ESTHER GORDY EDWARDS
The Mother of Motown
She has been called the "Mother of Motown." You may know of her brother, Barry Gordy, Jr., the founder of the Motown sound - the sounds of the Sixties and Seventies that we all danced to and sung, sometimes like no one else was watching or listening. Esther Gordy Edwards, a native of Washington County, Georgia, was the behind-the-scenes driving force behind one of the most successful record companies in history and a mother and mentor to several iconic American musical legends. She died this past summer at the age of ninety-one. This is her story.
Esther Gordy Edwards was born on the 25th day of April in the year 1920. Her parents Berry Gordy, Sr. and Bertha Fuller Gordy lived in Oconee, Georgia in southwestern Washington County. Esther, the couple's second child and eldest daughter, left home with her family when she about two years old. Their destination, Detroit, Michigan, was a place where good paying jobs could be found as the southern cotton crop was baking in the dry fields or being devoured by the pesky boll weevil.
Esther attended Detroit's prestigious Cass Technical High School, which boasts scores of successful graduates including Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, and Della Reese. Esther continued her education at Wayne State and Howard University. Along with two of her brothers, Esther Gordy founded the Gordy Printing Company in 1947.
In 1951 at the age of thirty-one, Miss Gordy married George Edwards. Edwards served as a Michigan state representative.
The Gordy siblings designed a way to make things easier for the family when one sibling needed help. They formed a cooperative of sorts. Each sibling would periodically deposit a small sum into a family savings account. All siblings were required to approve loans to the others.
Berry Gordy, Jr. had a dream. He wanted to start a record company. He asked his brothers and sisters for the $800.00 he needed to buy a house and open a studio. Esther initially said no to the request. She finally agreed.
"I knew right then, if I ever made money, she would be the one I'd get to watch it for me," Gordy later wrote. So, the enterprising entrepreneur asked Esther to help him with the company, which he named, Motown.
As the company's comptroller, it was Esther's job to manage the business affairs of the burgeoning company. It wasn't long before her role in the company expanded. Mrs. Edwards developed close personal relationships with many of the singers. Her personal skills and business savvy were critical to the successes of many of Motown's most successful and popular recording artists.
Esther Gordy Edwards did more than watch his money. When the artists went out on the road or had difficulty in dealing with their new found and meteoric fame, Esther was there by their sides to lend an ear and give wise and trusted advice. She mothered and mentored singers and musicians and hired people who helped polish and develop their talents
Edwards took a personal role as a advisor of the Marvellettes, whose first song, Please Mr. Postman, rocketed to the top of the Hot 100 and R&B charts. Perhaps her most famous pupil and ward was a young teenager, Stevland Judkins, who over the last four decades became an American musical legend under his stage name, Stevie Wonder. Wonder, in a statement issued after her death, said, "She believed in me - when I was 14 years old and many other people didn't or could only see what they could at the time, she championed me being in Motown. I shared with her many of my songs first before anyone else."
Esther Edwards' business activities extended beyond the music business. She served on the board of directors of the Detroit Bank of the Commonwealth and was the first woman chosen to serve on the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce.
Esther remained in the forefront of the management of Motown as the company's corporate secretary, director of international operations, vice-president and chief executive officer until 1972, when she was replaced by singing legend, Smokey Robinson. When her brother and the business moved its headquarters to Los Angeles, Esther Edwards remained in Detroit. Eventually she turned the original studio building into Hitsville, USA, a museum to honor the lasting contribution of the studio, its founder, and its artists to American musical history.
Esther Edwards, a persistent conservator of Motown memorabilia, began preserving pieces of the company's rich heritage. "She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it," Berry Gordy said. He sung her praises by turning the "trash" they left behind when the company moved west into a lasting reminder of the company's rich musical heritage.
Esther Gordy Edwards passed away on August 24, 2011 in the presence of her family. In speaking of her life, her brother Berry said, "Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards, professionalism, and an attention to detail that was legendary. He praised his sister for not being concerned with being popular, but being dedicated to making everyone in the Gordy family and Motown better.
So now you know a little bit about the story which proves the old adage "that behind every successful man is a wise woman. That old saying has never been more true than the story of Esther Gordy Edwards, the little girl from Washington County, who grew up to be a mentor in the history of American music.