Esther Gordy Edwards, who helped build Motown Records alongside her brother Berry Gordy Jr. and led efforts to turn its original Detroit headquarters into a museum, died Wednesday in Detroit. She was 91.
Edwards was a Motown executive for nearly three decades, holding leadership positions within the music company whose artists included Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops. Motown Records, which Berry Gordy started with a family loan in 1959, churned out scores of global hits from the building it dubbed “Hitsville, U.S.A.” in Detroit. The company moved to Los Angeles in 1972.
Edwards served as senior vice president, corporate secretary and director of Motown International Operations, where she was charged with exposing the famed “Motown sound” to international audiences.
Wonder has praised Edwards for being like a mother to him when he joined the label as a child. She is credited with helping Wonder enroll in the Michigan School for the Blind, as well as managing and guiding the careers of Robinson, Gaye, Diana Ross and others.
“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,” Wonder said in a statement. “I shared with her many of my songs first before anyone else.”
When Motown and most of her family moved to California, Edwards stayed behind. She amassed what would become Motown memorabilia and set to work on preserving the old headquarters, including the label’s famed Studio A. The large former house on West Grand Boulevard opened as a museum in 1985.
“I always thought I was the visionary in the family, but I missed the biggest thing of all when Esther turned the so-called trash left behind after I sold the company in 1988 into a phenomenal world-class monument at the spot where Hitsville started — the Motown museum,” Berry Gordy said in a statement Thursday.
“She nurtured it and held it together, all through the years, to protect the Motown legacy for generations to come,” he said.
Gordy also said Edwards gave him “the hardest time” when he sought to get the family loan to start what would become Motown Records. She became, he said, “one of my biggest assets at Motown.”
According to an official biography released by the museum, Edwards was born in 1920 in Oconee, Ga., and moved to Detroit as a toddler. She was the eldest daughter in a family of eight children.
She first married Robert Bullock, with whom she had a son, Robert Berry Bullock. She later married state Rep. George Edwards and became a stepmother to his son, Harry.
One of her sisters, Anna Gordy Gaye, was Marvin Gaye’s first wife.
In a statement, Robinson said Edwards was “one of the most important people to come into my life both personally and professionally.” He said it’s because of Edwards’ “wisdom and foresight” that the museum exists, allowing “people now and for generations to come to have a firsthand look at our legacy.”
“Thank you, Esther, and I know you are in the hands of God,” he said.