Berry Gordy to Speak at Commencement

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records and of a school of music that crossed racial divides and helped transform American popular tastes, will be the featured commencement speaker at Occidental College’s May 20 graduation ceremony.

A great-grandson of slaves who became one of America’s most successful business executives, Gordy will be presented with an honorary degree at the 10 a.m. ceremony in the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater on the Occidental campus.

Starting with an $800 loan from family members in the late 1950s, Gordy transformed a small two-story house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, a city far removed from the twin centers of American popular culture – New York and Los Angeles – into "Hitsville USA," home to one of the most successful music labels ever.

Motown launched the careers of many artists who, like Gordy, are now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and many others. Drawing on a remarkable group of songwriters, a superb group of session players, and the polished moves of choreographer Cholly Atkins, Gordy created what scholar Gerald Early has called "a black public taste that was taken seriously as an expression of a general aesthetic among a broad class of Americans."

Motown’s impact on popular culture – in 1966 alone, 75 percent of its releases hit the national charts – has been the subject of dozens of books and scholarly studies. Gordy’s contributions have been recognized with such awards as the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, Yale University’s Gordon Grand Fellow Award, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and a star on Hollywood’s Hall of Fame.

A nationally recognized, highly selective college of the liberal arts and sciences – one of the few located in a major city – 120-year-old Occidental is at the forefront of interdisciplinary, intercultural education. With 1,800 students drawn from 46 states and 21 countries and a variety of backgrounds, Occidental’s mission is to provide a gifted and diverse group of students with a total educational experience of the highest quality.