In a glass-walled conference room above Sunset Boulevard, many of the living luminaries of the Motown Records empire gathered Monday to honor one of their own — the man responsible for launching more than a few of their careers, and changing popular music as we know it.
Soon, the celebration would move downstairs to the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Argyle Avenue, where assorted friends, fans and looky-loos were gathered in anticipation of the official dedication of this Hollywood intersection as “Berry Gordy Square,” in honor of the Motown Records founder, entrepreneur, songwriter and producer Berry Gordy.
But for now, the room thrummed with the lively energy of a long-awaited family reunion. Everyone was embracing and catching up and snapping pictures.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Smokey Robinson was waving kisses at an older woman across the room, from his seat at a big conference table plastered with Walk of Fame-style Hollywood stars.
Singer Thelma Houston, who scored a No. 1 hit for Motown Records with her 1977 recording of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” was leaning in for a selfie with multi-hyphenate actress-dancer-director Debbie Allen, who won an Emmy for her choreography on the 1983 “Motown 25th Anniversary Special.”
A moment later, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents this district and shepherded the dedication through City Hall, was leaning toward Houston. “I’ve danced to ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ live with you performing,” the councilman told the sequin-clad septuagenarian singer of her disco hit.
That was a prevailing message of many of the speakers at the ceremony, and those who gathered to watch: The music of Motown Records had provided the score for their lives, and the broader cultural fabric of 1960s and ‘70s America.
“It’s the soundtrack of our lives, that’s why I can’t sit down,” Yevette Renee Nelson, a film critic who’d brought half a dozen extended family members to witness the dedication, said as she danced along to the catalog of hits played from a sound system set up in the closed-off street.
In 1959, Gordy founded what would become Motown Records in a small Detroit house with grand ambitions and an $800 family loan. Gordy was a working songwriter, but the time he’d spent working the assembly line in a Lincoln-Mercury car plant helped influence his creative vision.
“I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door unknown and come out another door a star, like an assembly line; that was my dream,” he told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2016.
“My family said, that’s stupid. Those are cars. You can’t do that with human beings.”
Gordy thought differently. In time, he’d be known not just as a hitmaker and an empire builder, but also for his prowess in minting stars, many of whom, like Robinson, were signed as teenagers.
Speaking during the dedication ceremony, Robinson attributed the success of Motown to music being Gordy’s first love. “We had a music man at the helm, who was teaching all of us how to become music makers,” he said.
In the decade between the Miracles’ 1961 “Shop Around,” which was written by Gordy and Robinson and became Motown’s first million-seller hit, and the Temptations’ 1971 “Just My Imagination,” the label produced more than 100 top 10 hits. Their era-defining roster included the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, among many others.
Gordy built Motown into what was for a time the largest black-owned business in America, in large part through his success in bringing music written and performed by African American artists to the record players of white teenagers. His crossover acumen helped shape the sound of music for decades to come.
In 1972, Motown relocated west from its namesake Motor City to Los Angeles. The booming record company was headquartered in this very building at the corner of Sunset and Argyle, where friends and family would gather to honor Gordy nearly five decades later.
“As a kid growing up on the eastside of Detroit, Hollywood was an unattainable, mystical fantasy,” Gordy said during the ceremony, standing beneath palm trees at a lectern a few blocks east of Amoeba Records and the ArcLight Cinema. He said that it was a place where magic happened and dreams came true, and that he never imagined ending up here in the sunshine.
“But as Motown grew, our success made me realize that there was no limit to how far we could go. I wanted my artists to reach their full potential, so we came here to Hollywood.”
Gordy, who sold the label in 1988 and announced his retirement earlier this year, will turn 90 this week. The actual date won’t roll around until Thursday, but that didn’t stop his family from turning the finale of the dedication ceremony into an impromptu birthday celebration, complete with a vegan cake and Stevie Wonder leading the dancing crowd in a joyful rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Wonder’s version of the song, of course, which was released by Motown in 1980.