A Motown 60 Special – Fuller and Iris Gordy:  Motown Records’ duo of distinction

By Donald James, Special to the Chronicle

Fuller Gordy

Fuller B. Gordy was Motown Records’ vice president of corporate affairs, who was instrumental in shaping the legendary company’s administrative and organizational policies, philanthropic ventures and community endeavors of empowerment, first in Detroit and later in Los Angeles.  He was the oldest of seven Gordy siblings, which included Motown founder Berry Gordy.

“Laid-back, yet detail-oriented and methodical, he had just the right personality and skills to handle the demands of being in charge of personnel, purchasing and company policy maintenance,” Berry Gordy wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Berry Gordy To be Loved – The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.”

Iris Gordy, Fuller’s daughter, was one of Motown Records’ power executives who launched and guided the music careers of many Motown artists, including Rick James, Teena Marie, DeBarge, and Tata Vega.  She also produced or executively produced music for these artists, as well as The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye, among others.

One of Iris Gordy’s many big successes with Motown was editing and coordinating the soundtrack album – with Suzanne de Passe – for the film “Lady Sings the Blues.”  The film, starring Diana Ross making her acting debut, opened nationwide in October of 1972.  The soundtrack was No. 1 on Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart, and No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard R&B Albums Chart.

Iris Gordy on the right with Mary Wilson of The Supremes

Together, yet functioning on independent levels of responsibilities, Fuller and Iris Gordy formed a one-two punch that was critical in helping Motown Records become a global music powerhouse.

While making and selling great music was Motown’ number one objective, Fuller understood the dynamics and importance of community empowerment and civic connectivity.  In the early 1970s, Fuller became a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the entity responsible for choosing celebrities and granting them respective stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Fuller is believed to be among the first, if not the first African American to sit on this prestigious organization’s board.  He pushed for and succeeded in opening doors for more African American entertainers to be recognized with stars on the Walk of Fame.

Iris, who graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, began her professional journey at Motown working in the label’s Quality Control department in the Motor City.  This unit determined whether an artist’s song was worthy to be recorded and released.  She held a similar position with Motown in Los Angeles, before being elevated to vice president of the Creative Division.

Whatever positions Iris held in the Motown hierarchy, she had a way of getting the most from the artists with whom she worked.  Yet, working with Rick James wasn’t easy for anyone at Motown, as the reigning “King of Punk Funk” was often belligerent and didn’t mind cussing out company professionals.

Iris, however was successful in bringing James to the table of cooperation, especially after suggesting he produce himself. James accepted Iris’ terms, but only if she agreed to work with him on his debut album for Motown, which ultimately included the hit singles “You and I” and “Mary Jane.”

The two, according to Iris, worked amazingly well together.  James was really excited about the music.  One day he walked into Iris’ office to let her hear what he had been working on based on her input.

“Rick had captured what I had heard in my head.  I wanted to get up and dance,” Iris recalled.   “I will never forget how he leaned over my desk, with his face close to mind and yelled, ‘Iris, we are a team, baby!  And you are the captain.”

Since the sale of Motown Records in the mid-1990s, Iris has remained busy in the music industry.  She serves as a board trustee of The Motown Museum; a board member and grants manager of The Rhythm and Blues Foundation; a charter board member of Make Music Los Angeles; and an advisory board member of Los Angeles Women in Music.

Iris credits her father with significantly impacting her life, both professionally and personally.

“I learned from my father what it meant to be a humanitarian,” said Iris, who still resides in Southern California.  “He was a very kind man, who followed the Golden Rule. He made sure that Motown Records, as a business, was supportive of helping children and others in the community.  He was always doing something to help people.”

left to right Karla Gordy Bristol, Berry Gordy, Iris Gordy

After Fuller Gordy died on November 9, 1991, Iris and her daughter, Karla Gordy Bristol, CEO of Bristol Entertainment, created a major event that not only celebrated Fuller Gordy’s legacy with Motown, but also lauded him as a pioneering professional bowler.  Fuller earned the nickname “Mr. 700” because of his uncanny consistency in bowling 700 or better in three-game sets.  More than five decades ago, while living in Detroit, Fuller became the first African American professional bowler to be inducted into the Professional Bowlers Association.

Iris and her daughter named the event Friends of Fuller Gordy STRIKEFEST! an annual celebratory experience held in Los Angeles each November for the last 11 years.  According to Iris, the event is a fun-filled, bowling, dining and entertainment extravaganza that reunites Motown alumni, family, friends and fans.  The event helps raise funds for selected charities.

Iris Gordy

This year, for the first time ever, STRIKEFEST! will be held in metropolitan Detroit on Friday, September 20 (6:30 p.m.) at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park.  STRIKEFEST will be presented in conjunction with other activities and programs held throughout the weekend to celebrate Motown 60, courtesy of the Motown Museum.

For more information about Friends of Fuller Gordy STRIKEFEST! log on to www.friendsoffuller.org.  To see the entire schedule of events for Motown 60’s weekend of celebration (Friday, Sept. 20 thru Monday, Sept. 23), log on to www.motownmuseum.org.

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