Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Esther Gordy Edwards, then the vice president of Motown Records, in her Detroit office with Smokey Robinson in 1967.
Esther Gordy Edwards, then the vice president of Motown Records, in her Detroit office with Smokey Robinson in 1967. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
This has been a sad week for Motown. Nickolas Ashford, who penned some of Motown's greatest hits, died Monday. And now comes the news that Motown has lost its founding mother. Esther Gordy Edwards, sister of Berry Gordy, Motown executive and founder of the Motown Museum, has died at age 91. As historian Mark Ribowsky says, "without her, there'd be no Motown PERIOD."
When we recall the founding of Motown Records it's usually as a typical Horatio Alger story. The story goes like this: poor young upstart Berry Gordy has the idea to take the black music of Detroit's ghetto mainstream. He starts Motown. Add Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson, throw in a Pip here, a Temptation there, sprinkle on a few insanely singable songs, shake vigorously for half a century and then you have the Motown creation myth.
Like most creation myths, it's just that: a myth. Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown in 1959 after taking out an $800 loan (about $6200 today) from his family trust fund. His father was a successful convenience store owner, and ran other businesses including insurance and construction companies. Some humble beginning. And Berry Gordy was far from being a business whiz, he was barely literate and never graduated high school. He leaned on the polish and connections of his sisters Esther, Louyce, Anna and Gwen (Gordy also had three brothers: George, Fuller and Robert).
Mark Ribowsky has written three books on the history of Motown. He says the Gordy sisters "were all very sophisticated women unlike Gordy who himself who was just kind of a bounder and a street hustler and a failure at everything he had done in his life until then." Esther Gordy was "the most polished and sophisticated" sister of an upper class black family.
Beyond her position in the Gordy family, Esther also played a singular role in creating Motown. "Motown wouldn't have gotten off the ground with her," Ribowsky says. While Berry Gordy was in the studio making music, Esther Gordy was in the office keeping the books, running the talent management agency and even fighting the never-ending fight to keep the men away from the women.
Ribowsky says Esther Gordy wanted to make sure the Motown artists had what few black performers had before: dignity. "She wanted to turn these ghetto teenagers into polished young men and women, you know, walk around with a book on their head so to speak," he says. "To teach them poise and sophistication, and hired choreographers to teach them how to dance on stage. And she'd go out on tour and lay the law down about being proper men and women, and not sullying the name of Motown, even though at the time Motown really had no name."
And when Berry Gordy moved Motown to California, his sister stayed behind in her beloved Detroit. She was the founder of the Motown Historical Museum. In a statement released on Thursday her brother said: "Esther turned the so-called trash left behind after I sold the company ... into a phenomenal world-class monument." Gathering Motown memorabilia long before it was historic, Esther Gordy Edwards created an homage to the Motor City and its black residents. Each year thousands of tourists stream into Hitsville USA, the tiny bungalow that shook the music world.
Not a bad legacy for a big sister who was trying to look after her kid brother.