Berry Gordy posing for a portrait in front of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Berry Gordy is the quintessential American icon: he rose from humble roots in Detroit as a high school dropout, former pugilist, Korean War vet, and budding entrepreneur to become a successful songwriter and producer and the famed founder of Motown Records, which launched the careers of legendary artists like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Motown’s tunes reshaped the nation’s musical landscape and forged dynamic ties between peoples divided by the bitter legacy of American racism. Gordy helped to heal the country’s fractured psyche by capturing the white American ear with melodies of love and brotherly cooperation that were sweetly subversive: Motown fought bigotry and taught the nation to sing from the songbook of black humanity. Motown’s vibrant conquest of America’s color line is on brilliant display in Motown: The Musical, a Broadway musical with a book by Gordy himself, drawn from his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. I sat down with the 84-year-old multimedia mogul at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel to discuss Motown, the record company and the musical, and his incredible life and career. Here’s a slice of our stimulating conversation. [Note: Thanks to Marcia Pendleton for her help in arranging this interview].

Michael Eric Dyson

You have had a magical, storied and legendary career, a fact that’s captured in your Broadway musical Motown: The Musical. How have you been able to sustain such excellence for such a long period of time?

Berry Gordy

One of the major reasons was the fans, the people like you who were smart enough to understand what was going on. My father taught me two and two is four. Somebody [might] tell you it’s five, or three – [no] two and two will always be four. And if that’s too complicated, try one and one. If you still don’t get it, try one. One is you. Believe in you. Who are you? So I have all that stuff from my father. And I kept that because it will never change. Everything else is changing. This never changes. I love stuff that never changes. It has kept me grounded.

I taught a lot of this stuff to the [Motown: The Musical] cast when I came in. First of all, they were thrilled. Their mothers and fathers were also thrilled for them just being in Motown. For the people that lived [Motown], it’s magic. People around the world were touched by [our] music. You’re talking about England and France, Germany, China, and Japan. Japan was our third largest international [audience]. I mean, Smokey would go somewhere and he’d start singing one of his songs: “So take a good look at my face/You’ll see my smile looks out of place/If you look closer, it’s easy to trace/The tracks of my tears.” And they couldn’t speak a word of English, but they knew the song.

Dyson

When we think about the black music that was coming out when you started, and then afterward, the different companies and geographies had their own unique vibes. Muscle Shoals in Alabama had its own soulful niche; so did Stax in Memphis, although whites owned both of those companies. Motown was black owned and viewed by many as the bellwether and standard-bearer of great music. You were consciously seeking a sound that reflected the genius of the artists you had, but also geared toward the ear of the broader America so that they could hear the incredible talent of these people that they hadn’t heard before.

Gordy

That’s true. Everything was evolutionary. It started from the truth of how you feel. And it was a balance. I’m a competitor and always have been. Competition breeds champions. But you can’t let the competition get in the way of the love. But I didn’t realize that ‘til later.

I was the best writer in the company, and the best producer, the only producer. And I brought in Smokey. But I had to teach him the art of songwriting. He’d have all these rhymes and stuff. [But] what is [the song] about? Who are the characters in there? Who you singing to? Because [the tense would be] the first person this time, and by the time you get to the last verse, it was third person, or second person. Once Smokey got those basic things, I saw him literally getting better than me, because his poetry was brilliant. The songwriting, no, but his poetry was good. So I could see him getting better.

And then one day [in 1962] he came to me – even though it wasn’t a big hit, I realized this guy, once he put that poetry with his music, [was great] – with a song called “I’ll Try Something New.” He said “I got this idea”: “I will build you a castle with a tower so high/It reaches the moon/I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly/And compose you a tune/I’ll give you lovin’ warm as Mama’s oven/And if that don’t do/Then I’ll try something new/I will take you away with me as far as I can/To Venus or Mars/There we will love with your hand in my hand/You’ll be queen of the stars/And every day we can play on the Milky Way/And if that don’t do/Then I’ll try something new.” Oh, my goodness!

Dyson

The words stick with you to this day.

Gordy

Oh, absolutely, they do stick with me. I got a different feeling [with this song]. I said, “My pupil now is a genius with words.” That was his third or fourth endeavor bringing songs to me. I kept working with him, but after that I said, “Wait a minute. My time with Smokey is numbered. Because he is one of the greatest poets.”

Dyson

It’s reflected a bit in the musical Motown, that, in truth, you were not only highly competitive but you were quite democratic when it came to deciding on the music Motown put out.

Gordy

I got one vote, like everybody else. But I could veto something if I wanted to. I tried to veto “Cloud Nine” [recorded by The Temptations] because I felt it was a drug record. [Laughter]. We had these quality control meetings, as you know, and I was overruled. And that [song got us] our first Grammy! I never got awards; I never got “stuff.” I was always breaking into something. The response was, “How dare a black man come in here and try to take over” the record business, at first, and then television, and then the movies. That was the big one! I always had trouble, always.

Dyson

How about when it came time to do a Broadway musical?

Gordy

When I first came here, the producer begged me to let another person write [the story]. He didn’t think I could look at things objectively. I said I look at everything objectively; that’s another person out there. I’m writing about what’s happening out there. It’s like what happened when it came to decisions in the company. I would say, “What do you feel? What’s the truth about this story you’re telling?” They’d say, “Well, so-and-so-and-so.” And then I’d say, “Well, why don’t you write that?” In the end, everybody voted on it.

Dyson:

What led you to have that kind of democracy? Was there democracy in your family when you all voted to get the first eight hundred dollar loan for you to start Motown? You brought the same thing you saw in your family to your business family, and then your musical family at Motown? Because you could’ve just said, “Look, I’m the boss. That’s it. It’s done.” But you allowed democracy to prevail.

Gordy

I don’t know, probably somewhere from my father. The quality control idea came from the Ford Motor Company, because their quality control would check the technical parts of things. Then they had creative quality control, I guess, looking at the design. So we had a creative quality controller. And I was just basing it around what I thought that was. I also learned a lot from Dr. King when I was going to put out his stuff. I loved what he was doing and he loved what I was doing. And it was such a pleasure to me, and I was so shocked when [one of his representatives] came by and said, “Dr. King likes your work. He likes what you’re doing. And he’d like to come [by] and talk to you.”

The Black Power movement wanted me to stand up and run the “white devils” off the face of the earth. That’s not what I’m about, exactly. I’m just trying to put out music. I’m just trying to put out good songs people want to hear. So I’m drawn into this [conflict]. And people would just attack me on the fact that I was too soft, and on [me not fighting] the “white devils” and all that stuff. And I had [whites] working for me, you know, because I want music for all people.

After I met Dr. King, I told him, “I love your work, but I don’t understand your stuff. You mean to tell me that if somebody slapped me on my left cheek, I’m going to do nothing until my right cheek’s been slapped? I mean, turn the other cheek? Please tell me what that means.” So then he explained the philosophy to me. He said, “Well, look, this movement can only win if we recognize that most people in the world are good, whether they’re white, black, blue or green. Society turns them into something else. So we need to bring that love back.” And speaking of love was just something right in my alley, and I understood that. And I said, “Well, I understand your philosophy. And that’s great. And I can see why it works. I’m not sure that I would still turn my other cheek, but I get it.”

Dyson

I bet he laughed at that.

Gordy

Oh, yeah. We had fun. He had a good sense of humor. He said, “Your music is bringing emotional integration before intellectual integration. Your music is bringing love and it’s bringing people together. And they are integrating emotionally without even knowing it. And so it makes my job easier. And having you put out my stuff is really wonderful, because who I associate with is very important to me as a person.” And it was a wonderful relationship. At that point I decided to put out another label called “Black Forum” [dedicated to social issues] ’cause I wanted him close to me.

Dyson

You got a chance to know him in a way most people don’t. You had one on one time with him. What kind of human being was Dr. King?

Gordy

Just the smartest. And the greatest. When we were signing him up, I said, “Beside the fact you’re doing good, you’re [also] going to do well, because hopefully these records will sell for years and years and you’ll make a royalty.” And he said, “Oh, no, it has to all go to SCLC.” I said, “But what about your family? You did the work. That’s not right.” And he said, “Well, it’s right for me, because the movement is more important, and people would not understand. It’s not that you’re wrong at all. It’s that my movement is more important than something that can be misconstrued.” I mean, he was the best and the smartest. Because you can be the best, and mean well, and you can die on the cross. It comes together, you know.

Dyson

That’s a brilliant way of putting it: your music achieved emotional integration before intellectual integration, before even physical integration. And that music really penetrated to the hearts of white Americans. Even when they were segregated, even when they were up in the auditorium and they were all sitting separately. What is it about you as a black man that made you want to make music that the entire world could understand? You said, “I’m not making ‘black’ music. I’m making music by black people that’s American music.” Tell us about your thought process. Was it commercial? Was it the fact you just wanted to make as much money, and sell as many records, as possible? Was there something else behind that?

Gordy

When I started out, I did want to make some music, make some money and get some girls. Girls were more important than the money, actually. But music for the entire world became a major mantra for me. I believe good music is going to affect everybody, because everybody is like me. I feel that if you believe that you are a cool person, or you’re a good person, and you feel this way, other people will feel that way if you tell the truth of who you are. And so I taught that to mostly all the artists who came in [to Motown]: Tell the truth of who you are. Either you’re a good person or a bad person. If you happen to be a good person, that stuff is going to resonate to other good people, you know? And I always thought that people became bad because of environment, to a certain extent. How they grew up, who they grew up around, and so forth.

And so I want [the music] to reflect that. And if you reflected the truth of that music, then it would affect all these people’s hearts, all these people’s souls. It doesn’t mean every song has to [have] a beautiful, happy ending. It could be a love story. [Or a song that says] I’m messed up, or I’m broken up. In those days I got behind [in my songwriting] because the business started growing and growing and growing. So I would write less. First it was two to five percent business, and ninety-five percent songwriting, ninety-five percent creative. And so I hated it when it switched, and I had ninety-five percent business, and the entire world started loving the music. I was thrilled, but I couldn’t write anymore. And other people were better than me anyway. There was Norman Whitfield, who was kicking my ass. And Stevie Wonder came along as a kid. I didn’t like his singing at first, but his guitar playing was phenomenal. And then he developed and developed and developed. And all these people were coming up. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Smokey, and all these people. My music dropped on the totem pole: down, down, down, down.

The first time I ever got to really get back in the creative [side of things] was fifty or so years later [with the Broadway play]. I wrote the [new] songs in there. And I was thrilled to get back to it. I fill needs. The play needs this, you know? The song needs this to make it click. And then I always tried to pick out songs, even though they were subtle, and teach lessons without teaching

Dyson

Well, you clearly did that. The scene in the play with Smokey’s character, when he confronts a white cop, and he sings one of his famous lines, but in this situation, it gains humorous and yet poignant meaning: “I don’t like you/But I love you.” But that’s what the spirituals did, right? They signified a veiled meaning. The spirituals allowed the slaves to entertain the broader white society while helping to emancipate black people. And it seems that the double meaning of Smokey’s song fit right in there. It was beautiful. It was powerful.

Gordy

Well, that’s good. And there are so many moments in the play where we’re getting the point across without getting the point across, because we’re all about entertainment. You gotta make the story compelling and entertaining while giving forth ideas of how people can love each other, and how black and white, blue and green, they are the same thing, you know? Even during slavery, [black folk sent] messages to themselves that the slave owners couldn’t even hear – through their chants and music. The music freed their souls. I just feel that music, black music, has such a rich history. And I just simply try to carry that on.