has done or said in his life, although he jokes that “one thing that plagues me is that night in Paris with Diana,” referring to his inability to perform sexually during their first intimate encounter, which he bluntly and humorously details on Page 214 of his book.
“My feeling was that nothing should embarrass me about the truth; people are human. I learned that in school--asking questions that were stupid, and people would laugh at me,” Gordy said. “I made sure that the creative people that we had, in all of our meetings, felt safe--there were no stupid questions, no stupid ideas.”
Which is why Gordy ignored experts’ advice and included in his book details of a long history of bed-wetting, which went on even after he was drafted into the Army (unfortunately, Gordy, who was desperate to get out of the service, didn’t realize that if he had confessed his problem the Army would have discharged him immediately).
"(Writers) said: You don’t have to talk about that, nobody cares about that,” Gordy said. “But somewhere down the line, it had a lot to do with the way I came out.”
Although not in the same category as rumors of Mafia ties and unfair dealings, Gordy also wants to lay to rest a perception that his decision to move Motown Records from a house in Detroit called Hitsville U.S.A. to Los Angeles in 1970 caused the downfall of the company. Gordy said he moved to expand his base.
“I always wanted to grow,” he said. “And I wanted movies, and TV movies and specials bad--it was the logical place to come. And of course the weather didn’t hurt.
“At Motown, everybody was happy; we had fun,” he continued. “Of course, we had fierce competition--it was just like the Gordy family. When I was growing up, we had fierce love, fierce competition. . . . We’d shoot pool and play golf and gamble, play poker. We were all great at that, except for maybe Smokey.
“To me, people were all the same--they wanted the same thing. I knew there were racists, I knew there were bigots. I know they were shooting at the (Motown) artists who went down South. But in those walls of Motown, it was never heard of. We had our own world. And it was sort of like the world that I saw; it was sort of like the world that Dr. King saw. Motown was a world unto itself--and the sound was a benefit of that kind of world.”
Gordy, the son of a plastering contractor in Detroit’s inner city, has described the Motown sound as “rats and roaches, guts and love.”
And “out on the West Coast,” he said, “we still had that same feeling, but people were becoming more independent because there were so many companies out here that were competing with us for the talent.” (Ross, for example, left Motown to sign with RCA in 1981.)
“But still, our basic fundamentals were there, and we had a lot of successes out here. The Jackson 5’s success was out here, we had Lionel Richie out here, the Commodores became very, very big, there was Rick James. So it’s not as though we came out here and everything stopped working.
“But the music industry was changing. Six companies began to control 90% of all the music distribution in the world. It was getting to be a whole different ballgame.”
“So I started to think of ways to preserve Motown without killing myself. I decided to give it to one of those six corporations that would give it life, because I wanted that legacy to continue. . . . There was no other choice.”
Gordy still feels the sting of criticism from the black community for selling the company, a decision he says was financial, not political:
“Jesse Jackson was running for President . .and the biggest concern he had was: ‘My constituents say that you are selling Motown, you are selling them down the drain.’ I gave him a Jesse-ism. I said: ‘I have three choices--either sell out, bail out, or fall out.’ ”
Although Gordy’s first film production, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), was nominated for five Academy Awards, the movie end of Motown never really took off.
“It was just too much; I was one man,” he said of that disappointment. “If I had not had the record company--(but) the music industry was going through such a growth--it was exploding!”
Gordy, who retains chairman ship of a Motown offshoot, Jobete Music, and continues to write songs, said that he maintains the same philosophies on which Motown was built. That was his reason for donating the money to L.A.'s African American Unity Center. He He wants South-Central’s kids to be among that 1% who achieve their full potential.
“I came from the inner city; there was a place called the Brewster Center, where I learned to box,” Gordy said. “They (the Unity Center) have the same approach I do, to communicate with people on a basic level, and make the youth understand that they have talent. And they can use it in one of two ways: They can kill people and go to jail, or they can use it in a positive way. . . .
“Ex-gang members--sometimes it is hard for them to understand why they should work for $250 a week when they can make $2,000 a day selling drugs. But I say look at the costs. One, you have younger brothers and sisters that look up to you--that’s a cost, because they’re going to do the same thing. You worry about your mother and father getting killed, your brothers and your sisters and your kids getting killed--that’s a cost. And you’ve got to look behind your back all the time. Start putting all those costs together.
“And these kids got intelligence today. In my neighborhood, if you had intelligence and education, you had it all. But if you had to have just one, it had better be intelligence. Whenever I came up against presidents of other companies, I was always smarter, because I was from the streets.”
And, Gordy said, "(In the book) I talk about the cycle of success, how vicious it is, and how you go through riches and all that stuff--but if after all that you are not the same person you were when you started, then you have failed. You have to know who you are, and who are the people who love you--because when you are famous, you got all the ‘friends’ in the world."*