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Diana Ross and the Supremes. Smokey Robinson. Stevie Wonder. The Jackson 5. There’s one thing they all have in common. Berry Gordy. A Detroit songwriter with a vision, Gordy founded the Motown record label in 1959. It was a time of racial turmoil, when African Americans experienced blatant discrimination in everyday life. Opportunities as mainstream entertainers were scarce. Gordy nurtured talented black vocal artists, gave them an avenue for success and helped create what became known as the Motown sound. That history is told in “Motown the Musical,” now on tour around the U.S. Join Diane for a conversation with Motown founder Berry Gordy and director Charles Randolph-Wright of “Motown the Musical.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Barry Gordy and his Motown Record Company have had an outsized influence on American music and culture. More than 50 years ago, he built a bridge between blacks and whites, paved with the songs of African American vocal artists. Along the way, he shaped the careers of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Smoky Robinson and many others whose music helped define an era.
MS. DIANE REHMIn 2013, Gordy teamed up with playwright Charles Randolph-Wright to create "Motown: The Musical." After a run on Broadway, it's now on tour. Joining me here in the studio to talk about the music of Motown, Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records and Charles Randolph-Wright, director of "Motown: The Musical."
MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure many of you will want to join us. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, what a pleasure to meet you both.
MR. CHARLES RANDOLPH-WRIGHTGreat to meet you. Good morning.
MR. BERRY GORDYThank you so much for my being here. I am really so delighted.
REHMWell, and I want to wish you a belated happy birthday.
GORDYOh, it was. It was quite, quite a wonderful, wonderful day for me.
REHMYou were 86 years old on the 28th of November.
GORDYI'm sorry. Excuse me?
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTHe was 50 -- weren't you 55?
REHMDid I get it wrong?
GORDYWell, that's right. Just switch those numbers around.
GORDYYou'll be right on target.
REHMThat's fair enough. That's fair enough. I really am thrilled to have you here. It's just a really special treat. Barry Gordy, take us back to the musical world of the 1950s. What was it like for you then?
GORDYWell, it was always exciting. You know, I'm a music lover so it went back further than that, actually, when I was like 5, 6, 7 years old. I used to -- my uncle was a piano teacher and he -- I heard him play Rachmaninoff. Was it C Sharp Minor? I believe it was. It was a long time ago. But I fell in love with the classics and then later, I fell in love with gospel in the churches. We used to go to church five times a week.
GORDYMy father was a deacon. And I just fell in love with music and then I became interested in jazz and all of the people. But then, I lost my music lessons -- I mean, my uncle kicked me out because I started getting other melodies in my head and I would hear songs that made me thing about things, you know. I got in touch with the Mills Brothers who were singing "Paper Doll," "I'm gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own...
REHMI remember that.
GORDY...and now the other fellas cannot steal." And I said, wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know, guys are stealing my girls before I even get them. So I love this music. And so I started writing songs based on that. And so...
REHMWell, are you saying that your uncle did not approve of the kind of music you were then drawn to and not the classics?
GORDYWell, he knew I liked classics since I was thrilled when he played, "Clair De Lune" and he would play that and I would listen. I love it. But when I was practicing my arpeggios and everything and I would realize that you could make chords out of arpeggios and when I'd hear a chord, I'd hear something else. And, of course, I never set out to be a, you know, a great impresario or anything like that.
GORDYAll I wanted to do was just make some money. I mean, make some music, make some money and get some girls. That was all I wanted. I was not interested in anything else. But that lead me to -- that gave me inspiration to continue to perpetuate my music. And as it got better, as I could not succeed in getting girls, I just kept writing and trying and trying. I never gave up and -- till I wrote a song called, "Do You Love Me?" I think it was.
GORDYI couldn't dance. I couldn't get them. I wrote, "Do You Love Me" and "now that I can dance." And believe it or not, you know, I got the girls. So anyway.
REHMI'm glad to hear that. That makes me happy for you. Charles, when did you and Barry Gordy connect?
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWe connected even though he didn't know it when I was a child because I was fascinated by him. First, I wanted to be Michael Jackson, of course, but when I found out the person behind Michael Jackson, it was amazing to me. I grew up in South Carolina. There were very few images of men of color in this kind of position. He had his own company. He was doing television and films and music. And I really -- everything about Barry Gordy -- my mom said when I first got this job, she said, you used to talk about him all the time.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTSo and then when we met, our families are so similar, our backgrounds similar.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell, they were -- I was from a family of entrepreneurs and so was he. You know, he was the black sheep in his family and I guess, in a way, I was 'cause all my relatives are doctors, teachers, lawyers and I'm in this evil business. Now they want tickets so it's no longer an evil business.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTBut, you know, just seeing -- when you have someone that gives you permission to break down walls or knock down barriers, that that's the greatest gift and he was one of those people that did that for me, this image of something that I could be, this little kid from South Carolina.
REHMBarry Gordy, who was the first for you who came into your life and really helped you create what became that Motown sound?
GORDYWell, it started -- my life all started earlier when I, you know, when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling back in -- way back, you know, and he was black like me, but yet, the most popular person in the world. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to make people happy like he did. When I saw my mother and father crying after he knocked out Max Schmeling, I wanted to do something to make my mother and father cry like that out of happiness.
GORDYAnd so that was my goal. So he became just the greatest person in the world. And so I started boxing to try to emulate Joe Louis and I did that for a while and then, you know, other fighters -- Sugar Ray Robinson came along and I liked his style because he never got hit and he was just as smooth, the sharpest guy.
REHMBut boy, the contrast between the figure of Joe Louis and the figure of Sugar Ray. I mean, two very, very different body types.
GORDYBody types, yes, but they both -- they had one thing in common. They had a lot of girls.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTLet's get back to that message, that theme.
REHMYou're still on those girls.
GORDYOh, yeah. Well, I never got off, actually.
REHMYeah, I understand.
GORDYUntil lately. I mean, until lately, you know, but...
REHMAll right. But who was that first musical talent who came along?
GORDYThat's a great question.
REHMAnd you knew it.
GORDYThat's a great question because out of all the boxing and all that and what made me stop boxing was another guy that came along that I loved so much and his name was Nat King Cole. And I wanted to emulate him. I wanted to be like him and I might add also, he had girls, too.
REHMAnd how I adored him. Oh, my goodness.
GORDYOh, you did? Oh.
REHMOh, my goodness. Absolutely.
GORDYOh, yeah, well, I used to try to -- I started writing like him. I started writing songs. He wrote a thing called "Sweet Loraine" that I liked and it was simple enough for me to know by that time, because I had taken piano lessons and I knew a little about chords, and then I wrote a song called "My Marlene" and it was the same feeling that I had. And from there on, I just tried to emulate people.
GORDYAnd, of course, I was -- I had been in churches, gospels and this and that and so I didn't have any limits. And I was a jazz lover as well, you know, Miles Davis, Dan Kenton, you know, all of the top jazz people. And so I just kind of never had any boundaries as to what kind of music so I never called it music. So when I did my music, it was just music, you know. And so when I couldn't get it played on the white stations, I convinced the white disc jockeys that this is just music, you know, because I loved...
REHMWasn't black or white, it was just music.
GORDYIt was music. It was not black music. It was not music. And when I would do anything, I'd just say it's music for everybody.
REHMBarry Gordy, record producer, song writer and founder of Motown Records. Charles Randolph-Wright, he is director of "Motown: The Musical."
REHMAnd that of course is The Temptations, singing "My Guy." No, that wasn't The Temptations.
REHMOh, Mary Wells, I had the wrong one. Sorry about that. And Charles, you said you absolutely loved Michael Jackson.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAbsolutely. Watching them on television was life-changing when you saw that force of energy come through the tube. It changed everyone. And in the musical, what happens is literally the roof blows off the theater when Michael comes out in the show.
REHMTell us, Barry Gordy, about Michael Jackson and the earlier group, The Jackson 5.
GORDYWell, I didn't want to see Jackson 5 because I had been dealing with Stevie Wonder, and he was underage, and he was so much trouble. I mean, you know, he had -- his mother was there, you know, telling us what to do. His -- you know, he was underage. He had tutors, chaperones. He had all these people. And he had an entourage, and I didn't like his singing, you know.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTStevie Wonder, he didn't like his singing.
GORDYStevie Wonder, no, because he was a harmonica player. And I -- but he played bongos, he played tombas, he played, you know, everything there was, sticks on the thing, and he was just a bundle of life, and he was a practical joker at his age. And so I hired him. I hired him to play the harmonica and -- because he was so good. But his mother was a major problem. You're not signing my kid, Mr. Gordy. I heard about you, you know, you're this, and you're that, and my son.
GORDYAnd I said, well, then, why did you bring him here for an audition. And she said, just to see you. I wanted to see what you were. But I've heard all kind of things about you. So -- and Stevie said mom, I want to sign, you know. And she said, shut up, boy. You know, and he actually, on the stage.
REHMYeah, but that's Stevie Wonder, but now what about Michael Jackson?
GORDYOh, did I change...
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell yes because of...
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell, he didn't want to see Michael and the Jackson 5 because of Stevie, because he had had the trouble...
GORDYYeah because I had such trouble with Stevie.
GORDYSo now I said I don't want another kids' group. I've got this problem with Stevie and the, you know, just the trouble of having all this entourage with him. He couldn't work past a certain time. And so when Suzanne de Passe came to me and said I got this new group you're going to love, you know, you're going to love this group, and I said, no, I don't want a kids' group, I don't want a kids' group.
REHMI don't want anything to do with them.
GORDYTo do with kids. I've had Michael -- I mean, I've had Stevie, that's enough.
GORDYSo in the meantime, she had them come in singing their song, and he was doing -- singing his song with Jackie -- I mean, Jackie Wilson. He was doing James Brown. He was dancing, going back and forth. And he was singing all this stuff.
REHMABC, 123, Barry Gordy. You loved it?
GORDYI loved it. Well, I wrote that, but being -- I put a group together to write some kids' songs for him because he was singing old folks' songs when I first -- he sung a song called "Who's Loving You," and it was written by Smoky. And he sounded -- he was like a two-year-old. I said here's a two-year-old singing a song like he's lived it for 30 years. He can't do that. You know, I want a kids' song. I want something that -- you know, so we came up with, you know, "I Want You Back," you know, or, no, "ABC."
GORDYThat was the second song. The first one was "I want You Back." It was a little kid begging the girl to come back.
REHMOh, I see.
GORDYBut "ABC" was the song that really personified Michael because it was "ABC," he says, 1, 2, 3, I love you. And we wrote that.
REHMYou know, I hear that voice, and it's so high.
GORDYWell, he was so young.
REHMHow old was he at that time?
GORDYAbout eight or nine.
REHMOh my gosh.
GORDYYou know, I don't know, you know...
GORDYYou know, I don't remember exactly, but he was just a kid, and his voice was up there. But when he was singing the blues, he was starting off -- he auditioned with the blues, but I could see through that and say oh, he's -- he's been here -- it sounds like he's been here for 30 years, which meant that he could think like a 30-year-old. The man, he was a genius, and most -- Stevie was a genius, as well, but so was Michael.
GORDYMichael was way beyond his years, and he proved that as he went on because he was just incredible.
REHMSo for you, how early on in your life, Charles, were you thinking Michael Jackson, he's the man?
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell, prior to that, my family listened to everything Motown, so Motown, I knew -- I said when I first met him, I know the B-sides of all the records. But I would look at who wrote songs. So I knew who the writers were. And -- but Michael was this energy because we were the same age. I was this little kid, and I saw this. And I often say, you know, I had wanted to be Michael, and then my voice changed, so I had to be Jermaine.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTBut so that voice that was so high, it was just, it was something that this country needed so badly, to have this group that brought us all together because I was -- I grew up in South Carolina in a school that was segregated, and when the schools desegregated, early '70s, Motown was the only -- that's the music we listened to. And it literally brought people together. And that's what I wanted to have happen with this musical, and I've seen it all around the country that you see every kind of audience come in, and it brings them together, something we need again.
REHMOkay, but back then in the '50s, when you had African-American groups touring the country, they weren't always welcome.
GORDYOh, that's true, that's true. I mean, they were shot at. They couldn't go into certain bathrooms. They were -- it was tough. It was a tight rope, you know, but they were able to break through with the music. And that was what was so beautiful to us because my feeling was, you know, it was not about, you know, anything but people all love music. Everybody was the same. My feeling was as I grew up, I liked all kind of music. I liked classical. I liked country and western. In fact I had a country-and-western label that had two number one country-and-western songs. One was called "Devil and the Bible," and the other one was called something else, but I forgot.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTHe had all these labels.
GORDYI had labels, I had a country-and-western label because I was trying to prove that people all have feelings. People all are the same. And nobody would believe me. And I'd go to disc jockeys, and I'd fight and say look at, it's all the same. They said, well, this isn't a pop station, and white people are not going to like your records. And I would say, pop, what does it mean. Pop means popular, popular. It doesn't mean black and white. It's popular.
GORDYAnd my music is popular, and all the disc jockeys in Detroit are playing them, and they say, yes, but they're black, you're black, and your audience is black, I mean, and other people. And so that's why they work. And so I can -- but I kept fighting, and I said just try it, just try -- and it happened to be a Smoky Robinson record, and it was called -- when I became of age, my mother called me to her side. And it was "Shop Around."
GORDYAnd his phones lit up. It was a different feeling for him, and he was shocked. His name was Tom Clay in Detroit. And he was shocked, and the phones lit up, and it was a little easier from there.
REHMTell me about Smoky Robinson.
GORDYOh, Smoky Robinson.
REHMYeah, tell me about him.
GORDYHow much time do you have?
REHMWe've got some time.
GORDYAside from the fact that Smoky is my best friend, but Smoky is the soul of Motown. I was -- I started -- the biggest mistake I ever made in the music business was teaching Smoky how to write songs because once I taught him, because he didn't know front, middle and end, it was very simple, and I told him some things and what to do, and he became the most prolific writer. You know, he was just this kid, and I said, well, go and write a song. Let me hear what you've got. Let me listen to the radio, think about it and make sure you're not talking to the same person.
GORDYIn the first person, he said I'm talking you, I love you, I love you, and then he would be saying in a second verse, well, she went to the thing, and so-and-so, and I saw her. And I said, wait a minute, if you're talking to her, how can you be talking about her?
GORDYSo at any rate, Smoky really learned to write songs, and then he started coming up, and he came up -- one day he came to me, and he said I got your message, and I have this song that I've written that I think you're going to like. I think it's poetic, yet it has sections. And it started off with I will build your castle with a tower so high that reaches the moon. We'll gather melodies from birdies that fly, and I'll compose you a tune. And every day we can play on the Milky Way, and if that don't do, I'll try something new.
REHMI love it.
GORDYYou know, and he went on, and he was, I will take you away with me as far as I can, to Venus and Mars. There we'll love with your hand in my hand. You'll be queen of the stars. Oh no, did I say Mary day?
REHMWell, you got most of it.
GORDYI know, did I say maybe we can play on the Milky Way?
GORDYOh man, the next verse. Oh, I'm so sorry, I can't...
REHMIt's all right, it'll come to you. It'll come to you.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTYou should see...
GORDYI'll give you, oh, I'll give you love and warm as mama's oven, and if that don't do, I'll try something new.
REHMI told you it would come to you.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell, to see Smoky and Mr. Gordy together is -- it's astounding. This friendship, best friends for 50-plus years, both who were extraordinary artists, two of the most giving people I've ever seen who opened their arms to those of us coming up and just teaching us not just how to be great artists but to be great people, and that's the thing that when I watch them and watch -- when I watch Mr. Gordy and Smoky together, because they compete about everything, they're outrageous, all I do is just laugh.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTThey compete about everything. How many times did you call Smoky? How many times did you call this person? I mean, they're outrageous together.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Here's a comment from Facebook that says, Gordy has had to have had one of the single most fascinating lives lived, simply awe-inspiring trajectory from what he started with to what he ultimately built. He's on my list of if you could invite any six people, dead or alive, to a dinner party.
GORDYYou mess with it that quick?
REHMDead or alive.
GORDYWith a million people in that, the trillions of people that...
REHMHow about that?
GORDYTo a dinner party. It would probably be Nat King Cole.
REHMYou know what my favorite song of his was?
GORDY"Nature Boy." Oh, I love that, of course I love that, you know. There was a boy, you know, I mean...
REHMVery strange, enchanted boy.
GORDYYeah, oh absolutely, absolutely.
REHMWhat a song, what a song.
GORDYBut then, you know, he said five or probably Stan Kenton, probably...
GORDYProbably Sarah Vaughan.
GORDYBecause she had that range up and down, and I'm sure there's 50 other people, not necessarily all musicians but just people that I loved throughout, you know, probably Rudyard Kipling, you know...
GORDYIf you can keep your heaven all about you, losing theirs and blaming it on you.
REHMOf course, of course.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTYou have to have a lot of different dinner parties.
REHMYeah, absolutely. And you'd absolutely involve Charles Randolph-Wright, who is the resident playwright at Arena Stage in Washington. He's also director of "Motown The Musical," which opened on Broadway in 2013 and is now touring across the U.S. You know, I interviewed Smoky Robinson back in 2010, had such a great time with him.
GORDYOh, well he is just an incredible human being.
REHMHe is an incredible human being. He was on the screen. He was on via Skype. I was here. He was in Chicago or New York, I've forgotten which, and we had a blast.
GORDYWow, yeah, well, he is the best person I know, I mean the most wonderful, beautiful human being, you know, which is so important to me that you find a human being, and Smoky is one of the best, best, best.
REHMSo when you began gathering these wonderful musicians, what did you think was going to happen?
GORDYI -- well, when you're a dreamer, you dream really, really big, you know. Very seldom do you ever make your dream. I was a loser to everything I'd ever done, and my family always reminded me of that. And I would always say, well, the sky is not the limit, the sky is the first step.
REHMBerry Gordy, he is record producer, songwriter and founder of Motown Records. Stay with us.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. First, let's go to New York City. Stan, you're on the air.
STANLet's dance, Diane. It's time to dance. Great music. Wonderful show you have on today.
STANI just want to say something to Berry. I'm a 63-year-old white guy who has about 80 Motown albums. And I want to tell you, first of all, thank you. The other thing I want to say is how important what you have done. It is as important as the march on Washington. It's been as important as the civil rights movement in general. It's been important in terms of everything, in terms of black relations and white relations. And I (unintelligible) civil rights light, but it made a major impact on me as a white man. And I wanted to thank you. And the music lives forever. And I just want to tell you I love you. God bless you.
GORDYWell, thank you so much. But actually, I have to thank you and people like you who went out and bought my records when very few other people even understood what I was trying to do. Because as a fighter, I was always fighting to get people to understand me and understand my music. And, first of all, to get it played. So luckily I have the disc jockeys to thank for finally getting it played to people like you. But I wouldn't be sitting here if it were not for people like you. So thank you.
REHMHere's an email from George, in Cape Cod, Mass. "Would you please speak a little bit about the uber-talented Marvin Gaye?"
GORDYUber-talented? What does that mean?
REHMIt means big time.
GORDYOh, big time.
REHMBig time talented.
GORDYWell, Marvin Gaye was a genius. And sometime he disguised that with acting crazy. He was actually a genius and more complicated. He was my brother-in-all and we always had a wonderful, wonderful relationship.
GORDYMarket - Marvin being a genius, had his own ideas about everything. And he trusted me to discuss them with me. Most of which I didn't go along with. Sometimes - most of the time I was right, but there was one time he was right, when he wanted to do a protest album. And I said no, Marvin, this is - you can't. Your image, you're a pop singer, you're a pop star and we don't do a lot of protest albums about anything unless we really know where we - what we're doing.
GORDYMarvin said, I want to do this thing. And it had to do with trigger-happy policemen. And I said, well, Marvin, all policemen aren't bad and so forth and so on. He says, but they, as far as I'm concerned they are and I want to put this album out, and you got to let me do it because not only do I have brother in Vietnam, but I want to waken the minds of mankind because this is a serious problem.
GORDYAnd I looked at him and I saw tears in his eyes and I said, okay, Marvin. You - okay you can do this, but if you're wrong you'll learn something, again. And if I'm wrong, I'll learn something, again.
REHMSo who was right?
GORDYWell, I hugged Marvin after that. And I said, Marvin, okay, you got me. You were right. You know, it's a song that needs to be sung and it's gonna be very big. And I don't know how you came up with it, but it's the most brilliant thing I have heard. And to this day I thank him all the time for being right.
REHMHow'd you feel about?
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWell, it's interesting, oh, go on.
GORDYI must tell you…
REHMWhat were you gonna tell me?
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTI could see it in his eyes.
REHMWhat were you gonna tell me?
GORDYNo, no, no. You know, it's - see, Marvin was this kind of person that had his own ideas all the time. And it was great. Being my brother-in-law, that never came between us because he and I had an extremely close relationship. But after that he was a star, and I mean he felt so good. And there was a couple of other things, not like wanting to pay taxes. He didn't believe in that. And he was wrong about a lot of other things, but they didn't compare to his rightness.
GORDYSo I always told him that and he was the most thrilled person in the world.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTPeople often ask me, what's my favorite Motown song, which is impossible. What's your favorite child? But after doing the musical, "What's Going On" became the song.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTBecause what he wrote over 40 years ago is still so present now, so important now. And when I - it ends the first act of the musical. And when it happens you feel audiences, especially in the different cities we've played, where there's been such unrest and problems…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHT…and you hear this song and I watch these young actors relive what we were - what people were going through 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago. And just that message and how it's still so present, what he created so long ago. So that song, that's the power of Motown, that it's - it has extended, this music goes in so many directions and it's such a part of our lives.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTThere's a t-shirt at the Motown Museum that says, "Live it Again," which I didn't really understand until our first show, because the audience does that in the show. They live this again.
REHMRecite for me some of the words in "What Going On."
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAs I start to think about this, it's so, you get emotional because - especially in, as I said, in the show, Martin Luther King has just been killed. And he comes out and he's looking around and he sees all of this unrest. And he just starts singing this, you know.
GORDYWell, the essence was really, "Mother, mother, mother, there's so many of you crying."
GORDYThey're still crying today about this.
GORDYAnd "Brother, brother, brother…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHT"There are far too many of you dying."
GORDY"…there's so many - far too many of you dying." You know. And so it's so relevant.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHT"You know we've got to find a way…
GORDY"We got to find a way…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHT"…to bring some loving here today."
GORDY"…to bring some loving here today." You know. And it goes on with that thought and it's every word - every word is meaningful. And when I heard it and he said I got to awaken the minds of mankind, and I looked at him and I says, okay, Marvin, you win. You know, you win 'cause you're right. I got a brother in Vietnam, is another one. He said that, not in the song, but in order to get me to even listen. He said, no, BG, I got a brother in Vietnam. I don't care about no, oh, he didn't care about…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTLabels and being stars and all of this.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTYou know, yes, yes.
GORDYHe said, you know, I said, but you - and I say, but you're a star. You're a star.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTRight. He didn't care about that.
GORDYYou're our biggest male star that we have. And for you to come out with a protest album. He said, it's not just a protest album.
GORDYIt's an album about life and what I want to say. I got a brother in Vietnam and you got to let me do this.
GORDYBecause one thing about Marvin and I, he respected me as a father because he and his father didn't along that well.
GORDYAnd he wanted to be, you know, in a family. Married my sister and they were fine couple together.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAnd he changed the world with this music. That's what's so amazing, that we're still listening to all of his music.
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAnd that's real music.
REHMBerry Gordy, how did Motown get its name?
GORDYBecause, you know, I had - I went to disc jockeys and I said, you know, I have these, you know, five hits, you know. And then he said, which one you want me to play? I mean, to the radio stations. Once they started playing my music. Which one you want me to play? We can only play one from a label. And I said, well, look, they're all five hits. I mean, really we took our time and each one of these are hits.
GORDYAnd he says, well, we could play one. Which one you want me to play? So I would tell him, then I'd go back to my company and I'd say, okay, wait a minute. We got to have five labels because they only play one from each label. So we named five labels. And when we got to the fourth one, we had a thing called Gordy, Soul, VIP…
GORDY…Tamla. And I said, now I want to make a label that means something to me more, you know. And Smokey said, well, like Motor City? And I said, well, yeah, Motor City. I said, but city a little cold to me. I don't feel - I feel Motown is warm. I feel Motown is warm. So I don't want to use city. So I'll use mo, mo, mo…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAnd there you are.
REHMYou've got it.
GORDYAnd that was it. And that's how the name came about. And we do that in the play and it's really funny.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tammy, in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
TAMMYGood morning. This is fantastic. I don't even need to talk about what I was gonna say. Just listening to this conversation is making me cry. I was born in Detroit in '64. I'm still here. The Motown music has been my life. I mean, if this is an American success story. You know, you took kids from, you know, from the projects and brought out their talent and you know, you're an American hero, Mr. Gordy.
GORDYOh, thank you so much. Thank you so much.
REHMIsn't that a beautiful thing to say?
REHMThank you, Tammy. Tell me about the Supremes.
GORDYAh, Supremes. Well, they were a young girls group that came to audition for me. And…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWhen they were in high school.
GORDYThey were in high school. Of course, I told them, you know, they were - I said what grade are you in. They said we're seniors. And I said, well, I didn't want to take them out of school. I said the last thing I want to do is take you out of school. Go back to school and when you graduate come back and see me again. And so they said, okay. But can't we do some background now or do something after school?
GORDYI said, look it, come back when you finish school. And then Diana, of course, it was her who said, we finish school at 2:30. We will be here at 3:00.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
REHMSo they came back at 3:00 o'clock? After they got out of school did they come back at 3:00 o'clock?
GORDYYes, they - oh, they came back every day and sung backgrounds for everybody. Marvin Gaye first and this and that and so forth. But they were so cute and so perky and so determined, the lead singer was like, you know, she was like I want to do this, I'm going to do this, you know. And so…
REHMYou got to have that kind of drive, don't you, to make it in this business.
GORDYOh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, she was like…
REHMYou really do.
GORDYYeah, but she was cute with it, obviously. You know, I mean…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTWhich is another part of our musical (unintelligible).
REHMYeah, I understand.
GORDYBut she just was determined. And that's what happened.
REHMNow, we could, the three of us, sit here and talk for another six hours, but we're almost out of time. You, Berry Gordy, wrote "Can I Close The Door" for the "Motown: The Musical." I want to hear some of that.
REHMWhat do you want to say?
GORDYWell, what happens is we had so many Motown songs, so many great songs, but my goal was to make the truth as a hit, but if it's done entertainingly. Otherwise, it's a documentary and that sort of thing. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do the truth, the hard truth. And there's a lot of stuff in there that's very embarrassing even to me.
GORDYBut the big thing was the love. The Motown people cannot not love each other with what we went through. And even though many of them of left me, The Jackson 5 left, Diana left, all these people left, but they loved me. And they all came back to honor me. And I didn't want to go to the show, but I realized that I could not not love them.
GORDYBecause if you really, really love somebody, I don't care what they do to you, you're gonna still love them. You may not like them, you may not this, but you love them. And can I close the door on these people and not go to the show when they all came from around the world to honor me, was a problem for me. And so then sitting by myself I sung this song that we wrote for the play, called "Can I Close the Door."
REHMAnd that is the voice of Brandon Victor Dixon singing the song that Berry Gordy for "Motown: The Musical." "Can I Close the Door?" It's gonna be hard to close the door on you two. Berry Gordy…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTAnd you, as well, yes.
REHMAh, thank you so much.
GORDYAnd you. Well, you're just…
RANDOLPH-WRIGHTThis was fantastic. Thank you.
REHMLovely to be with you. And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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