Berry Gordy Master of Transforming Obstacles into Opportunities Receives the Prestigious 2013 Marian Anderson Award

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

Philadelphia's Kimmel Center was full of the who's who of society yesterday (November 19) as they turned out to celebrate the lifetime achievement of recording mogul and Motown founder, Berry Gordy. 
It was hard to say who the crowd was more excited about:  Berry Gordy, hitmaker extraordinaire, or the fact that his lifelong friend, Smokey Robinson was also going to be in attendance.  Either way, the turn out was tremendous.  

Berry Gordy has been legendary in his recognition and nurturing of  raw Black talent, many of whom have become household names, including:  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross, the Supremes, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Rick James, Stevie Wonder, among so many others.  He started out as a song writer, having collaborated successfully with Jackie Wilson (Lonely Tear Drops, To Be Loved), among other greats songs.  He established Motown in 1959, with the help of his sister.   It was the beginning a lifelong collaboration with then 16 year old Smokey Robinson.   Most of the aforementioned artists who would have never had a chance in the mainstream realm,  found the nurturing, mentoring and management style of Gordy to be the foundation that launched their careers.

In his acceptance speech, Gordy mentioned the principle of "overcoming obstacles" as what drove him  on, regardless of what was thrown in his way.  He stated he had grown up hearing about Marian Anderson, who was a legend in his family because of her many  accomplishments. "I viewed Ms. Anderson as the activist of my time because she overcame racial barriers during a time when things were so much more different." 

But he also said that his dream to do something great actually began as a child, when, at the age of eight, Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmelling, the the German heavyweight champion, symbolizing a blow for American democracy against Nazi imperialism.  "When Joe Louis fought, it was always a holiday for Black people back then.  When he knocked out Schmelling, the whole world called Joe Louis a hero, a champion.  I wanted to be viewed as a champion like my hero, Joe Louis."  And that's what he did, only in a different genre - the realm of music and entertainement.

He also attributed his vision of Motown to having worked at the Ford Motor Company.  He found the working on the assembly line a metaphor for what needed to happen to produce stars.  They come in like the car as raw metal, they go through different levels of transformation, including the design of the body, the engine type, the outer appearance, and when they emerge they are a beautiful car that everybody wants.  Gordy saw that in terms of the raw talent who came to Motown:  They were raw talent when they arrived, but were taught poise, how to dress, how to interact with the public, choreography, style, voice and diction; when they came out the other side, they were superstars - just like the assembly line.  The formula worked and took many a wannabe, mediocre talent from the sideline to stardom.

Berry Gordy Black in the day

He spoke humbly of how the board, as they called themselves, would meet, listen to a song or an idea; decide how to utilize it, showcase it; what the talent needed to become successful.  They worked as a unit.  They looked at the talent, the music, and everything wholistically.  This was not just a piece of talent, this was a whole person who had much to bring to the table, and whose very life was now about to be changed - they were all in it together.  Where others might have been discouraged, or turned away, Berry Gordy would take the leap of faith, make the investment, bring in the experts, and make magic. 
Berry Gordy With Diana Ross at the NY Premiere of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
He acknowledged that he and Diana Ross had a romance, but his lifelong friendship with Smokey Robinson was what could be considered a  straight "bro-mance;" and that both had very special places and meanings in his life.

Smokey Robinson, Gordy's lifelong friend, complimented him, prior to his acceptance speech, and cited his determination to overcome obstacles.  They met when Smokey, aged 16, was trying to pitch some of his "songs" to a local recording company in Detroit.  He sang a couple of them, but was given the boot.  Gordy, who was working with Jackie Wilson at the time, happened to have been there, and asked Smokey if he had any other songs.  Robinson had a looseleaf notebook with over 100 songs.  He stated that Gordy listened to every one of them patiently, and gave him constructive criticism for each one.  "He did not rush me, or ridicule me; he was very open.  He taught me how to write songs so that they had meaning.  I had so many songs that had two or three songs wrapped into one," the famous artist shared.  "This is a friendship of a lifetime.  I will admit to everyone that I love Berry Gordy - not in a gay way, but as a brother, mentor, and the best friend I ever had." He went on to state, "Berry is a champion when it comes to overcoming obstacles.  There is nothing that he will not take on, if he sees it as opportunity for something greater."  He further affirmed that for Berry, the bigger the obstacle, the more he welcomed the challenge to use his own creative - and often unorthodox - to tackle it. No was never an option; it was another opportunity forge a new path.  And that path has led to some of the most successful talents ever.

Smokey wrote a personal song for Berry that left the audience speechless, ending with how much he loved Berry for having been there for him for over fifty years, and how he considered him the best friend he ever had - for life.  Of course the audience melted.    

Marking the 15th anniversary of the Marian Anderson Award, former Pennsylvania state governor Ed Rendell was honored as its founder and for his impact on the arts in Philadelphia, followed by a special performance by Tony Award nominee Brandon Victor Dixon, who stars as Gordy himself in “Motown The Musical.”

Keeping everything running smoothly was comedian, actor, philanthropist, Chris Tucker, who kept the audience in stitches with his zany adaptations of Motown hits:  Money:   "The best thing in life is free, But that don't mean a thing to me; I want my money - that's what I want."

Comedian/Actor Chris Tucker
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, of the famed Gamble and Huff writing and production team, and the very underpinning of the Philly Sound, likewise congratulated Gordy on his accomplishments.  They spoke of the many times they had collaborated on work between Detroit and Philly, sharing each other's catalogues.  

Gordy later also affirmed that when he could not get acknowledged in Detroit, he came to Philadelphia and brought his music to WDAS-FM.  He was then doing his own promotions.  The DJ was on the air, and had Gordy wait outside while he previewed the record, while playing another hit of the day.  After previewing it, he got on the mike and told his listening audience that he had something great he knew they were going to love, and proceeded to play the first record by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  In overcoming obstacles, per Gordy, you have to be willing to travel outside your comfort zone, around the detours and cut your own path.  He also stated that when Motown was stuck for music for their talent, they would call on Gamble and Huff to see what they had that would work.  (Proving that the rivalry we now see between the various hip hop artists are totally unnecessary).

At 83, looking 60 or younger, Gordy also showed he could still make moves on the dance floor.   He had actually left the stage to return to his seat, when Kool and the Gang began playing their closing number. He jumped back onto the stage and began dancing like he was 25 years old.  Had some great moves too!! Stopped the retreating audience in their tracks as they watched in awe, this great man, whose love of music, talent and creativity, went whole souled back into the genre he loved the most:  Soul Music. 

Congratulations to Berry Gordy for an honor and acknowledgment well deserved. GDW

The Marian Anderson Award was established in 1998 by former Pennsylvania State Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, and has bestowed this award on those who have "used their talents for personal artistic expression, coupled with a deep commitment to the betterment of society.  In addition to Berry Gordy, the previous recipients are:  Harry Belafonte (1998); Gregory Peck (1999); Dame Elizabeth Taylor (2000); Quincy Jones (2001); Danny Glover (2002); Oprah Winfrey (2003); Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis (2005); Sidney Portier (2006); Richard Gere (2007); Maya Angelou and Norman Lear (2008);  Bill Cosby (2010); Mia Farrow (2011); and James Earl Jones (2012) * No awards were given in 2004 or 2009. 

The former recipients each have a major track record in their own right in playing major roles in mentoring and facilitating the underwriting of countless struggling youth, and programs designed to help youth realize their dreams of using their talent and creativity.  Over the past fifteen years the Marian Anderson Awards have provided more than $560,000 in support for free public programs, commissions and grants through the awards gala.  The program administers the Young Artist Study-Grant program, which benefits financially-challenged high school aged performing and visual artists from Philadelphia and the region.  Anderson was considered  an important personality to reckon with, due to her continuous support in the struggle for Black artists, to overcome racial prejudices in U.S. "Her life is a classic example for artists, who give up after meeting a few hardships in life, to get motivated and walk towards the path of success."  

The Marian Anderson Award also celebrated the inauguration of a new chair, Nina Tinari, who will be taking the organization forward, as Pamela Browner White, who chaired the organization for twelve years, steps down. 

For those of you who may have heard the name, but are not familiar with who Marian Anderson was, or why she's so significant, and why the particular individuals selected exemplify her spirit and energy, let me give you a brief biographical profile:


I will begin by saying that when I was in elementary school in Oklahoma City, we were taught about Marian Anderson, and were encouraged to sing like her.  She was the first Black woman to sing the National Anthem at a Presidential Inauguration.  Something that, Black in the day, was totally unheard of in uber-segregated Washington, DC. 

She was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA to poor but well educated parents.  Her musical talent became evident in childhood.  She taught herself to play the family piano as a child and got odd jobs, so that she could buy herself a violin. At age 6, Marian joined the choir at the Union Baptist Church, and at the age of 8 she gave her first solo performance. As a teen,  musical talent gave her opportunity to sing in assemblies and other school functions;  and her mother was encouraged by none other than the great singer Roland Hayes to get herformal training.   However, the segregated schools in the Philadelphia area would not admit her.  She eventually studied under Italian great Guiseppe Boghetti, who encouraged her to study in Europe.  For those of you who have never heard her, Ms. Anderson had a rich contralto voice that sent chills down your spine.

Sol Hurok, a great musician and producer, was impressed by her performance in Paris, and invited Marian on a U.S. singing tour. . Marian appeared for the 2nd time in New York’s town house on 20th of December, 1935, and because of the overwhelming success, was booked for 2 yrs in advance and her concerts were sold out across the States. In 1936, Marian became the first African American to perform at the White House, due to the enthusiasm of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In the year 1939, however, when Hurok tried to book a concert at Washington D.C Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who turned it down by the sisters because of their racist attitudes towards Marian.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, along with Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people and Sol Hurok arranged for a concert on the steps of Lincoln memorial,  on April 9, 1939.  More than 75,000 people came, and it was a sensational hit with more than a million national radio audiences. 
Marian Anderson Singing at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939
On 7th January 1955, she became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1957, she performed for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration; she later toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress representing her country. On 20th January, 1961 she performed for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and the next year in 1962 she performed for President Kennedy and the other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. The same year she even represented her country in Australia. In April 1965, on an Easter Sunday, Marian Anderson gave her final concert at the Carnegie Hall, followed by a yearlong farewell tour.  A commemorative stamp has been issued in her honor:
Most don't realize that Ms. Anderson had a very successful and long lasting marriage, though it came late in her life.   On July 17, 1943 Marian Anderson she married  Orpheus H. Fisher, also known as the ‘King’ to become his second wife. The two got married in Bethel, Connecticut. By this marriage she had a stepson, James Fisher. In 1986, Anderson's husband, Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of marriage.  Ms. Anderson lived to the age of 96, and passed at the home of her nephew in Oregon.  Her legacy is unimpeachable.

Those who are interested in contributing to the Marian Anderson Award organization, may do so by  logging on to www.marianandersonaward.com for further information.  

Stay Blessed & 
Gloria Dulan-Wilson


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