An Evening With Berry Gordy was a must see, live-to-tape one-on-one interview with Berry Gordy conducted by award-winning journalist Gwen Ifill. Taped in November 2012 before a live audience at The Art Institute of Chicago, Ifill and Gordy began their journey in Detroit where Gordy founded Motown Records in 1959 and grew the company into the most successful African American-owned enterprise in the United States. Ifill’s interview led the audience through Gordy’s celebrated life as entrepreneur, songwriter, record producer, movie director and producer.
The program included performances by Valerie Simpson, KEM, and Janelle Monae as well as Brandon Dixon and Valisia Lekae from Motown: The Musical. Gordy’s son, Stefan Gordy, known to the music world as Redfoo, one-half of the hip-hop musical group, LMFAO, was in attendance.
Berry Gordy founded and presided over the musical empire known as Motown. As a young black man working in often inhospitable times, Gordy endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people, regardless of the color of their skin. Under his leadership, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression and a repository for some of the greatest talent ever assembled at one company. The list of artists who were discovered and thrived at Motown includes The Supremes; Junior Walker & the All-Stars; The Temptations; The Four Tops; The Miracles; Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; The Jackson 5; and Martha and the Vandellas. Beyond the artists, Motown’s staff songwriting and production teams and in-house musicians contributed immeasurably to the Motown sound.
The idea of a self-contained operation exuding soul from its every pore was all part of Gordy’s grand design. The rags to riches story began in Detroit’s inner city where Gordy, born in 1929 as the son of a plastering contractor, dreamed of making his mark on the world. Stints in the army and as a boxer and record store manager preceded his entree into the creative and entrepreneurial side of the music business. In the mid-1950s, Gordy began writing songs for local R&B acts and quickly acquired a local reputation as a songwriter, producer and hustler. His first break came in 1957, when Brunswick Records bought a song of his called “"Reet Petite"” for Jackie Wilson. In 1959, Gordy ventured into independent production with singer Marv Johnson, enjoying a few modest hits, including “"Come to Me."” In 1960, Gordy leased another hit single, “"Money"” by Barrett Strong, to Anna Records, a label owned by his sister. Then he decided to launch his own company, Tammie Records, which was changed to Tamla and eventually joined by the Gordy, Soul and Motown imprints. All of these labels were overseen from a Detroit house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that Gordy dubbed Hitsville U.S.A.
The first hit of any size for the fledgling company belonged to The Miracles, a vocal group led by Smokey Robinson. “"Way Over There,"” released on Tamla in 1960, sold a respectable sixty thousand copies. Its followup, “"Shop Around,"” reached Number 2 on the pop charts and launched Motown into the national market. Overseeing the whole operation from its founding in 1959 to its sale in 1988 was Berry, who ensured that Motown’s stable of singers, songwriters, producers and musicians took the concept of simple, catchy pop songs to a whole new level of sophistication and, thanks to the music’s roots in gospel and blues, visceral intensity. At Motown, notions of formula were transformed into works of art.
Pioneering journalist Gwen Ifill was born in Queens, New York in 1955. After earning her B.A. degree in Communications from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1977, she was hired by The Boston Herald American in the midst of the city’s notorious busing crisis. After joining the Baltimore Evening Sun, she moved to covering national politics. In 1984, Ifill was hired by The Washington Post; and in 1991, she became the White House correspondent for The New York Times. In 1994, she was named the chief congressional correspondent for NBC, and in 1999, she became the moderator of PBS’ Washington Week in Review, as well as a correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In October of 2004, Ifill became the first African American woman to moderate a vice presidential debate. Her first book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, was published in 2009.
In 2011, Ifill served as the moderator for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. She is the recipient of more than a dozen honorary doctorates and several broadcasting excellence awards, including honors from the National Press Foundation, Ebony magazine, the Radio Television News Directors Association, and American Women in Radio and Television. Ifill also interviewed Diahann Carroll, Quincy Jones, Eartha Kitt and Smokey Robinson for The HistoryMakers annual PBS-TV An Evening With…series.
Ifill passed away in 2016.
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