Motown founder readies for ‘last major endeavor’

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Since Gordy had special insight into the songs that comprise the label’s vast catalog, he was able to make suggestions as to which ones fit particular story arcs. That was the case with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which ends the first act; and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” The Temptations classic that starts the second.

Gordy’s role went well beyond song-selector, however.

Gordy, who penned his first hit during the Eisenhower Administration, returned to his songwriting roots, working alongside longtime collaborator Michael Lovesmith to create a trio of original compositions for the musical: “Hey Joe,” “Can I Close the Door on Love?” and “It’s What’s in the Groove that Counts.”

While all are personal songs _ the show, after all, is about his life story _ Gordy dug deep for “Hey Joe,” which commemorates the inspiration he experienced as an 8-year-old when Detroit’s own Joe Louis defeated German boxing great Max Schmeling in a 1938 heavyweight title fight.

“I saw my mother crying. I saw my father crying. Everyone was so crazy, just going mad,” Gordy said. “So I thought to myself then, `What could I do in my life ever to make this many people happy?’ That’s where I got the original passion from.”

Two decades later, Gordy had set aside his dream of a boxing career and was writing songs on the side while working at a Ford Motor Co. plant. That’s when he secured an $800 loan from his family’s savings club and started his own record company, one that he vowed would produce music for all listeners, not “black music for black people” as had been the standard.

Gordy succeeded beyond even his wildest imagination, hiring immensely talented writers, producers, engineers, musicians and singers who blended traditional gospel, jazz, R&B and pop to create a unique sound that had crossover appeal for audiences of all ages and backgrounds and broke down racial barriers at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We would always say, `It’s what’s in the groove that counts,’” Gordy said, referencing one of the songs he wrote for the musical. “It was about music for all people. Not black and white, Jews and gentiles, the cops and the robbers. It was for everybody.”

Randolph-Wright, who was raised in segregated South Carolina, was among the many young Americans influenced by Gordy’s story and the musical movement he spurred.

Berry Gordy was one of my idols growing up. At that time, there weren’t many men of color in that power position to look up to,” Randolph-Wright said during a trip to Hitsville, U.S.A., home to the Motown Museum in Detroit. “And, I always say he gave me and people like me permission to dream _ to dream big enough that I would be in Studio A talking to you.”

A half-century after he began his ascent to the pinnacle of the music world, Gordy is looking to produce one last showstopper.

“I did the Broadway musical mainly for, I think, the people around the world that believed in me when they had no real reason to other than the music that they heard and loved,” he said.

But, tongue firmly in cheek, the octogenarian left open the door ever so slightly for another show-biz venture.

“If you come up with something bigger than Broadway, I might be interested,” he said, laughing.

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