Motown founder Berry Gordy shared his philosophy of life — "my weapons against confusion and despair" — and some of the secrets of his own success as a songwriter, producer, and entrepreneur to a standing-room-only audience at Occidental College’s 125th commencement ceremony on May 20.
In a speech frequently punctuated by laughter and applause, Gordy illustrated each of his points with an example drawn from Motown’s rich history as the independent label that succeeded despite the odds and helped transform popular music in America. As a young man, "My big problem was to get girls," Gordy said in discussing the importance of turning negatives into positives. "I was never as tall as I wanted to be, there was always somebody who looked better than me — there was always some Smokey Robinson-looking-type guy — and the most beautiful girls would never dance with me."
"So I said, ‘What can I do?’ Well, I’m a songwriter, so let me write a song about that. So I wrote a song: "You broke my heart, ‘cause I couldn’t dance/You didn’t even want me around," Gordy continued, breaking into a recitation of the well-known lyrics to "Do You Love Me?" a Top 10 hit for the Contours in 1962.
Gordy’s reference to Robinson, a fellow member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and one of Gordy’s oldest friends, was no accident. Robinson was seated in Occidental’s Remsen Bird Hillside Theater to see Gordy receive an honorary doctor of philosophy degree bestowed by College President Susan Prager. When Prager acknowledged his presence in her introductory remarks, Robinson was forced to stand and acknowledge an ovation from the crowd.
"This honorary doctorate in philosophy is so special to me because as a kid I was always telling my buddies I was a philosopher," Gordy said. "And now, finally, somebody believes me. I am so grateful to Occidental for making it official."
Although Gordy frequently resorted to humor to make his points, he also turned serious, as he did when discussing one of the keys to Motown’s success. "We knew all people were basically the same," he said. "Everybody wants to be happy; everybody wants to be successful … People dwell on the differences, rather than the similarities, and the similarities are so much more powerful than the differences."
Gordy was equally serious in discussing the importance of sticking to one’s principles. "Don’t get caught up in the trap of changing yourself to fit the world — the world has to change to fit you," he advised the 411 members of Occidental’s Class of 2007. "And if you stick to your principles, values, and morals long enough, it will." When England’s BBC radio refused to air Motown releases in the early 1960s, Gordy recalled, the company bought commercial time on pirate radio stations to air some of Motown’s latest releases. The singles were picked up on the continent by Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxembourg, "and finally, the BBC caved in and Motown went international. We stuck to who we were at Motown and the world came around."
Occidental also bestowed honorary degrees on Angelica Salas ’93, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s most gifted organizers; Ted Mitchell, president emeritus of Occidental and currently president and CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund; and David Axeen, professor of American studies and former dean who is retiring after serving Occidental for 38 years.