Berry Gordy, music trailblazer, visits UCLA

UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Berry Gordy, center, poses with students at the
UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Berry Gordy, center, poses with students at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music on March 6. ’These students,’ he said, ’will be the future innovators, artists and executives that will lead us through the 21st century.’
The new UCLA Berry Gordy Music Industry Center brings the music mogul’s commitment to artistic excellence and social justice to campus

Arts + Culture

The new UCLA Berry Gordy Music Industry Center brings the music mogul’s commitment to artistic excellence and social justice to campus

By all’appearances, it was a normal Wednesday in the recording studio at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Students on trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums, along with three vocalists, were laying tracks to a jazz rendition of Jill Scott’s R&B song "The Way." Then a special visitor stepped inside: Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records.

His arrival created a sensation. Trim and dapper in a gray checked blazer and white dress shirt open at the collar, Gordy greeted each student performer, asking questions and sharing stories and jokes. For the students, the opportunity to shake the hand that guided the careers of some of the 20th century’s biggest stars - including Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, the Supremes, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, the Jackson 5, Rick James, Lionel Richie and the Commodores - must have felt like touching gold.

The legendary hitmaker was on campus that day to finalize details surrounding his recent $5 million pledge to the music school, which will establish the UCLA Berry Gordy Music Industry Center. Scheduled to launch this fall, the center will enrich the school’s music industry degree program by enhancing career support for students, supporting research on current music industry trends like AI technology and streaming algorithms, and supporting new courses in songwriting and production, among other initiatives.

Gordy, who will collaborate with the school in guiding these efforts, said that he was driven by the desire help nurture the next generation of talent in a rapidly evolving music industry.

"These students," he said, "will be the future innovators, artists and executives that will lead us through the 21st century."

A collaborative approach to musical success

Leadership in the music industry is something Gordy certainly knows about. Starting out as a songwriter and record store owner, then a producer, he eventually built Motown, a record company and vast musical empire whose success throughout the 1960s and ’70s was nothing short of spectacular - a seemingly unending stream of gold records and unforgettable tunes, with more than 110 of the company’s songs charting in the Billboard Top 10.

Working out of a two-story house in Detroit prophetically called Hitsville, he recruited talented producers, songwriters and musicians and fostered a collaborative, family-like environment. His recording artists had a distinctive sound, look and style, informed by Berry’s sensibilities, by choreographers and even etiquette coaches. Always a mentor, he taught Motown artists and staff what he knew and encouraged musicians and songwriters - even while they collaborated with one another - to compete in producing hits.

Gordy’s guidance

Musical greats Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder on Motown and the new Berry Gordy Music Industry Center at UCLA:

Smokey Robinson: "I’ve always known Berry as generous and gracious. At the start of my career, I benefitted from Berry’s mentorship. He was always a teacher at heart. What I love about this center is that it is guided by his philosophy that truly great music comes from nurturing young talent and getting them to think holistically about their art, and their careers."

Stevie Wonder: "Motown was a family. Berry created something very special and being a part of that was beautiful. I was 11 years old when I joined that family. It lasted a lifetime; it was with me always. I’m so happy that he’s now creating another place for young musicians to grow, experiment and learn."

But Gordy’s vision was about much more than producing records. He believed his artists could do anything and felt the future success of the company was to expand into producing motion pictures and television. In the 1960s, he moved his artists into TV, on programs like "American Bandstand" and the "Ed Sullivan Show," and into clubs like the Copacabana in New York; the Supremes were the first R&B act to play the club.

Expanding to films, his movies include "Mahogany," his directorial debut, and "Lady Sings the Blues," which garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one for Diana Ross in her acting debut with an unforgettable portrayal as Billie Holiday.

The soundtrack of civil rights

In the 1960s, a decade that opened with the awakening of youth leadership in the civil rights movement, including sit-ins and Freedom Rides, the iconic "Motown sound" Gordy created became "the sound of young America," helping to shape the cultural landscape for a generation that would bring down legalized segregation.

But Gordy’s influence on civil rights-related content in the recording industry extended beyond music. He recorded and released "The Great March to Freedom," an album of Martin Luther King Jr.’s early-1960s speeches, which included the "Walk to Freedom" speech in Detroit, and "The Great March on Washington" album, featuring the "I Have a Dream" speech. Gordy donated the proceeds to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In 1967, he created Motown’s Black Forum imprint, dedicated to releasing civil rights-related speeches on vinyl. Its first printing was King’s 1967 sermon "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam," delivered at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, which would later win a Grammy for best spoken word album. Black Forum would go on to release recordings from some of the most influential Black leaders of the day, including writers and poets like Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes and political leaders like Elaine Brown and Stokely Carmichael.

Gordy’s commitment to social justice and raising up the voices of the dispossessed is also a key element of the new UCLA Berry Gordy Music Industry Center, which aims to support UCLA students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and to build bridges to students in primary and secondary schools in underserved areas of Los Angeles to spark interest in music industry careers.

In recognition of his efforts to create a trailblazing "new sound in American music," one that played a huge role in shaping America’s story, President Barack Obama bestowed the National Medal of the Arts on Gordy in 2015.

"The gift to create the UCLA Berry Gordy Music Industry Center fully aligns with the mission statement of the Berry Gordy Foundation for Truth and Justice, which provides for educating and elevating the health, well-being, and civil and religious rights necessary for maintaining and advancing a liberal, free society for all people," said Carol Perrin, Gordy’s CEO and general counsel and a member of its board. "This gift continues Mr. Gordy’s generous history of philanthropic support, which began in the 1960s when Mr. Gordy established his first charitable foundation."

In the UCLA music school’s studio

After talking with the UCLA students, Gordy headed into the control room to observe their session. Listening intently, he rose from his seat to clap along at a moment when he felt the musicians’ rendition of "The Way" was really in the groove.

"It was exciting to see Berry in the control room that day," said Eileen Strempel, inaugural dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, of Gordy’s March 6 visit. "You could feel his presence and see the excitement in the eyes of the students. With his vision, Berry has transformed music and America. It is thrilling to me that our center will proudly bear his name."

The student musicians concluded their session, and Gordy, all smiles, headed back into the studio. He again shook their hands and shared a few notes and words of encouragement. At the students’ insistence, he sat down and played a few bars on the piano.

Then it was time for goodbyes. Halfway out the door, Gordy caught sight of the students posing for a group photo. He made a quick U-turn and raced back into the room, jumping into the picture and striking a jubilant pose, his infectious smile wide and bright.