De Passe, Suzanne 1948(?)–
Suzanne de Passe 1948(?)–
Music and television executive
Suzanne de Passe remains remarkably little known in view of her impressive list of accomplishments. As an executive at Motown records during the company’s second set of glory years in the 1970s, de Passe nurtured the careers of some of the greatest entertainers of the modern era, including Michael Jackson and Commodores’s lead vocalist Lionel Richie. As one of Hollywood’s hardest working and most respected independent television producers, she brought to fruition one of most-watched and most artistically acclaimed television miniseries of all time, the eight-hour Western epic Lonesome Dove, broadcast in 1989.
Suzanne Celeste de Passe was born around 1948, to West Indian parents in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Her parents divorced when she was three, but her father, a salesman for the Seagram liquor firm, continued to play a strong role in her life after his remarriage six years later. Ambitious from an early age, de Passe attended a private school (the New Lincoln School) in New York, and set her sights on becoming a writer. Majoring in English, she attended Syracuse University, and then transferred to Manhattan Community College.
She had talents outside of school, though, and these grew so fast that they ultimately took precedence over the completion of her college education. While still in school, she had held down a job at New York’s fashionable Cheetah Disco; there her ear for new music and musicians impressed the management so much that she was hired as talent coordinator, a position that gave her invaluable experience in both mechanics and the artistic side of the music business. From the Cheetah Disco, de Passe moved on to New York’s Howard Stein talent agency, and at a party she met Berry Gordy, who would become her mentor and the most important inspiration behind her own creative career.
Gordy at the time was riding high as the founder and chairman of Motown Records, the pioneering Detroit label that brought black popular music to a level of nationwide success that it had never before achieved. After hiring de Passe in 1968 and bringing her to the company’s new headquarters in Los Angeles, Gordy groomed her in the creative side of the business. Though known as a stern taskmaster, he was patient
At a Glance…
Born 1948 in New York, NY; raised in Harlem neighborhood; of West Indian descent: married actor Paul Le Mat, 1978. Education: Attended Manhattan Community College.
Carreer : Music, television, and film executive. Became assistant to Motown Recordsfounder Berry Gordy, 1968; began to work in talent acquisition for Motown, 1970s; became director of West Coast creative division of Motown, 1970s; became vice president of Motown-Industries, 1970s; became president of Motown Productions, 1981; produced award-winning CBS-TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, 1989; founded de Passe Entertainment 1992.
Addresses: Office —President, De Passe Entertainment, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Ste 640, Los Angeles, CA 90036–3697.
with his new charge. “Gordy let me mess up a lot of things ]and] spend a lot of his money,” de Passe told Forbes magazine.
Not far into her twenties, de Passe worked to develop new talent as the vice president of Motown’s West Coast creative division. One day she encountered a unique act consisting of five singing brothers—the Jackson Five—headed by an incredibly energetic youngster. “I was just knocked out,” de Passe told People. “There was this little guy ]Michael Jackson] attacking some of the most mature R&B material that existed.” De Passe honed her management skills as she supervised the Jackson Five’s music and choreography, and must be given considerable credit for the initial flowering of Michael Jackson’s mercurial career.
The multitalented de Passe put her writing skills to work on another major project for Motown: she was the co-writer for the 1972 Billie Holiday film biography Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. She rose through the ranks at Motown, becoming vice president of Motown’s West Coast division, and then vice president of Motown Industries as a whole. Some of the work was rewarding and glamorous, but some was less so: in the 1970s, one of de Passe’s duties was to act as go-between for Gordy and vocal diva Diana Ross, then a much-publicized show-business pairing. “It was a highly combustible situation,” de Passe recalled in a People interview. Despite the touchiness of the duty, Ross and de Passe became good friends; the singer served as matron of honor at de Passe’s 1978 wedding to actor Paul Le Mat.
Lending her writing and production abilities to two other Motown-generated stage productions, Mahogany and The Wiz, de Passe was rewarded for her ability to realize so many complex projects when she was named president of Motown Productions in 1981. This new division of the company was intended to broaden the music-oriented company’s reach into television and movies. Starting modestly with several television movies, de Passe gained recognition for producing the Motown retrospective Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, the first in an ongoing series of Motown television specials that continued to bring the company revenue through associated music album releases. Even after leaving Motown, de Passe produced specials recognizing the company’s 30- and 40-year landmarks.
In 1989, de Passe raised eyebrows with a daring move: she produced a CBS television network miniseries of Larry McMurtry’s sprawling Western novel, Lonesome Dove. The odds seemed stacked heavily against the series’s success: most observers thought that in those early days of video and cable competition for television, a four-night, eight-hour presentation was doomed to failure. It also seemed that de Passe, an urban-raised woman who had devoted her life to African American culture, might have been an unlikely choice to helm a project steeped in the lore of the old West.
But de Passe had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in manuscript even before it reached publication, and, according to Forbes, “instantly saw in it a modern-day classic.” While other studios held back, discouraged by the book’s length, de Passe had cannily snapped up the television and movie rights to the book for a mere 50,000 in 1985. Her judgment was vindicated when Lonesome Dove won rave reviews, top ratings, and Peabody, Golden Globe, and Emmy awards. The one event that marred de Passe’s triumph was the bankruptcy of a company associated with the making of the film; de Passe’s own fee was among the casualties.
Yet de Passe has been known to sacrifice part of her own pay at times, in order to help bring success to projects she is committed to. There is a streak of creative idealism in de Passe’s character: a writer herself, she has done what it takes to bring projects to completion, even with uncertain financial underpinnings. “In this business, if you believe in something enough, sometimes it requires a gesture to get other people involved,” she told Newsweek.
She founded her own company, de Passe Entertainment, in 1992, but continued a close association with Motown, She produced other successful programs based on McMurtry’s novels, branched out into weekly programming with the ABC network series “Sister, Sister,” and continued to created and produce projects that told parts of the always compelling Motown story. One of these, a two-part 1998 program on the career of the Motown vocal group the Temptations, had a budget of over 16 million.
A true leader, de Passe has been the focus of two studies of her personal management style, conducted by the Harvard Business School. Compared with other influential entertainment-industry figures who find their lives made the stuff of gossip columns, de Passe has gained less recognition and perhaps less remuneration. “I’ve made a lot more money for others than for myself,” she admitted to Newsweek in 1998. “I can’t retire.” American entertainment, however, has been all the richer for her contributions.
Henderson, Ashyia N., and Shirelle Phelps, eds., Who’s Who Among African Americans. 12th ed. Gale, 1999.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book IL Gale, 1996.
Forbes, January 23, 1989, p. 58.
Newsweek, November 2, 1998, p. 48.
People, March 22, 1991, p. 64.
Time, January 30, 1989, p. 51.
—James M. Manheim
de Passe, Suzanne
de Passe, Suzanne
de Passe Productions
As a producer, and a record and film company executive, Suzanne de Passe is recognized as the creative driving force in the Motown industry headed by Berry Gordy. Beginning with Motown's conception in Detroit, Michigan to its present Los Angeles, California location, de Passe diversified as the business grew from music to motion picture and film winning accolades. De Passe eventually went on to form her own company, de Passe Entertainment.
Suzanne Celeste de Passe was born in middle class Harlem, New York in 1948. Her father, a Seagram's executive and mother, a school teacher, divorced three years later. Subsequently Suzanne's father remarried providing an encouraging family atmosphere for his daughter, who dreamed of limousines and modeled original clothes for the Harlem elite. She attended illustrious Manhattan high school, and private, integrated New Lincoln School. With writing ambitions, she went on to Syracuse University in 1964, where she placed more emphasis on social life than on her schooling. When asked to leave, she transferred to Manhattan Community College where she majored in English. Later, de Passe married actor, Paul Le Mat, while continuing to experiment with a varied succession of employment from sales-woman to horse riding instructor. The couple is still married and lives in Los Angles.
Suzanne de Passe's serendipitous beginnings included a flair for recognizing talent which she developed early as a talent coordinator at an up-scale Manhattan club, Chettah Disco. There she auditioned and scheduled performers, developing a keen business sense and invaluable experience. In a similar fashion, Suzanne went on to work for the Howard Stein firm, where she obtained the position of talent coordinator. The Motown sound captured her interest, but her inability to schedule those artists proved frustrating. In an article by Robert DeLeon featured in Jet Magazine she stated, "Cindy Birdsong, former member of the Supremes introduced me to Berry Gordy. His limousine didn't show up to take him for some reason, so I offered him a ride. A friendship blossomed then, and every time he or some other Motown people would come to town, I'd take them around."
The Gordy/de Passe friendship proved to be a fortunate alliance, resulting in a job offer from Gordy in 1968 to join his Motown staff as his creative assistant. There in offices in Gordy's home in Detroit, Michigan she worked first with artist Smokey Robinson. At its peak, the Motown sound climbed the charts featuring all time greats like Diana Ross and the Supremes. Suzanne participated in new developments discoveries, such as the Jackson Five, the Four Seasons, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, and others. Following the company's move to Los Angeles, California, de Passe quickly kept pace with phenomenal growth from then director of the West Coast's creative division to vice-president and later would continue to diversify.
Without a doubt the motion picture industry was another of Gordy's interests and he formed a new division, Motown Productions, to develop more facets of the company. As a newly named President, de Passe shrewdly contracted new talent such as Rick James and Stevie Wonder.
De Passe moved away from the recording side of business and put to use her talent as a writer in 1970 when Diana Ross was featured in a T.V. special, "Diana." Later in 1972, she turned to screen play writing and was quite successful. The critically acclaimed screen play "Lady Sings the Blues", was written by de Passe and Chris Clark, in which Diana Ross played the famous Billie Holliday in the film. This earned Suzanne a prestigious Academy Award nomination. Television proved to be another venue for de Passe's magic touch with the famous NBC special, "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever." "Callie and Son," and "Happy Endings" starring Lindsey Wagner, and John Schneider respectfully were de Passe's productions. De Passe also played a substantial role in the writing and production of other Motown productions, including The Wiz and Mahogany.
In 1988 de Passe left Motown and formed her own company, de Passe Entertainment, four years later. Her genius for choosing talent was particularly demonstrated when she bought the rights for the Lonesome Dove eight hour miniseries and its sequels, which earned her Golden Globe, Emmy, and Peabody awards. De Passe was also responsible for the sitcoms "Sister,Sister," which was scheduled for syndication in late 1998 and "Smart Guy."
Numerous accolades included her in Women of the Year, one of 12, by Ms. magazine in 1972, and the Women in Film Crystal Award in 1988. In 1992 Suzanne was inducted into the Legacy of Women in Film and Television, while the following year the Executive Leadership Council present her with the Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award and the Achievement Award from the Executive Leadership Council. She also joined the Board of Morehouse College as the first woman to serve in their 127 year history. In addition, she remains culturally productive in ballet and opera. Clearly Suzanne de Passe's contributions to the entertainment industry make her a powerful business leader.
Social and Economic Impact
There is no question that the Motown sound of which de Passe was a significant contributor, brought people together, having a particularly beneficial effect on existing race relations. In an article by Phil Gallo in Variety, in early 1998, politician Julian Bond was referenced as saying, "If you can't understand Motown's effect on youth, then you can't understand the United States." As an African American woman, de Passe overcame perceived notions of both gender and race discrimination. Who's Hot featured de Passe's response to questions on her experiences producing the Lonesome Dove series, "I find it ironic, that people have such trouble with a black woman wanting to produce a Western. I don't think Stan Margulies or David Wolper had to answer, 'Why are you two white guys producing Roots?'...I'm not angry about it-it's just a fact."
In an industry generally dominated by European American males, de Passe's talents include powerful leadership, communication, and organizational skills along with a determined commitment to produce continuous high quality entertainment. Having to overcome both racial and gender stereotypes, de Passe has remained positive. "You can bark at the moon or you can get things done," was how she characterized her own working philosophy. Her ability to change and evolve in the industry has been remarkable.
Chronology: Suzanne de Passe
1967: Hired as a talent coordinator.
1968: Became Creative Assistant to President, Motown Productions Los Angeles.
1970: Writer: "Diana" Diana Ross's solo television special.
1972: Co-authored the screenplay "Lady Sings the Blues."
1972: Named one of 12 Women of the Year by Ms. Magazine.
1972: Received Academy Award nomination for "Lady Sings the Blues."
1981: Became president of Motown Productions Los Angeles.
1988: Received the Women in Film Crystal Award.
1992: Became CEO, de Passe Entertainment.
1993: Accepted the Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award.
Despite starting her own company in 1992, de Passe often speaks about the business strategies and principles she learned from Berry Gordy and from working for Motown. In an interview with BET Tonight in early 1998, de Passe discussed these ideas and how they have affected her business style. She says he taught her that "a business based on principles is more important than a business based on revenue." She credits much of her success to her direct and honest business style.
Sources of Information
Contact at: de Passe Productions
5720 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 610
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Bark, Ed. "Schedule gap angers Motown producer" Dallas Morning News, 20 January 1998.
DeLeon, Robert A."Suzanne de Passe: Woman behind Motown Stars" Jet, 12 June 1975.
Gallo, Phil. "Motown 40: The Music is Forever." Variety, 16 February 1998.
"Smokey Robinson and Suzanne de Passe." BET Tonight, 11 February 1998.
Who's Hot. July 1998. Available from http://www.emmys.org.
Who's Who in America Marquis: New York, 1998.
De Passe, Suzanne
De Passe, Suzanne
The entertainment executive Suzanne de Passe grew up in Harlem. She guards her private life carefully, and as a result little is known about her early life and career. De Passe apparently was working as a booking agent at the Cheetah Disco in New York when she met Berry Gordy, then the head of Motown Records. Her strong criticisms of Motown's business operations, delivered directly to Gordy, earned her a position as his creative assistant. Until 1972 she served as road manager, costume designer, and choreographer for the Jackson Five, then Motown's newest sensation. She was also responsible for signing the Commodores, who went on to become one of Motown's most popular singing groups during the 1970s.
In the 1970s de Passe became increasingly involved with Motown's theater, television, and film productions. In 1971 she helped write Diana, the first production by Motown's television and theatrical division. That project was so successful that the next year Gordy named de Passe corporate director of Motown's Creative Production division and vice president of Motown's parent corporation, positions that allowed her to work almost exclusively in television and film. De Passe was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the Motown-produced film Lady Sings the Blues (1972).
In the late 1970s Gordy began to entrust de Passe with the fastest-growing and most profitable divisions of Motown. In 1977 she was promoted to vice president of Motown Industries, another television and film subsidiary, and in 1981 she was named president of Motown Productions. Under de Passe, the budget for the company grew from $12 million in 1980 to $65 million in 1989. She won Emmy Awards for Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1982–1983) and Motown Returns to the Apollo (1984–1985).
By the early 1980s de Passe was considered one of the rising black female Hollywood executives. In 1985 her reputation soared further after she paid $50,000 for the rights to Lonesome Dove, the Larry McMurtry novel about a nineteenth-century cattle drive. The project had been rejected by every major Hollywood studio. De Passe sold the telecast rights for Lonesome Dove to CBS for $16 million, and by 1989 she had produced an eight-hour program that won seven Emmy Awards and drew one of the largest audiences ever for a television miniseries. In 1990 de Passe produced Motown 30: What's Goin' On.
In the early 1990s de Passe started a new company, de Passe Entertainment, and produced the five-hour miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992). During the same period she also served as co-executive producer of the film Class Act. Scoring another hit, she joined with Hallmark Entertainment in 1998 to produce the well-received four-hour miniseries "The Temptations." In 2004 de Passe announced plans for another such effort, to be produced jointly with NBC. Based on Berry Gordy's autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, the docudrama will relate the phenomenon of Motown from the perspective of its founder.
Considered one of the most powerful black female executives in Hollywood, de Passe won a 1989 Essence Award, and was inducted into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame in 1990. That same year, de Passe received a Micheaux Award for her contributions to the entertainment industry.
"Motown Executive Brings Western to TV." Afro-American (February 4, 1989): 3.
Mussari, Mark. Suzanne de Passe: Motown's Boss Lady. Ada, Okla.: Garrett Educational, 1992.
jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005