Edwards, Esther Gordy 1920(?)–
Esther Gordy Edwards 1920(?)–
Music executive, museum administrator
The sister of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Esther Gordy Edwards held various titles within the Motown organization during her career. In the label’s early years, she was fond of saying, she was Berry Gordy’s “gal Friday,” a versatile multitasker who kept the label running smoothly in many capacities. Later she was the director of the Artists Personal Management Division, helping to develop the careers of such pop music superstars as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. Later still, after she applied her financial expertise to the management of the growing corporation, she assumed the titles of vice president and chief executive officer. No matter what her title, Esther Gordy Edwards remained a vital cog in the machinery of popular music’s most reliable hitmak-ing organization of the 1960s.
Edwards was named after her paternal grandmother, Esther Johnson, a Georgia slave. She was the oldest girl among the eight children born to Berry Gordy Sr. (whose father was also named Berry Gordy) and his wife Bertha, a woman of African-American and Native American descent. Born in Oconee County, Georgia, around 1920, Edwards moved north to Detroit with her family as a child, after the elder Berry Gordy made a large profit on a lumber deal and feared violence from local whites as a result. After the family landed in Detroit, Esther Gordy’s younger brother Berry was born in 1929.
Most of the Gordy children, daughters as well as sons, shared their father’s business sense. Education was valued highly in the family, and Esther attended Detroit’s Wayne State University as well as Howard University in Washington, D.C. Back in Detroit after World War II, she opened a print shop, the Gordy Printing Company, with two of her brothers. Though Berry Gordy, Jr., seemed at this point to be an exception to the family tendency toward industriousness, a hint of things to come was apparent when a radio commercial jingle he composed for the print shop boosted the business substantially.
Esther Gordy Edwards married twice. She had one son, Robert Berry Bullock, by her first husband, and in 1951 she married politician George H. Edwards, later one of the first African-American members of the Michigan State Legislature. In the 1950s she established a family loan fund called the Ber-Berry Co-Op (named for her parents); the idea was that each family member would
Born ca. 1920 in Oconee, GA; divorced first husband; married George H. Edwards (a politician), April 12, 1951; children: Robert Bullock. Education: Attended Howard University, Washington, DC; attended Wayne State University, Detroit. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Gordy Printing Company, Detroit, co-owner and general manager, 1947–59; Motown Records, Detroit, secretary, 1959–1960s, director of Artists Personal Management Division, 1960s, senior vice president and chief executive officer, 1960s–88; Motown Industries, senior vice president, 1973–88; Motown Historical Museum, Detroit, founder, chairman, and chief executive officer, 1985–.
Selected memberships: Bank of the Commonwealth, board of directors, 1972–79; Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, Economic Club of Detroit; African American Heritage Association (founder).
Addresses: Office —Motown Historical Museum, 2648 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, Ml 48208.
contribute ten dollars a month, and the resulting pool would finance new business projects.
One of the first loan applicants was Berry Gordy, Jr., who in 1959 asked for $800 to start what eventually became the Tamla and then the Motown record label. Edwards, who later took such a large role in the company’s operations, was Berry Gordy’s toughest questioner. “I just wanted to know how he intended to pay it back; he didn’t have a job,” Edwards later told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. She didn’t have to wait a long time, for by 1961 the song “Shop Around” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles had reached gold record status with sales of 500,000 copies.
Soon Esther Gordy Edwards was part of the new family business. One of her first jobs was to assist in booking and managing the national and international tours that did much to put Motown on the map, for they featured polished pop production values that put a new face on African-American music for a range of concert-goers. Edwards often found herself in the role of crisis manager, learning the cutthroat businesses of booking and artist management and coping with new problems as they arose. It was Edwards, for example, who worked with the Michigan Department of Labor to waive child labor laws so that a 12-year-old prodigy who went by the name of Stevie Wonder could record and perform.
Edwards played a key role in holding Motown’s mostly youthful group of artists together. “I think that I was probably more strict than I needed to be,” she told the Detroit Free Press in response to a question about whether she represented a mother figure for Motown stars. “I just had a burning desire to protect the artist. These were young people who came from less fortunate families or one-parent families. Motown was a family itself.… I wound up learning a lot about young people.” In the hectic atmosphere of Motown during its 1960s glory days, Edwards became an anchor for the aspiring young artists.
As Motown grew to become the largest seller of 45 rpm records in the music business, Edwards became more and more involved with Motown’s financial operations. Although she rose to the level of vice president and CEO in the Motown hierarchy, Edwards bowed out when the label moved to Los Angeles in 1972 to be closer to the center of action in the entertainment industry. Never interested in pursuing big money, Edwards decided that the ties she had cultivated over the years in Detroit were most important to her, so she continued to manage Motown’s assets and affairs in Detroit, which included several scholarship and foundation operations.
Edwards left her mark on the city of Detroit in other ways that were independent of her activities with Motown. She served on the boards of directors of the Detroit Bank of the Commonwealth and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce in the 1970s, was the prime mover behind many of her husband’s political campaigns, and became involved with numerous nonprofit organizations. Edwards was also instrumental in launching the city’s annual Sterling Ball fundraiser for inner-city children’s organizations, and she chaired a development group that built Trappers Alley (later transformed into Greektown Casino), an innovative set of shops constructed in a loft space in the city’s Greektown neighborhood.
Edwards’s greatest efforts were reserved for Motown and its position in history. When the label departed for Los Angeles, she established her Detroit offices in the label’s former “Hitsville U.S.A.” headquarters, a house on West Grand Boulevard. She carefully maintained the Motown studios in their original condition and worked toward turning the site into a museum. The Motown Historical Museum opened in 1980 and soon began to attract visitors from around the country and from all over the world. “Esther is the pillar,” Detroit disc jockey Wade Briggs (known as Butterball Jr.) told the Detroit Free Press. “She has done more to maintain the legacy of Motown than Berry…. If it wasn’t for her, it’s a story that could be lost.”
George, Nelson, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, St. Martin’s, 1985.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 3, Gale, 2002.
Detroit Free Press, November 2, 1986.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 12, 1998, p. 212K0555.
“Esther Gordy Edwards,” Motown Historical Museum, www.motownmuseum.com, (January 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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