Dear Michael and Caroline,
In May of 1994, 24 years after the talent show, thanks to the kind of serendipity that might happen but once in a lifetime, an incident brought me full circle back to Motown. I was at Ellis Island, in the Great Hall, attending a dinner ceremony for the Ellis Island Medal Of Honor. An organization called the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, or NECO, originally formed to recognize and preserve diversity in America, sponsored the event to pay homage to the immigrant experience. Over the years, NECO had conferred its award on hundreds of Americans, including six U.S. presidents and numerous Pulitzer Prize winners, not to mention Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger and Frank Sinatra.
I was on duty there – in a black tux, no less – as a newly hired vice president of Howard J. Rubenstein Associates, the influential New York public relations firm. My job that night was essentially to escort Norman Brokaw, chairman of the William Morris Agency, a client who happened to be an honoree. Brokaw, who had started his career in the agency’s storied mailroom, wound up representing the likes of Marilyn Monroe, whom he reputedly discovered, as well as Barbara Stanwyck and Clint Eastwood.
I ate dinner in my usual anxious state over the vagaries of client satisfaction. My boss, the formidable public relations impresario Howard Rubenstein himself, was on hand making the rounds. Indeed, Howard kept glancing at a seating chart he clutched in his hand and making a beeline to buttonhole whichever bold-face name occupied a given table. It was as vivid a lesson in the art of high-powered networking as I had ever witnessed.
About halfway through dinner I took the liberty of leaving our table to reacquaint myself with the concept of personal freedom and catch a breather taking a stroll around the premises. I turned a corner to go down a long corridor and there, coming toward me, flanked by associates, was none other than Berry Gordy, Jr. I recognized him right away – the baby face that carried a hint of bulldog pugnacity. Now, I could have done what I often do when encountering the well-known by chance and followed the protocol most New Yorkers follow: acted as if he were in fact as mortal as everyone else and just let him be.
But no, no chance. This was Berry Gordy, Jr., a k a Mr. Motown. Berry Gordy, Jr. had founded Motown Records in 1959. Berry Gordy, Jr. had discovered Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Berry Gordy Jr. had gone on to sign Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and, yes, the mighty Temptations. He was the entrepreneur who had engineered Hitsville, USA, the mastermind behind the music that had kept me high from boyhood on. And now I was in a public place all of 10 feet away from him.
“Hello, Mr. Gordy,” I said with an upbeat lilt, putting my hand out with a smile. “Hello,” he replied, all business, and shook my hand. “You’re responsible for a lot of great music,” I said enthusiastically. “Thank you,” he responded. He, too, now smiled, even bowing his head slightly in courtly acknowledgment and appreciation, almost, I dare say, as if he were hearing such a compliment for the very first time in his life and, accordingly, delighted.
I could have said much more, of course. In fact, you can be sure I wanted to say more. I could have taken another minute to tell Berry Gordy, Jr. about our talent show at Fair Lawn High School back in 1970. And how Larry and Eric and I had, improbably enough, simulated The Temptations performing “Cloud Nine.” And how we had just wanted to be cool, and how I for one had never quite cracked the code for cool. And how it was a peak experience for us, and how we had meant it as a tribute, and how I was supposed to be Eddie Hendricks, by then dead only 18 months, stricken with lung cancer, 30 years of smoking forcing the removal of one of his lungs, that creamy tenor falsetto forever stilled. And how my little solo for some reason drew a big laugh.
I could have told him, too, how deeply I loved the music of Motown, all of it, how much soul music had meant to me and how much it spoke to me and how much I loved to listen to it and, most of all, dance to it, dancing out on our terrace in Forest Hills, Queens and while going up and down the stairwell in our apartment building, getting high on its fumes. I could have told Berry Gordy, Jr. all that.
But somewhere along the line, my infrequently deployed capacity for common sense kicked in, and I thought better of it. I had gotten a privileged opportunity to say my piece and pay my respects to Berry Gordy, Jr., and had therefore alighted briefly on my own version of cloud nine, and realized I should leave it at that. Why push my luck? What I had told him – that he was responsible for a lot of great music — he no doubt already knew. Then again, everything I left unsaid I suspect he somehow already knew, too.
P.S. — Here’s the version of this piece that appeared in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/the-motown-sound-revisited-my-five-minutes-as-a-temptation/266328/