Motown founder Berry Gordy had a galaxy of star executives helping him build the company into the powerhouse it became, but not many of them shone as brightly as Suzanne de Passe.
Joining the company relatively late in its heyday, de Passe moved from her native Harlem to Detroit in 1968 and soon convinced a skeptical Berry to sign a group of kids calling themselves the Jackson 5. She quickly took charge of developing the group into the pop-culture juggernaut they immediately became — their first four singles went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — developing their live show, imaging, choreography, television appearances and much more. Her next signing? An R&B combo called the Commodores featuring a young singer named Lionel Richie.
After being named the company’s West Coast head of A&R she went on to work with Rick James and others, while gradually transitioning into her main career: as a TV and film executive, first working on Jackson 5 and Diana Ross specials and even earning an Academy Awards nomination for her role in co-writing the screenplay of “Lady Sings the Blues,” the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic starring Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
Named president of Motown Productions in 1982, de Passe started her new role with a bang: the Emmy-winning “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” where the Supremes reunited and Michael Jackson premiered his “Moonwalk” to an astonished television audience. And over the years she has overseen nearly every kind of television special — “documentaries, sitcoms, miniseries, variety shows and more,” as she says below — winning multiple awards not only for Motown-themed specials like “Motown Returns to the Apollo” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream” (in which she is portrayed by Vanessa Williams) but also dramatic work like the Emmy-nominated “Lonesome Dove,” adapted from the novel by Larry McMurtry, and has executive-produced everything from “Showtime at the Apollo” to the Essence and NAACP Image Awards, and even President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball. Her work has been the subject of two separate Harvard Business School case studies, for Motown Productions and de Passe Entertainment.
But the conversation below is focused more on her under-recognized music career — one that set a mold for many other executives to follow (five of whom were recently made heads of A&R departments or label-co-presidents — see Variety‘s profile on them here). De Passe officially left Motown in 1992 to form her own company, but as she says, “Once you work for Berry Gordy, you never stop working for him,” and she led the toast when he received Kennedy Honors from President Biden last December.
Coming up for Suzanne and de Passe-Jones Entertainment are a Marvin Gaye biopic produced in conjunction with Dr. Dre and Alan Hughes; a series based on the Diana Ross-starring film “Mahogany” with Lee Daniels’ company; a film based on the life of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba at Netflix with Kerry Washington’s Simpson Street company, and more.
Over the course of an hour, de Passe recalled her road to Motown, her years with the company, working with the Jacksons, the Commodores and others — and most of all, making sure the vision came to light.
What was your childhood like?
I had a wonderful, wonderful childhood, it was so eclectic. Growing up in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s was really a gift, because it was such an interesting place to be, musically, culturally. And because of the array of environments that I was exposed to, I felt comfortable just about everywhere.
Where did your talent for business and leadership come from?
My mother and her two sisters were very important forces in my life in terms of confidence-building. My grandfather was a bit ahead of his time: He became a physician while many of our other relatives were in domestic service or more labor-intensive jobs. My mother went to Hunter College and her sisters went to NYU and Bennington, so there was a progression of higher learning for each of them.
They must have been overjoyed when you left college to work in a nightclub.
(Laughing) It was unbelievable, it was like the scarlet letter landed on my forehead. I attended Syracuse for a year but couldn’t take the weather, although that wasn’t the only reason I left: I was engaged to the captain of the football team, who was graduating, and it was the combination of the weather and him going to play professional football for the Washington Redskins. But he cheated and I gave him back the ring.
So I was going to Manhattan Community College, and this club was opening nearby — the Cheetah. Some of my girlfriends from the neighborhood found out about it, and somehow we got invited to the opening. Our little clique was fun and outgoing and we danced a lot, and [the club managers] thought we were cute and gave us passes to come back for free. Over the course of a few weeks I voiced my opinions about the bands — “These guys are great! Bring them back!” or “We can’t dance to those guys” — and one day they said, “We’d like you to sit in on auditions, we’ll pay you $25 a week.” The college was just a couple of blocks away, so I did. I learned a lot watching the guy who was booking the bands: how to fill out the contracts, agency commissions, his commission, all that stuff. And I got to hear a lot of music: In those days they would schlep in with a big Hammond B-3 organ and Leslie speakers and eight or nine people in the band, it was really like this live jukebox. Eventually they said, “We want to bring this operation inside, we’ll pay you $125 a week,” and that was the beginning of my career. I quit college — again — and decided that I was in show business.
How did your family react?
Well, my parents had been divorced since I was three, so let’s just say [their disapproval] was probably the first time they agreed on anything! (Laughter) It was impossible to explain to them that I wasn’t in with a bunch of New York nightclub gangsters — the Cheetah didn’t serve alcohol and was actually a very wholesome place to be, although I’m sure there were things going on that I didn’t know about. It really was a fantastic experience — we hosted the musical “Hair” before it went to Broadway. If it’s true that life is a game of inches, I was definitely in proximity to the next phase of my life.
How did you first meet Berry Gordy? It was through Cindy Birdsong of the Supremes?
Yes. There were two disc jockeys in New York on the R&B station, WWRL, Frankie Crocker — who I’m sure you’ve heard of — and his partner and mentor Rocky G. The club was closed on Sundays, and they wanted to bring in name talent on Sundays for a sort of tea dance, starting at 4 o’clock and done at maybe eight. So the Cheetah Club put me in charge of those concerts, and we had Otis Redding and Chuck Jackson and all these artists. Now, what I didn’t realize was that the record companies were giving the artists for free and that Rocky and Frankie were getting the [door money], and in exchange there was airplay, so I think it was a form of payola, to tell you the truth.
Sounds like it!
(Laughter) Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. [Note: Such arrangements were very common in the ‘60s, and sometimes still are.] Anyway, one Sunday Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells were performing, Cindy was in the group at the time, and a mutual friend who was a musician, Jimmy Castor, said, “You guys should meet, you’d really get along.” So I went backstage and introduced myself and we became friends. She called me one day and said she had been approached by Motown to replace Florence Ballard in the Supremes, what did I think? “What do I think? Are you out of your mind? Of course you should do that!” Me, the big expert, right? It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that was a big step up.
A few months later, Cindy was making her first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as a Supreme. The rehearsal was on Friday afternoon, and I was going to take her out to dinner. In those days, it was not necessarily … how shall I say it, guaranteed that you could get a cab if you were Black. So I did the only logical thing to me, which was to rent a limousine — which I could hardly afford. It picked me up and we pulled up to the stage door, and of course I’m dying to go inside but my West Indian upbringing did not allow me to go where I was not invited. So I’m sitting in the car, and Cindy comes out and says the words that literally changed my life forever: “Mr. Gordy’s car has gone on an errand and he needs a ride to an appointment. Can we take him?” So the very first time I ever met, laid eyes on or talked to Mr. Gordy, I gave him a ride in my limousine — at the age of 19!
How long was it before he offered you a job?
Probably about ten months, but he came to New York a lot with Smokey [Robinson] and other acts, so I kind of became their girl in New York who knew stuff — what clubs and restaurants to go to, so every month or so I’d take them to Arthur and Ondine and Salvation, all the clubs of the time.
There was a man named Howard Stein who basically stole me from the Cheetah — he made a deal with [impresario] Lee Guber, who was then married to Barbara Walters, and Lee had five theaters. Howard realized that in between [musicals like] “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel” and “Camelot,” there was dead time in those theaters, so he made a deal with Lee to put talent in between them, and he hired me to book those acts.
Over Christmas 1967 I went to spend the week with Cindy and the gang in Miami at the Deauville Hotel, where the Supremes were appearing. Every night, I sat with Mr. Gordy and his kids and his entourage, and that’s when I really got to know him. After the Supremes’ second New Year’s Eve show, there was a party in Diana Ross’ penthouse at the hotel, and by that point I was comfortable enough to tell him that I had this new job and that the only acts I was having trouble booking — because I was booking Sonny & Cher and Simon & Garfunkel and this one and that one — were the Motown acts. And he looked at me and said, “Well, I’m not sure what’s wrong, but maybe we need someone like you to help us figure it out.” And two weeks later I was flown to Detroit for an interview.
He hired me, I quit Howard Stein, and I was getting paid, but I was still in New York, waiting for instructions. So I called one day and said “Mr. Gordy, I’m here and getting paid, but I’m not doing anything.” And I’ll never forget this, he said, “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Oh no sir, I do not think you’re crazy.”
He said, “I know I hired you! When I’ve got something for you to do I’ll let you know. Okay? Bye!” Click! I was moved to Detroit soon after that as his creative assistant — I couldn’t type, but I could listen to music, read a script and do a lot of things on the creative side.
How long was it before you met the Jackson 5?
Well, the first place I stayed in Detroit was this motel called the Harlan House, while they were getting a room ready for me in the building where they put up everyone from out of town, 1300 East Lafayette Street. Diana Ross had the penthouse, various executives and many of the artists who were not Detroit-based were there, like Cindy Birdsong and Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.
In April, not long after I arrived, Martin Luther King was assassinated and there was rioting. One of my colleagues at the company, Billie Jean Brown, knew I was in a vulnerable place and came and picked me up and took me to her condo in the suburbs until things calmed down. Then I moved to the Lafayette house, and that’s where in the late spring of 1968 I met the Jackson 5.
Bobby actually brought them in. He invited me down to his apartment — which I resisted at first — but they sang a capella for me, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out this was something really special. When I finally reached Mr. Gordy on the phone, I said “Just wait till you see these kids — we’ve gotta sign them,” and he said “Kids?! I don’t want any kid acts! Do you know how much trouble Stevie Wonder is?” You have to remember I was just getting my feet wet, but I was so persistent that he finally saw them, and the rest is history.
Joseph [Jackson, father and manager] was very instrumental in bringing them to a certain point, no doubt about that. But the Motown machinery, of which I was a very big part… Mr. Gordy put me in charge of everything having to do with them except the actual producing and writing of the records: the show, the wardrobe, the banter, the choreography — we did the choreography for “I Want You Back” in my living room — putting them in schools, finding them a house, doctors, a dentist; finding songs for them to cover because they didn’t have enough hits for the early shows. And when I found the second act I wanted to sign — the Commodores with Lionel Richie — [Gordy] didn’t even have to see them, he just said, “Sign them.”
It seems that Berry Gordy and Motown were very encouraging toward women and young people and gave them room to grow.
Absolutely. I think Motown had more women in positions of authority than any other company. I think it’s because he has four sisters, all of whom accomplished many important things in the company, and he had a very strong mother.
I was a wonderful beneficiary of Berry Gordy’s philosophy of giving women and young people a shot. I don’t ever forget for one moment how fortunate I was, and am.
What like first working with the Jackson 5 early on? Was Michael precocious even then?
Well, yes. Michael asked a million questions, was a very mischievous kid and so much fun. Before they were famous we had lots of time together, getting them ready. I understand there are a couple of shots in the Janet Jackson documentary of early rehearsals that I had with them.
(See footage below of de Passe working with the group in 1970.)
How long was it before you launched them into the world?
Not quite a year, I think. And then there was this explosion — you can’t imagine how overwhelming it was. It was like Beatlemania with young kids, none of us had ever seen anything like it. It was astonishing how quickly it all happened — we had four No. 1 records in a row.
How do you hang on when things are moving that fast? How do you prepare?
I don’t know that it was anything one could prepare for — that meteoric thing that happened. And you have to understand, in those days we didn’t have laminated backstage passes or security or entourages, so we just did it ourselves. We didn’t have wardrobe people — the reason Michael is wearing that purple hat on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is because our luggage got lost and my cousin Tony Jones and I had to run down to the Village and buy them clothes for the show. We saw the purple hat on the shelf, “Oh, let’s take that too,” not realizing it was going to become iconic.
How did they cope with the fame? Did they do okay?
Well, no. Not really. In the beginning, it was very egalitarian — people were interested in what Tito or Jackie or Marlon thought. And as the records became more popular and they became more popular, people really wanted to talk to Michael, and secondarily to Jermaine and not so much to the other guys. I think it really drove a wedge.
Was Michael’s intelligence always evident?
Michael Jackson was a human sponge, and he was soaking up as much information and knowledge and experience as he could. He was very much a fan of old movies, as I’m sure you know — the Fred Astaires, Elizabeth Taylors, Katherine Hepburns, and those were the people that he pursued to get to know. He was definitely a curious, engaged, interested person. And I think it’s no accident that he became the Michael Jackson that basically everyone knows.
Did you work with them less over time?
Yes, I came off the road after the second tour because Mr. Gordy had put me in charge of West Coast A&R. It was kind of creepy being on the road anyway. I would go out for soundcheck and if a different person was on the door when I came back, they’d think I was a groupie and I’d have to get one of our tech guys to get me backstage, things like that.
You were one of the only women in a role like that at the time, and at such a young age. Did you encounter a lot of sexism?
I think I probably did, but I wasn’t paying attention to it. Mr. Gordy was a very, very exacting boss and my attention was more on trying to do the right thing than trying to assess what kind of negativity may have been surrounding me. It wasn’t really discussed like that back then. I was working directly for him, getting my ass kicked every day, and always wanting to do things that would get me in the plus column, because something always wasn’t right. Mr. Gordy’s management style was to throw you in the deep end of the pool and then ask, “Can you swim?” (Laughing)
He handed me a script one day, “Can you read this and tell me what you think?” I read it and told him. “Can you write it down?” And the next thing you know I’m co-writing “Lady Sings the Blues” and getting nominated for an Academy Award. It was crazy!
How did you find the Commodores?
Their manager, Benny Ashburn, was a friend of my mother’s and I saw him at a Thanksgiving party, and he got me to go see them when he heard I was at Motown. I actually didn’t do as much with them, but I did put them on tour with the Jackson 5. We needed another opening act, so we had them on first, then they backed [Motown singer] Yvonne Fair, and then the kids came on.
Although I do remember very distinctly having to fight for them to stay at the company because [initially] they didn’t have a hit. One of the great things about Berry Gordy is he said, “If we think people are talented and we sign them and they don’t have a hit, it’s not their fault, it’s our fault.” And I took him a record they had called “The Ram” and he changed the title to “Machine Gun” and that was the beginning. [The song, an instrumental, was the group’s first hit, reaching No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.] It’s back to the inches thing — if I hadn’t gone to a Thanksgiving party with my mother and seen the manager, we wouldn’t have had the audition the following week. I always try to keep my antenna up.
It’s so strange that Lionel Richie’s band’s first hit was an instrumental. Did you see promise in him early on?
I had very eclectic musical tastes, from classical to R&B to standards, so when Lionel sang the Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman” in that audition, I was not only surprised but pleased that their taste was not just in one lane. His voice was a perfect match for the song. Now, it was years before that emerged fully formed, but he definitely impressed me in the audition.
When did you start moving more into television and film?
I really loved production more than music, at that time. A&R in those days… I think it’s different now. We really were deeply involved, people did two if not three albums a year. And when I was running A&R, you could never be really happy, because there were always more artists who were unhappy than happy because not everybody can be hot or have a hit at the same time. During the creative meetings, we would vote on the records that would be [released or heavily promoted]. If you’d had prior hits, you got a bit more consideration, but you still could be beaten out.
Did things like the Jackson 5 cartoon series and Motown acts being on television so often bring you more into that world?
Oh yeah, I was the Motown person involved with ABC and the cartoon series, picking the songs and the actors to play the kids and going to the sessions and stuff like that. That was the first series that I ever worked on.
How did your TV career evolve from there?
Because I was sort of the Swiss Army knife of the company, a lot of the [artists’ appearances on television], even if I wasn’t there in person, I was involved in what song they’d sing and all that stuff. But I loved the experience of being on a million television sets and being part of creating a lot of what Diana Ross was doing — I was head writer on [the Jackson 5 TV special] “Going Back to Indiana,” I was one of the writers on “Diana” for ABC. But it wasn’t really linear, maybe more like a bowl of spaghetti, you know?
And that led to you being made Motown’s president of production in 1982?
There were a couple of moments along the way where I’m not sure what Berry wanted me to do — I was more on special projects by that time, and he had installed his son Berry to run A&R — but then a debacle happened with the people running Motown Productions, and he literally looked around the room and said, “Get over there and fix it.”
Which leads into the second phase of your career, in television, which started off with a bang with “Motown 25.”
Yes — it certainly changed Michael’s life. That was the first show that I had executive-producing and writing credits for. And we won the Emmy for Best Variety Show two years later in 1985 for “Motown Returns to the Apollo,” and I’m also very proud of “Lonesome Dove.” But each one of them is very special to me because I got to do something that many people in Hollywood would consider a mistake: My specialty was not specializing, so we did documentaries, sitcoms, miniseries, variety shows. It makes people uncomfortable when you don’t stay in a particular lane, I’ve found.
It was impressive enough for Harvard Business School to do two case studies on your work.
Let me tell you, it was amazing going to Harvard and sitting there as a guest while they’re dissecting [your career]! You want to go “No! No! I didn’t mean it that way!”
Was it similar to seeing yourself portrayed by Vanessa Williams?
(Laughing) We’d be on set, and I didn’t know how to refer to the character! “Suzanne”? “Me”? “Vanessa”? It was a little surreal. And then we’d go to lunch and she’d be looking at me but not eating [studying de Passe’s movements], I’d say, “Vanessa! Stop it!” But she did a great job and I’m very fond of her.
It seems like you were really ahead of the curve in the 1980s, in recognizing the value of Motown’s archive and monetizing it. That movement in the music business didn’t really take off in earnest until 10 or 15 years later, with boxed sets and video anthologies. What set off that light bulb for you?
Celebrating Motown’s 25th anniversary just seemed like a good thing to do, and I think people were shocked at the [rapturous] response. I thought it would be popular but I didn’t know it would win a Peabody Award or anything — that’s not the reason you do these things, but it’s lovely. I often feel like when you’re doing it, you don’t really have a master plan: “Okay, now I’m going to delve into the archives.” It’s really more about opportunities — the Apollo Theater was opening again, so “50 Years of the Apollo” and the role it played in popular music and especially Motown. It wasn’t really about archival stuff, it was more a celebration of things that I was very familiar with.
Do you see Berry Gordy often?
I’m always in contact with the Chairman, as he likes to be called, and I was at the Kennedy Center honors [in December]. I gave the toast to him the night when they received their medals — which was kind of daunting but a full-circle moment 54 years later. I was honored to do it and it was a subject that I could really speak to.
I’ve had my own company since ’92, but I never left working for Berry Gordy — somebody needs to tell him I don’t work for him anymore! But I always say once you’ve worked for him, you never don’t work for him.
What are your biggest recent projects, and what’s coming up?
Well, the pandemic has put a dent in “recent,” but my business partner Madison Jones and I are working with Dr. Dre and Alan Hughes on the Marvin Gaye movie, and we’re doing a series based on the [Diana Ross] film “Mahogany” with Lee Daniels’ company, we’re doing a movie based on the life of [legendary South African singer] Miriam Makeba at Netflix with Kerry Washington’s company, Simpson Street, and about 50 other things.
How is it possible there’s no autobiography or documentary on your life?
Both things are supposedly in the works. I am the laziest person that you have ever met in your life when it comes to my story, but I do have the bones of it — I’m a reluctant writer, but I am one! At one point the USA Network wanted to do a series based on those early days in New York and Motown, but [it never got past planning stages]. I keep thinking I have more time left than I do (laughing), but I think eventually this thing will come together. I have a book agent and all that stuff, but it’s terrible when you’re so much more interested in other stories than your own. But I’ve had a pretty good run, I’d say!