A Motown Tribute with Berry Gordy

Darcie Nicole '01
September 9, 2011
Faculty member Larry Watson performs for soul great Berry Gordy on Martha's Vineyard, August 17, 2011.
Harvard law faculty Charles Ogletree, Watson, and Motown exec Suzanne de Passe
Photo by Lolita Parker Jr.
Photo by Lolita Parker Jr.

On Wednesday, August 17, Berklee professor Larry Watson (Ensemble Department) and company embarked on a historic milestone. Every year on Martha's Vineyard, the Harvard Law School Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice offers an esteemed panel of experts in justice, activism, media, politics, and the law. Watson, who is an artist-in-residence at the institute, created a musical segment thematically tied to the focus of the event.

This year, the institute focused on Race and Media in the 21st Century, and honored the iconic founder of Motown Records: Berry Gordy. Gordy was accompanied by Suzanne de Passe, a top Motown creative executive who discovered and developed the Jackson 5 and lent much to the success of Michael Jackson. This was a momentous occasion for Larry Watson personally and professionally—the opportunity to pay tribute to the founder of the label whose music inspired his own creative path. When choosing vocalists and musicians, Watson immediately turned to his students, as well as Berklee faculty and staff, to share in this pivotal exchange. The fact that he was able to bring his prolific Motown expertise in tribute to its founder made the experience very special for all.

The group performed a vibrant set in revue style. From "What's Going On" to "Friendship Train," from "All I Need" to "I Heard It through the Grapevine," the audience was on its feet, giving no fewer than three standing ovations during the 30-minute set. And this was not your average audience: It included journalists Charles Blow from the New York Times and Gwen Ifill from Washington Week; activist/educators Charles Hamilton Houston Jr. and Tim Wise; professors Anita Hill, Charles Ogletree, and Randall Kennedy; plus a plethora of other academics, journalists, politicians, and proponents of civic justice.

And on their feet throughout were Berry Gordy and Suzanne de Passe. When Watson started his special tribute—a photo montage set to his own song "Kings and Queens"—Gordy was visibly moved and shook every one of the performers' hands with meaning as the number closed. 

"It was great to work with Larry Watson and the students for this event. Everyone gave an enthusiastic performance," said Ear Training faculty member Darcel Wilson '86. "At the end of the show, we all had the opportunity to greet Mr. Gordy and Ms. de Passe. Berklee was well represented. It's great to have the students exposed to something like this and to see them perform in professional situations. It was a real-world experience for them. It was great to share with them something as meaningful as this." 

The connection that Watson made for students with the very foundation of the curriculum content was unforgettable. All in that room could sense the students feeling the mentorship of the music and seeing themselves click into the circle of soul. Their spirits were aflame as they gave over these classic songs in their own voices, from their hands, to Gordy himself. Their energy shifted—they felt part of something bigger. There was so much spirit in this musical space. The only word is "awesome."

Voice Department staff accompanist James Auburn Tootle '97 had this to say: "To perform on a stage in front of people with the status of Berry Gordy was a humbling experience, and then to shake the hand of a man who literally helped changed America through music affirmed for me the reasons I keep playing it."

The whole experience felt even more compelling shortly afterward, with the passing of iconic Motown recording artist and songwriter Nick Ashford (of Ashford and Simpson) and Motown Museum founder Esther Gordy (sister to Berry) within days of the event and each other. 

Later in the week, Watson was invited to attend and perform for Ogletree's private in-home gala for president Barack Obama. Gordy, director Spike Lee, and others were in attendance. Ensemble Department faculty member Alonzo Harris accompanied on piano.

Watson's approach epitomizes the very things that Berry Gordy did for his artists: He saw their potential and helped them to hone it through artist development and professional development. He teaches dedication, presence, confidence, and individuality, and provides numerous platforms for students and colleagues to shine. He is a community thinker—and his investment in the next generation of socially responsible and civic-minded musicians, activists, educators, and executives is truly inspiring.

Heard It through the Grapevine: A Musical Tribute was produced by Larry Watson and featured Darcel Wilson '86, vocals; James Auburn Tootle '97, musical director and piano; Sam Barry, bass; Vince Cannady, vocals; Nick DiSebastian, guitar; Alvin Foster, vocals; Victor Hernandez, drums; Lydia Jackson, vocals; Desmond "DJ" Scaife Jr., vocals; and Germaine Wilson, vocals.