Esther Gordy Edwards: The Pack Rat Who Preserved Music History
By Sophia Dembling
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, has called his big sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, “bossy” and he knew in 1958 that borrowing money from the family savings club she had established wouldn’t be easy.
“She had power and influence,” Gordy wrote in his autobiography, To Be Loved. “She was a strong businesswoman, and very careful with money. The family depended on Esther to keep these things together.”
Gordy got the fight and the words he’d expected to hear from his sister -- If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? And, she continued, “You’re 29 years old and what have you done so far in your life?” In the end, though, Edwards approved an $800 loan -- provided Gordy sign a contract with future royalties as security.
The rest, of course, is music history -- still preserved in Hitsville U.S.A. in Detroit. The museum founded by Edwards in the modest house where some of the greatest hits of the 1960s were recorded by some of the era’s most iconic acts: the Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and a who’s-who of others.
Edwards discusses how she founded the museum.
Edwards, who died in 2011, worked for Motown and helped guide and nurture the young acts who came to the little house on West Grand Boulevard seeking stardom.
"Poor kids from broken homes would rush here after school and hang out all night," Edwards told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "Between 1959 and 1972, this little house was like home for a lot of kids. Without Motown, most of the talent discovered in this building would have been overlooked by society."
Little Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy of 12 when he arrived at Motown. Edwards mothered him, enrolling him in the Michigan School for the Blind, finding tutors for him, and helping him manage his money.
“I shared with her many of my songs first, before anyone else,” Wonder said in a statement after Edwards' death.
The Temptations, an iconic Motown group, performs their 1965 hit "My Girl."
Over her years with Motown, Edwards, who eventually rose to vice president, got a reputation as a pack rat.
"We used to laugh at Mrs. Edwards because everywhere we went on those tours, she saved everything. She saved all the pictures, all the placards," Smokey Robinson told the Detroit Free Press in 2005.
“She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it,” Gordy said in a statement after her death.
Over the years, Motown expanded to comprise eight buildings on West Grand Boulevard (four of which are still used by the Motown Museum). In 1968, Gordy moved the company headquarters to a Detroit high rise, and in 1972 to Los Angeles.
When her brother took the business to California, Edwards stayed in Detroit and operated a branch office from the original Hitsville building. But her work was frequently interrupted by Motown fans who dropped in for a look at the house where the hits were made. Edwards and her secretary accommodated the visitors with tours, and she even tacked up posters and photos so guests had more to look at than the worn building.
When a cadre of 50 British sailors turned up one day to take a look, the significance of the location -- and all that Motown had accomplished -- really sank in for Edwards.
She founded the museum in 1985, with her memorabilia as the core collection. In 1987, the building was designated a state historic site and in 1995 it was renovated, including the original offices and the upstairs flat, where Gordy and his family lived in the label’s early years.
In this video, Motown stars Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell perform their famous 1967 duet hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
On requisite guided tours of the museum, visitors may see the reception area, where star wannabes waited for their moment with Gordy; the orange couch where Marvin Gaye crashed during all-night recording sessions; the control room, its floors worn through by the restless feet of people sitting at the mixing board; the dining room table where millions of dollars of product were packed and shipped; some of the stars’ “uniforms” as their stage wear was called, posters; gold records; and, the most hallowed ground, Studio A, where Motown magic was made. In 2013, the studio’s original Steinway grand piano was restored courtesy of Sir Paul McCartney.
The Motown museum celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 thanks to the foresight of Esther Gordy Edwards, who, it turns out, was less packrat than preservationist.
Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.