Newsletter: When Motown came to L.A.

Berry Gordy
Berry Gordy, center, who founded Motown Records, breaks into dance as he is honored in a ceremony to dedicate the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Argyle Avenue as Berry Gordy Square.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 26, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Many of the living luminaries of the Motown Records empire gathered on Monday morning in a glass-walled conference room above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood 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.

The occasion was the official renaming of the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Argyle Avenue as “Berry Gordy Square,” in honor of Motown Records’ Berry Gordy, and the mood at this pre-ceremony reception was that of a long-awaited family reunion. Everyone was embracing, catching up and snapping pictures.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Smokey Robinson waved 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,” leaned 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 naming through City Hall after it was suggested by community activist Najee Ali and Gordy’s niece Karla Gordy Bristol, 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.

Wait, Motown Records in Los Angeles? Of course, Detroit is where Gordy founded Motown Records and where the label spent its formative years. (In the decade between the Miracles’ 1961 “Shop Around,” which was written by Gordy and Robinson, and the Temptations’ 1971 “Just My Imagination,” the label produced more than 100 top 10 hits.)

But in 1972, Motown officially relocated west from its namesake Motor City to Los Angeles. The booming record company was headquartered in the very building at the corner of Sunset and Argyle, where friends and family would gather to honor Gordy nearly five decades later.

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,” Robinson said. Motown’s era-defining roster included the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, among many others.

“As a kid growing up on the eastside of Detroit, Hollywood was an unattainable, mystical fantasy,” Gordy said, standing beneath palm trees at a podium on what was now his namesake square, a few blocks east of Amoeba Records and the ArcLight Cinema. “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.”


Berry Gordy, center,with Smokey Robinson, left, and Stevie Wonder, right, before a tribute to Gordy by Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, members of the Motown family and other guests.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

His is one of many small patches of concrete and asphalt named for noteworthy people who’ve made an impact on the city.

I passed a plaque for I Love Lucy Square on Melrose Avenue outside of Paramount on my way west to the assignment (in truly fantastic L.A. fashion, I Love Lucy Square is named for Lucille Ball, who filmed her eponymous show across the street, and for Lucy Casado, the late matriarch of Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe, a Hollywood institution on the other side of Melrose). Squares dedicated to Carmen Miranda and Raymond Chandler are also in Hollywood. And downtown is home to a long list of official namesake squares, including John Fante Square near Central Library and Frances Hashimoto Plaza in Little Tokyo.

[See also: “Some City Squares Bring Lives, and History, Full Circle” in the Los Angeles Times]

Back in the newly named Berry Gordy Square, Gordy’s family was turning the end of the dedication ceremony into an impromptu birthday celebration. Gordy, who sold the label in 1988 and announced his retirement earlier this year, will turn 90 on Thursday.

A vegan cake appeared, and Stevie Wonder led the dancing crowd in a joyful rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It was Wonder’s version of the song, of course, which was released by Motown in 1980.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The Conception dive boat had been exempted by the U.S. Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape, documents and interviews by The Times show. Thirty-four people died in a Labor Day fire on the boat, which was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 and given special exemptions from safety standards that the Coast Guard imposed on new vessels, some of which required larger escape hatches and illuminated exit signs. Los Angeles Times

The wind-driven Cave fire prompted evacuations in Santa Barbara County. A brush fire that started late Monday afternoon in Los Padres National Forest near Highway 154 moved quickly downhill, prompting mandatory evacuations and threatening homes. Los Angeles Times


Who really hacked Sony? It’s been five years since the cyber attack that rocked Hollywood, and some have their doubts about the North Koreans having been responsible. The Hollywood Reporter

Frank Biondi Jr., former head of Viacom and Universal Studios, has died at 74. Biondi oversaw some of the most important media brands during the 1980s and ‘90s. Los Angeles Times

Musicians who work in film and TV have secured a possible two-year “truce” with Hollywood studios that are racing to shift more of their film and television content to their own streaming services. If ratified, the agreement would help resolve a long-running fight by film and TV musicians for better terms for works that appear on streaming services. Los Angeles Times

The Kanye West opera at the Hollywood Bowl? Our reviewer calls it “Nebuchadsnoozer.” Los Angeles Times

Kanye West presented his opera, "Nebuchadezzer," directed by Vanessa Beecroft, on Sunday evening at the Hollywood Bowl.
Kanye West presented his opera, “Nebuchadezzer,” directed by Vanessa Beecroft, on Sunday evening at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Mark Swed/Los Angeles Times)

Shop local: Here are some of the best holiday markets in Los Angeles. Curbed LA

Plus, a guide to the best L.A.-specific culinary gifts for local food lovers. Eater LA

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.


Plans to open a federal shelter for migrants in Mexicali have stalled after neighbors vehemently protested and successfully persuaded Baja California’s new governor to shelve it. Los Angeles Times


Columnist George Skelton writes that California Democrats handed the GOP a win with a law designed to force President Trump to release his tax returns. Los Angeles Times

In a major win for Congress, a federal judge ruled that former White House Counsel Donald McGahn may be required to testify under oath about what he heard and saw during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian election meddling. Los Angeles Times


Authorities said a shooting at the Valley Plaza Mall in Bakersfield left at least two people injured on Monday evening. Los Angeles Times

A long-running lottery scheme targeted older Latina women in Southern California, the FBI announced Monday. Los Angeles Times


Wind gusts topped 90 mph Monday in some parts of the Sierra, a preview of a major change in the weather across California that will bring rain and snow across the state for Thanksgiving. Los Angeles Times

Speaking of which, Californians are facing intense rain and and possible snowstorms. Expect travel delays and possible mudslides. Los Angeles Times

Gusty winds in the Central San Joaquin Valley prompted a health warning Monday, bringing dirty air and potentially adding to poor visibility in a Highway 41 pile-up near Fresno. Fresno Bee


Looking for a desert hike? These are the five best hiking areas near Palm Springs. Desert Sun

Nevada has passed the 3 million population mark with a push from departing Californians. More than 50,000 Californians moved to Nevada from July 2017 to July 2018. Associated Press

This pop-up burger spot in Sebastopol serves just 100 burgers at a time. But a local food writer says the burgers, and the “dirty fries” (crispy fries, chevre ranch dressing, bacon, green onion, roasted garlic and pepperoncini) are more than worth the wait. Sonoma Magazine


Los Angeles: sunny, 69. San Diego: sunny, 68. San Francisco: rain, 53. San Jose: rain, 57. Sacramento: rain, 53. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from William Etling:

“Shortly after arriving in California in 1966, aged 12, I walked alone along the serene coast above Gaviota State Beach, immensely enjoying the crisping ripples sloughing to the shore, the cries of the gulls, the siren shells, the thick salty air tinged with tar.... Suddenly a jeep full of bronzed Santa Barbara Surf Club enforcers roared up, informed me I was on Hollister Ranch property, and quite rudely sent me home.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.