Motown's Gordy On Michael Jackson

Berry Gordy Jr. already had stars like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross under contract to the Motown label when he signed the Jackson 5 a little over 40 years ago. But of all those huge names, there was one that he was proud to call protege. Scott Simon speaks with Gordy about Michael Jackson.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Berry Gordy, Jr. already had stars that included Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross under contract to the Motown label when he signed the Jackson 5, a group out of Gary, Indiana a little over 40 years ago. Of all those enormous names, there was one that he was especially proud to call protégé: Michael Jackson.

Berry Gordy now joins us from Los Angeles. Mr. Gordy, thanks for making time for us, what I know are difficult days for you.

Mr. BERRY GORDY, JR. (Record Producer): Oh, it's my pleasure, and it is difficult days for me, for sure.

SIMON: So what did you see in young Michael Jackson?

Mr. GORDY: Everything. That's the simple answer. When he auditioned for me that morning, he was forced on me by my assistant (unintelligible) because I did not want a kids group, because I had been with Stevie Wonder with his entourage and teachers and tutors and all that, and when she brought them to me, I didn't want to see them. But once I saw them, I rushed out with my video camera to start taping them because I knew that they were something so special, mainly because of the lead singer, nine-year-old Michael Jackson. And it was just so obvious to me that he was a star.

SIMON: Mr. Gordy, it was said so often over the years that he was like a son to you. Was that just a cliché?

Mr. GORDY: No, not at all, because you know, I moved them out from Gary, Indiana to California and they ended up living with me, where we could really work night and day on their first four songs. And they were the first group in history at the time, I believe, to have their first four songs go to number one. And so it was easy sailing with them from that standpoint because the talent was there. The discipline was there. And all we had to do was just give them the right material and production and the promotion.

SIMON: I want to raise this very carefully. Well, before you got to him, did he have an unhappy, tough childhood?

Mr. GORDY: I had heard that, but I don't - I didn't see any signs of it, frankly. You know, I was - in fact, I was quite happy and appreciative that they came to us very disciplined from - I mean that their parents - and so I commented and - complimented them many times on that. We had a lot of fun with them and we played baseball games every week, the Jacksons versus the Gordys. And I saw no scars of any kind of necessarily mistreatment.

And when you say that Michael had no childhood, if he didn't have a kid's life it was because of his determination and his talent and his desire to become the king of pop, and perhaps ending up being the greatest entertainer of our time.

SIMON: What do you make of some of the behavior in his later years?

Mr. GORDY: I think the behavior was kind of weird to me, you know? His behavior was weird, but when you get an artist and a genius, many of the geniuses throughout our whole history were weird. And they did weird things because none of us could understand what was on their mind and why they did what they did.

SIMON: Uh-huh. Forgive me, is this like losing a son?

Mr. GORDY: Yes and no. It's like losing a son because I loved Michael and Michael loved me. But you know, as when people grow up and they make their own decisions and they move forward, there's a distance, and I think that Michael in some cases might have gone too far with some of the things he was doing.

It's hard for all artists. It's not just Michael, but any artist, or anyone who makes fame and fortune. You read about it every day. And that's why they have runners(ph), people that tell them what to do, business managers, lawyers, these - if they get the right ones, they're lucky, and if they get the wrong ones, they're unlucky.

SIMON: Yeah. People will be listening to Michael Jackson forever, I guess.

Mr. GORDY: Of course, of course. You know, his passing, as tragic as it is, has brought all of this outpouring of love and appreciation and recognition, and I think his influence on future generations is going to be enormous.

SIMON: Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GORDY: Okay. My pleasure.

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