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Berry Gordy Jr., Motown and American culture

 

The Supremes were Berry Gordy Jr.’s most visible sign of success – financially and culturally.

The Supremes were Berry Gordy Jr.’s most visible sign of success – financially and culturally.

By Mark C. Peyko

“Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century,” published in 1999, had one big sin of omission: no Berry Gordy, Jr. Yet you cannot credibly discuss the late 20th century without mentioning Motown. Oprah Winfrey has credited seeing the Supremes on network TV as an affirmation of what was possible. And this was decades before last November’s Presidential election.

I’ve always admired Motown as a business model. The lessons learned from an independent, black-owned record label founded in the early years of the Civil Rights movement are endless. Work hard, overcome obstacles, compete. Achieve, outdo the competition, excel.

Even though Motown was for everyone – what the company represented to black America often differed from how it was perceived by whites. Mary Wilson once said that although everyone loved the Supremes in concert, it was the black women who recognized her and stopped her in airports and other public places.

Despite criticism over hat-and-cane routines, club dates at the Copa, and the relentless pursuit of upward mobility, Motown successfully overcame numerous obstacles to bring its acts into the mainstream of America.

Motown made black America visible and Berry Gordy, Jr. forever changed American culture. “Come See About Me” was more than a song title. It appeared to be a company directive.

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