Mr Motown's mission: to set the record straight

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The Independent Online
BERRY GORDY, whose Motown record label defined black music in the Sixties and transformed pop culture, flew into London last week on a mission to clear his name.

The man who brought the world Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, is keen to "finally set the record straight" about accusations that he became a multi-millionaire by cheating Motown stars out of their money.

For years he has refused to make any public statement on what he describes as the "rumour, gossip and misinformation" that followed the label's rise, even when his success was said to be due to Mafia links.

"There was never any truth to it, but it hurt," said Gordy, who has now set out his own version of events in an autobiography called To Be Loved. The FBI called him into their offices once, he said, but agents said they didn't believe the Mafia stories and asked for an autograph.

People couldn't believe a black man could own and operate one of the most successful independent record companies in the world without being crooked, he said.

"But I had to continue to focus on my dream and my vision and make the artists focus on where their talent lay."

Berry Gordy is 65 but looks younger. He was dressed in a black leather jacket and wore sunglasses when we met, despite the English winter weather outside. He lives in a mansion in Los Angeles protected by bodyguards, and was booked into his London hotel under another name.

But security was not required when the former boxer and car plant worker borrowed $800 (now £506m) from his family to set up his own label in 1959. It was called Motown after his home town, Detroit, known to locals as "Motor City".

Many of his artists came from the ghetto: his marketing brilliance ensured their rise. Part of Motown's triumph was in overcoming the racism that divided the music business in its early days.

"It was very hard for us to get black music heard," he said. "We had to take black faces off some of the early album covers we would send around the South. My brother had made a record under another name, it was a white-sounding record, and when people saw him the record died."

Black America marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King and danced to Motown, but the label's combination of gritty rhythm and blues with instantly hummable melodies smashed colour boundaries. The Motown sound came to define pop music, and Gordy'

s was the acceptable face of black capitalism. By the time he sold the company to MCA for $61m in 1988, its songs were being used to sell jeans across the world.

The golden age of Motown was the mid to late Sixties, when the label regularly lived up to the name "Hitsville" that Gordy had hung over the door of its offices. His high point came in December 1968 when there were five Motown songs in the US Top Ten, including Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through The Grapevine" and Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life".

The songwriting team Holland, Dozier and Holland were the first to leave. In 1968 they accused Gordy of conspiracy and fraud, among other things. He didn't answer then, but will now. "To say I was cheating artists is an absolutely ridiculous statement. It's ironic: the very reason we made it was because I set up my company saying that if I paid everybody they would stampede to my door, and they did. At that time you only usually got paid for your last hit if you had another hit coming."

Motown had always prided itself on being like a family, and like too many families it began to split up. "I was the father of the group. They looked to me for answers and I was not always there." Two departures hit Gordy hardest. Diana Ross was the mother of one of his eight children, and he has described her in the new book as the love of his life. Michael Jackson had been his protege from early days as a child star with the Jackson 5. Both went to other labels.

"I was an entrepreneur," he said. "Entrepreneurs are great for building things, but they're not always great for maintaining a massive company that has grown and grown. It got too big, too important: like a tree with too many branches. Developing one superstar and handling that person is tough enough, but when you have so many coming along - from Smokey, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson to The Temptations, Lionel Ritchie and Stevie Wonder - each of them have their own needs. They become empires unto themselves."

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