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For Berry Gordy, Broadway Is Memory Lane

Mar 8, 2013
Originally published on March 8, 2013 11:50 am

There's hardly an adult anywhere in the world who wouldn't recognize at least some of the music of Motown.

The R&B label changed the course of music in the United States and made household names of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5. Now, the man who created Motown — Berry Gordy — is headed to Broadway to tell his version of how it all began.

Gordy co-authored the label's first gold record, "Shop Around," with Smokey Robinson in 1960.

Now 83 years old, Gordy says it's time to tell his truth about how he morphed from a featherweight boxer into the man who launched the Motown empire.

"I wanted other people around the world who made this part of their lives to really understand the true story," Gordy says.

There would eventually be a family of record labels, the Hitsville USA recording studio, a publishing arm and even a finishing school.

But there were also lawsuits filed against Gordy over royalties and criticism of the level of control he had over his artists. Berry says he's set all that straight before — and the Broadway show is his version of what happened.

"This is the truth, and we're dramatizing the truth," Gordy says.

What's exciting about the show, says Motown director Charles Randolph-Wright, is experiencing Motown's growth not just through Berry's eyes, but through the audience's memories of the music.

"When you hear the song 'My Girl,' for example," Randolph-Wright says, "everyone has a story about that — they proposed to their wife, their baby was born. There are all these stories that happen, and in that you have to have a moment where you can drift."

But Randolph-Wright notes that Motown's music also opened what he calls the emotional door to the civil rights movement — and inspired a generation.

At a recent rehearsal, cast members were clearly cognizant of the responsibility of portraying people so many see as icons. Valisia LeKae plays the glamorous Diana Ross and talks about how the woman she calls an extraordinary human being who broke racial barriers was a powerful symbol for African-American women.

"She didn't have time to think about what it took to do it or who she would upset," LeKae says. "She had to do it, and there is something great in that."

Brandon Victor Dixon plays the lead role, and he looks so much like Berry Gordy that it's a little scary. Dixon and Gordy joke about what the actor calls a special experience: touring the Motown Museum in Detroit.

"I spent most of my time sitting in [Gordy's] bedroom looking out the window," Dixon says.

He says it's been a challenge to figure out how to communicate the story of this music that's always been about people and love. The first version of the script had 100 songs in it.

"There's so much we can say, and there's so many legends involved in the Motown family, and he's done so much in his life that it's really about which pieces to give," Dixon says.

For his part, Gordy says he's delighted to be doing the story of his life. It's been a wonderful journey, he says — and not to tell it would just be sad.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's shift gears here. There's hardly an adult anywhere in the world who would not recognize at least some of the music of Motown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby love, my baby love, I need you. Oh, how I need you...

INSKEEP: Motown, the R&B label, changed the course of music in the nation and made household names of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five, among others. And now the man who created Motown, Berry Gordy, is headed to Broadway to tell his version of how it all began. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOP AROUND")

SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) My momma told me, you better shop around. Shop. Whoa, yeah. You better shop around.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Berry Gordy co-authored the label's first gold record - "Shop Around" - with Smokey Robinson in 1960.

BERRY GORDY: I wanted other people around the world who made this part of their lives to really understand the true story.

KEYES: Now 83 years old, Gordy says it is time to tell his truth about how he morphed from featherweight boxer into the man who launched the Motown empire. There was a family of record labels - the Hitsville USA recording studio - a publishing arm, and even a finishing school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREETS")

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Calling out around the world. Are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the streets.

KEYES: But there were also lawsuits filed against Gordy over royalties and criticism of the level of control he had over his artists. Berry says he's set all that straight before, and the Broadway show is his version of what happened.

GORDY: This is the truth and we're dramatizing the truth.

KEYES: What's exciting about this show, says Motown: The Musical Director Charles Randolph-Wright, is experiencing Motown's growth not just through Berry's eyes - but through the audience's memories of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I guess you'll say what can make me feel this way. My girl. My girl. My girl. Talking 'bout my girl - my girl.

CHARLES RANDOPH-WRIGHT: When you hear the song "My Girl," for example, I mean everyone has a story about that. You know, they proposed to their wife, their baby was born. There are all these stories that happen, and in that you have to have a moment where you can drift.

KEYES: But Wright notes that Motown's music also opened what he calls the emotional door to the Civil Rights Movement - and inspired a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL OF CONFUSION")

TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation. Ball of confusion. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY REHEARSAL)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Ball of confusion. One, two, three, four.

KEYES: At a recent rehearsal cast members were clearly cognizant of the responsibility of portraying people so many see as icons. Valisia Lekae plays the glamorous Diana Ross and talks about how the woman she calls an extraordinary human being who broke racial barriers was a powerful symbol for African American women.

VALISIA LEKAE: She didn't have time to think about what it took to do it or, you know, who she would upset. She had to do it and there is something great in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH")

LEKAE: (As Diana Ross) (Singing) Ain't no mountain high enough. Not high. No valley low enough. No river wide enough, mm-hmm, to keep me from you.

KEYES: Brandon Victor Dixon plays the lead role and looks so much like Berry Gordy it's a little scary. Dixon and Berry joke about what the actor calls a special experience - touring the Motown Museum in Detroit.

BRANDON VICTOR DIXON: I spent most of my time sitting up in your bedroom on the bed looking out the window.

GORDY: My bedroom where?

DIXON: Your bedroom in Detroit, man.

KEYES: Dixon says it's been a challenge to figure out how to communicate the story of this music that's always been about people and love. The first version of the script had 100 songs in it.

DIXON: There's so much we can say and there are so many legends involved in, you know, the Motown family, but also he's done so much in his life that it's really about which pieces to give.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOVE YOU SAVE")

THE JACKSON FIVE: (Singing) Stop. You better save me. Stop, stop, stop, girl. You better save me, yeah.

KEYES: Berry Gordy says he's delighted to be doing the story of his life. It's been a wonderful journey, he says and not to tell it would just be sad. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOVE YOU SAVE")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) When we played tag in grade school, you wanted to be it. But chasing boys was just a fad. You crossed your heart you'd quit...

INSKEEP: It's Motown Edition, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.