Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

A touch of Motown in Obama

BY ROCHELLE RILEY • FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

• January 22, 2009

Berry Gordy Jr. has dreams for President Barack Obama.

The legendary musician and producer’s great hope is that the
president can do for America and its politics what he did for America
and its music 50 years ago.

The Motown founder who launched the
careers of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the
Jackson 5 and the
Temptations, among others, said his goal in creating the Sound of Young
America was to cross racial, geographic and cultural lines, and to link
people through song.

"Motown music has always been for
everybody," he said in an interview just before Obama was sworn in
Tuesday. He sat directly in front of the inaugural dais with his
grandchildren, Autumn and Jermaine, Smokey Robinson and friends from
Detroit.

Gordy, ever the savant, looked ahead for the president.

"It’s
like when you look here today," he said. "This is the most wonderful
thing in history today. It’s about all the people having the hope, all
of the people having the love, all of the people enjoying the feeling.
And that is what Motown music was all about."

Something for everybody

As Motown celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Gordy, like others, mentally revisits his work and his legacy.

"I
grew up and I had gospel in my soul," he said. "I had the Detroit
symphony there, my uncle played classical music. And I loved that. I
loved all kinds of music, so Motown music was everything. … It was
music for everybody. It wasn’t just for black people. It was black,
white, the cops and the robbers.

"It was for the black and the white, and the Jews and the Gentiles and the Hispanics," he said.

The great uniter

If Gordy can find in Motown music a metaphoric parallel for the Obama campaign, then perhaps America can, too.

If
there is any music that united America in the past century, it was
Motown music, which became a global language. People sing "My Girl" in
Amsterdam.
Michael Jackson ruled Japan.

And I’d like to meet the
baby boomer who doesn’t believe Motown music "has a good beat and you
can dance to it" as the old "American Bandstand" show described most of
Gordy’s hits.

Gordy, whether it was his plan or not, helped put
Detroit on the map with more than cars. Fifty years after Motown was
founded and in the first days since an African American was sworn in as
president, the question isn’t whether we begin to speak Obama. The
question is: Can Obama create a political language all Americans can
speak?

Can Obama create an America that is more Motown than Splitsville?

"I
coined my company Motown because I wanted it to have the warmth of
Detroit," Gordy said, "Because in Detroit, in those days, it was like
no one could ever starve. People would always give them food or do
something for them."

That sounds like an America of hope, an America where everyone can speak one language, even if in different tones.

Contact ROCHELLE RILEY at rriley99@freepress.com.

Detroit Free Press

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