Health. (That’s What I Want.)
Motown founder and rock legend Berry Gordy embraces his own good health and reaches out to people in need.
By Shari Roan
At 92, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. has spent a lifetime nurturing others. He developed and guided the careers of superstars such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, Lionel Richie and the Commodores and countless others, helping to uplift the world of music. He has shared his love of life with family members and friends. And he has honored his own body by eating healthy foods, exercising and “counting my blessings.”
Now, Gordy is reaching out to help the Westside community address disparities in health care that cause too many Blacks and other ethnic minority groups to suffer disproportionately from preventable disease. A generous donation to Saint John’s Health Center Foundation will fund the Berry Gordy Clinical Research Laboratory at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
“I want the discoveries made at the lab to have an impact on the Black community and all communities in need,” Gordy says. “Disease affects all of us. Motown made music for all of us. Health care should be the same way.”
The Saint John’s leadership team is reaching out to identify ways to improve the health of underserved people—work that Gordy’s donation will elevate to a new level, says Anton J. Bilchik, MD, PhD, chief of general surgery and director of the gastrointestinal and hepatobiliary program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Those efforts include addressing the higher risk of colorectal cancer among Blacks.
“There really are two major issues in colon cancer,” Dr. Bilchik says. “There is an epidemic of young people diagnosed with colon cancer under age 45, particularly people of color. We need to try to understand why it’s going on and improve screening in that population group. Both are important issues we’re dealing with right now. Mr. Gordy’s gift will go a long way.”
Gordy says he believes outreach can bring more underserved people into the health care arena, which will improve quality of life and strengthen communities. “We need to educate the susceptible communities early and build trust among people,” he says, adding that good health is everything.
In 1959, he released a hit song based on the concept that there’s more to life than money. A young man wants money, he says, but a mature man wants health. “The best things in life are free. Give me health. That’s what I want.”
Believing in others
It’s clear that people mean everything to Gordy. He credits his close family and siblings with giving him support he needed to go from a music-loving kid in Detroit to the head of an historic record label.
“The key to my success were the people who believed in me,” he shares, “even when they had no reason to. That began with the Gordy family. “I was the black sheep of the family, a failure at everything, But somehow they always supported me—especially my sisters, Gwen and Anna and even the family favorite, my younger brother, Robert, who continues his support to this day. I didn’t do very well. I didn’t have any major goals other than writing songs and trying to make people like my songs.”
Detroit during Gordy’s childhood was a thriving place, proud of its automobile industry. “It was a competitive town,” he says. He learned to be strong and ambitious. While working on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, he learned a lesson that stayed with him when he launched Motown Records in 1959: He marveled at the efficiency of a well-run assembly line—how a bare metal frame could come in one door and go out another a shiny new car. “That gave me the blueprint for my business where a kid off the street could come in one door, an unknown, and go out another a ‘star.’”
Gordy was born in Detroit, the seventh of eight children. He began composing songs as a child, and although he was a talented amateur boxer, he never gave up songwriting. His musical career, however, didn’t take off until after a stint in the Army in Korea and some time spent working in Detroit’s Lincoln-Mercury auto plant in 1955.
Gordy borrowed $800 from his family savings fund to start Motown.
Motown became the largest Black-owned company in the United States in the 1960s as he developed the careers of numerous acts. In 1968, Motown had an unprecedented five out of the Top 10 records at one time on Billboard’s pop charts.
Gordy moved his company to Hollywood in order to expand into television and movies. He continued to dream and he continued to succeed. He sold Motown in 1988 and in that same year was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In December 2021, Gordy was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors award, joining other luminaries such as Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, Lorne Michaels and Justino Diaz.
“I’m very lucky. There are so many people I’m grateful to and grateful for,” he says. “There are a lot of stars that followed me. But there were also the unsung heroes of Motown, the people behind the scenes, who followed me down roads that didn’t even exist. Together, they laughed and cried, lived and died, to make my dream and the Motown legacy possible.
It is typical of Gordy to deflect from himself and turn the attention on others, Dr. Bilchik says. “For a person to accomplish what he has accomplished, he’s extremely humble. He’s truly one of the most remarkable kind, human beings I’ve met. He has a way of making people feel at home, comfortable and has really become a good friend over the years. I always find him to be kind, compassionate and a good listener.”
A worthwhile gift
Generosity comes easy to Gordy, says Rudolph A. Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist who is one of Gordy’s personal physicians. “The gift was a surprise,” says Dr. Bedford, who is also co-director of the Digestive Health Institute at Saint John’s. “It was wonderful. It will certainly go a long way with the clinical research we’re performing here. We are looking forward to being able to report back to him regarding the progress and that his gift was worthwhile.”
The Digestive Health Institute researchers have a long list of compelling ideas requiring research funding—studies that are designed to move the needle on gastrointestinal disease treatments and reduce suffering, Dr. Bedford notes. “We hope Mr. Gordy’s gift will excite others and help them see the need for this kind of philanthropy.”
Gordy’s goals to help elevate preventive health care in the community and address health care disparities align with the mission of Saint John’s, says Dr. Bilchik. The health center has made colorectal cancer screening a key initiative. Moreover, Gordy and his network of Saint John’s physicians have an easy and honest rapport.
“What I found at Saint John’s was personal attention from the physicians, the medical staff and, in many ways, it was home away from home,” he says. He could see several of his doctors at the same place and the same time. He felt he was being well taken care of.
“The physicians who care for him are honored to do so,” says Timothy G. Wilson, MD, director of urology and the urologic oncology research program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute.
“Since I arrived at Saint John’s in 2015 one of the ultimate highlights has been the good fortune of getting to know Berry Gordy and interacting with him at different events that support the community,” Dr. Wilson says. “His personality is genuine and heart-warming, and he truly cares about others and giving back to the community. My department of urologic oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute was a fortunate recipient of a recent gift by Mr. Gordy that will help us better understand how to increase cures of urological cancers and have less side effects from the treatment.”
“The gift will also benefit neurological research,” says Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, chair of the department of translational neurosciences and director of neuro-oncology at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute, who has cared for Gordy. “This kind of philanthropy,” Dr. Kesari says, “permits researchers to turn to the most innovate ideas, such as testing highly sensitive research methodology and tools, to study the underlying causes of neurological diseases.”
“Mr. Gordy’s gift will allow us to accelerate our research into understanding and discovery of new treatments for neurological disorders from dementia to brain cancer by allowing us to test novel, cutting-edge technologies,” he says.
“Gordy inspires others not just through his philanthropy, however,” Dr. Kesari notes.
“Mr. Gordy is a genius in many ways and an inspiration for healthy living that has motivated me on a better way to move forward in the future with optimizing health and longevity,” he says.
Establishing a legacy
To maintain his good health and high spirits (he turned 92 in late November), Gordy eats a vegan diet, plays golf and a little tennis and enjoys a good game of chess. A few years ago, however, he resisted a needed medical procedure. A friend contacted Saint John’s Health Center Foundation trustee Ruth Weil, who connected Gordy with Dr. Bilchik.
“From the moment I walked in, Dr. Bilchik’s patience and expertise and confidence changed my mind about having this procedure,” Gordy says. “It began my relationship with Dr. Bilchik, Saint John’s, and my friend, Ruth Weil, who is the only person I know who can out-dance me.”
Gordy says he was immediately impressed with the level of care shown by the Saint John’s physicians. “They are brilliant and patient. And they seem to go beyond their call of duty. They took care of me like a brother, father or even grandfather. I thought I was so special. Then I found out they do that with everyone!”
As he learned more about Saint John’s, Gordy says, he saw the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the community. During the early days of Motown, Gordy met one of his heroes, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as he traveled the country urging racial equality. Dr. King told Gordy that his music was helping him with his mission and that they were on the same path. He was trying to bring “intellectual and political” integration to America, Gordy says, while Motown music was already bringing “social and emotional” integration.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opening event in health care,” he says, and he derives great satisfaction from his philanthropic gift to Saint John’s. “What we’ve learned during this pandemic is how the health of one of us can affect the health of all of us. Saint John’s can be a driving force to finding a solution. I love just being a part of that legacy. Motown was a place where dreams came true. The unachievable became the achievable. We have that same opportunity here at Saint John’s.”
He plans to closely follow the work that takes place in the lab bearing his name— The Berry Gordy Clinical Research Laboratory. He adds, “I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a hit to me!”