I wrote four obituaries this week. That’s quite a lot by normal standards. And what struck me as each one of these deaths was announced was how much each person had done for music and the music industry. In the space of three days four pretty amazing people died. Among them two iconic songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford, and artist manager Frank DiLeo, who saw Michael Jackson through arguably his most successful period.
However, it was former Motown executive Esther Gordy Edwards who particularly caught my attention. As I read about everything she’d achieved in her life, it quickly became apparent that I would only be able to fit a fraction of it all into her obituary. She’d set up a number of businesses and worked with various charities. She’d even set up a charitable foundation in her late sister Loucye’s name in the 1960s which continues to provide scholarships for underprivileged inner city students to this day.
But on top of that, she’d been instrumental in making Motown Records the globally recognised business it became and remains, whilst also acting as a mentor to many of the company’s artists, including a young Stevie Wonder, in its early days.
This seems to have happened almost by accident. She was running a family bank in the late 50s. Each member of the large Gordy family paid in $10 a month to the bank, and the money was used to provide loans back to family members when they were needed. That’s quite an amazing thing in itself, and in 1959 one of the Gordys who came forward asking for financial help was her younger brother, Berry Gordy Jr. He wanted $800 to set up a record label.
As well as lending him the money, she came on board and eventually became the company’s CEO. She only resigned the position in 1972 when the company moved to LA and she decided to stay back in Detroit, where she had grown up.
In 1985, she set up a Motown Historical Museum, preserving the company’s original HQ, along with the studio where many of Motown’s early hits were recorded, and the huge amount of memorabilia she had collected over the years.
But still, Motown is only part of her life. A big part, but not the only significant thing she ever did. Not by a long way. Looking through her 91 year life, you wonder when she ever got time to sit down and take stock of it all. It’s inspiring and slightly scary. Though the one overriding theme seems to be that everything she ever did benefitted Detroit in some way, a city she lived in for nearly 90 years. And a city she must have seen visibly fall apart in that time, but it was a city she stuck by nonetheless until the end.
Originally written for CMU.