Berry Gordy Becomes 2021 Kennedy Center Honoree

by Duke Magazine

Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy, has been named as one of the five figures to be celebrated as Kennedy Center honoree in December for exceptional achievement in arts and culture.

Included in the list are singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, singer-actor Bette Midler, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and opera singer Justino Díaz who will be feted when the 44th Kennedy Center Honors take place in Washington, D.C. on December 5.

“My first reaction was joy, then disbelief and then: ‘Did I hear that right?’” Gordy told the Detroit Free Press about receiving the news. “It was so exciting to me overall. I had all these emotions at one time, and I realized how much it meant to me.” 

Gordy, the Detroit native who built his homemade music operation into one of history’s most successful and influential independent record companies, has been honored by the Grammys, inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the National Medal of Arts. 

But the Kennedy Center is a special distinction when you take an overall look at Gordy’s place in music history.

“President Kennedy was one of my favorite heroes, so to be honored in his name means the world to me,” Gordy told Detroit Free Press. “I’m extremely happy to join the past and present honorees and become part of this American legacy.”

In a prepared statement, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein lauded Gordy as a visionary figure who “brought the quintessential soulfulness of Detroit into every home in America, elevating the Motown sound to become a national treasure.

The 91-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist now joins his storied stable of label acts such as Stevie Wonder (1999), Smokey Robinson (2006), and Diana Ross (2007) on the Kennedy Center roll call. 

Kennedy Center Honors week is typically featured with several VIP gatherings, including a White House reception and State Department dinner.

The gala also features tributes by surprise performers, their names kept secret from the honorees until the event. Gordy said that whatever might be in store for him, “I have a feeling this is going to work out beautifully.”

In its Wednesday announcement, the Kennedy Center cited Gordy’s varied accomplishments—songwriter, producer, director, entrepreneur—and his transformation of popular music as Motown transcended racial and social barriers.

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