By Donald James
On Sunday, Sept. 22, the music, artistry, magic and legacy of Motown Records were celebrated with a star–studded awards program. It’s been 60 years in the making, and the man himself, Berry Gordy, founder and chief architect of Motown Records received special honors for his role as a visionary who ushered in a new era of music and brought the renowned Motown Sound to audiences around the world.
Held at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, a venue less than four miles from Motown Records’ former corporate headquarters and recording studios (now the Motown Museum), the Motown 60 celebration attracted thousands of people who were impacted in some way by the music or the man himself. The audience was comprised of fans, entertainers, and representatives from civic, community, corporate, philanthropic, political, faith-based and educational sectors across the city and country.
As to be expected, Motown music and performances dominated the event. Actor Hill Harper served as master of ceremonies for the celebration, which was billed “Hitsville Honors.” The night kicked off with an electrifying rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” performed by Detroit R&B singers Kem and Beth Griffith Manley. After that a barrage of Motown hits ensued. The songs were performed by the respective Motown artists who recorded them, including “Martha Reeves and The Vandellas,” “The Velvelettes,” “The Four Tops,” “The Temptations,” and Ne-Yo. While not signed as a Motown artist, Detroit’s rapper and hip-hop star Big Sean also performed, among others.
Harper thrilled the audience when he brought The Temptations’ Otis Williams to center stage before Williams and his iconic group performed. Williams is the last surviving member from the original group which formed in 1961.
“Tonight means something very special to me,” said Williams. “It means being a part of something that no doubt will outlive us all. But we didn’t know that in the beginning when we first started and signed with Motown in ’61. And, here we are, back in the great city of Detroit celebrating Motown 60 and Berry Gordy. It’s very special.”
In addition to all of the performances, numerous awards and honors were bestowed. Award recipients included Paul Riser Sr. (legendary Motown arranger and musician), who received the Motown 60 Hitsville Honor; Shelly Berger (longtime manager of The Temptations) received a Hitsville Honor; Suzanne de Passe (former Motown executive instrumental in the rise of the Jackson 5 with Motown) received the Game Changer Award; and Debra Lee (former chair and CEO of BET Networks) was presented the Esther Gordy Edwards Award of Excellence.
“How honored I am to receive an award named after Esther Gordy Edwards,” said Lee. “If you would have told me when I was a young girl growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, listening to The Supremes and The Temptations that I would be standing here today, not only in the company of such legendary Motown artists and figures, but being awarded among them, I wouldn’t have believed it. Motown shaped my life, especially the women of Motown in how they dressed and how they carried themselves. They were my role models.”
The recipient of the Spirit of Motown Award was Ne-Yo, Motown’s Grammy-winning singer and recording artist, who also serves as the label’s senior vice president of A&R.
“I didn’t write a speech, because I wanted to come up here and speak from the heart,” said Ne-Yo. “But the long and short of it is, without Motown there would be no Ne-Yo. I learned the true definition of what black excellence is about by watching Berry Gordy and Motown. I looked up to all the Motown artists who were here before me.”
Presented by Motown Museum, Sunday’s “Motown Honors” capped a full weekend of tributes and celebrations to honor the storied label and its founding father.
Yet, the crowning moment of the weekend-long celebration was Sunday night at Orchestra Hall, which honored and celebrated Berry Gordy for his 60-year dedication to evolving Motown Records into an iconic hit-making machine that changed the world, one song at a time. Film and television director, Lee Daniels, who created TV’s “Empire” presented Gordy with the Motown Legacy Award.
“It’s so wonderful to be back home to feel the love,” said Gordy, who also announced his retirement at the celebration. “I’m always asked, ‘What does the legacy of Motown mean to me?’ The answer is simple. The Motown legacy remains the music we made for all people that reminds us that we are all the same, and that music has no color. It gives voice to honest feelings and helps us understand each other. And I could not have done all of this alone. I’m indebted to a lot people who helped build the Motown Sound and Legacy. I appreciate and love them all!”
Earlier Sunday, Motown Museum officials and stakeholders broke ground on the W. Grand Blvd. facility’s $50 million, 50,000 square-feet expansion project. Other weekend events that saluted Motown 60 included Friday night’s Friends of Fuller Gordy Strikefest, an extravaganza that drew hundreds of fans and Motown Alumni for a night of bowling, fun and musical entertainment. Strikefest spotlighted the life, Motown career and professional bowling career of the late Fuller Gordy (Mr. 700), the oldest of the Gordy siblings.
In addition, a gospel concert was held Saturday at Detroit World Outreach, which featured performances by gospel stars “Tye Tribbett & G.A.,” Tasha Page-Lockhart, Detroiter Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, and Regina Bell. And on Monday, Motown’s Soul in One Celebrity Golf Classic was held at Tam-O-Shanter Country Club just outside of the city.