ANTONIN DVORAK and HARRY BURLEIGH
In 1892, internationally known Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was hired as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Philanthropist Jeannette Thurber paid Dvořák $15,000 a year, an enormous sum back then, with the express purpose that he would raise the musical consciousness in America and guide the creation of a national musical style.
One day, in the hall of the school on E. 17th St., Dvořák heard a man with a deep baritone singing a Negro spiritual. It was 26-year-old African-American student Harry T. Burleigh who was on scholarship at the school and did janitorial work to pay for room and board. Enchanted, Dvořák had Burleigh sing more spirituals, and the student did for more than an hour.
A few months later, the Czech composer wrote an article in the New York Herald that rankled the elite of New England. The headline: “The Real Value of Negro Melodies.” It was Dvořák’s contention that “African Americans and Native Americans should be the foundation for the growth of American music.” The upper crusties brought the famous classical composer to teach American musicians to be more like Brahms and Wagner and he saw the future in black music. “The new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil,” he wrote.
“In the Negro melodies I discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote.
The uproar was immediate. “A truly American music based on the music of socially and politically marginal groups is ridiculous,” wrote one of the top critics. “What Negro melodies have to do with Americanism in art still remains a mystery,” said the composer Edward McDowell, whose mother had sponsored Burleigh to the Conservatory, which admitted blacks and women, rare for the times.
Dvořák went back to Bohemia three years later and his African-American protege became the most prominent arranger of spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” whose melody Dvořák incorporated into his famous “Symphony #9 in E Minor.”
“Under the inspiration of Dvořák, I became convinced that the spirituals were not meant just for colored people, but for all people,” said Burleigh. Minstrelsy and “coon songs” had been popular in the 1890’s and long before that, but Dvořák and Burleigh helped transport spirituals from the plantation onto the concert stage,
Anna Gordy’s story is almost as interesting as that of her kid brother Berry Gordy. A year before Berry started Motown/Tamla, there was Anna Records, owned by Anna and sister Gwen Gordy, plus Roquel “Billy” Davis. Gwen and Billy, who co-wrote “Lonely Teardrops” with Berry for Jackie Wilson, were a couple and Anna went with a studio drummer/ singer named Marvin Gaye.
Berry Sr. and Bertha Gordy were originally from Georgia, but raised their eight kids in Detroit, where there was work in the automobile factories. But the Gordy parents were born entrepreneurs, opening grocery stores and an insurance company. The biz gene passed on to the kids, who were all crazy for music- and some had talent as songwriters.
Third-oldest sibling Anna got into record distribution with Chess, while Gwen (#6) was a songwriter primarily (including “All I Could Do Is Cry” for Etta James) and Berry (#7) had his hands full managing Jackie Wilson.
Anna met Marvin Gaye when he was a 20-year-old singer (and she 27) in Harvey and the New Moonglows. Gwen had started going with leader Harvey Fuqua, who has an incredible story of his own, and married him in 1961. That was the year Berry and Motown acquired Anna Records and really started taking off. The first big Motown artists were Mary Wells (“You Beat Me To the Punch”) Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“Shop Around”) and the Marvelettes (“Please Mr. Postman”). In ’63, the year Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy were married, he wrote “Pride and Joy” about his bride.
But it was a volatile relationship, by most accounts, and Marvin didn’t stay faithful, of course. His girlfriend Janis Hunter got pregnant and Anna, who had written two songs on the What’s Goin’ On LP, filed for divorce. Part of the settlement was that Anna would get the proceeds from Gaye’s next album in 1977, so it called it Here My Dear and included songs about the marriage and breakup. Anna threatened to sue, but backed off when she realized what label it was on- and who owned it.
Anna Gordy Gaye never remarried. She was devastated when Marvin Gaye’s deranged father shot him dead in 1984. She lived to be 92.
MORE MOTOWN TRIVIA
Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Dr. Rainbow Johnson in ABC’s Blackish is the daughter of Diana Ross… The two party mammals in LMFAO are Berry’s son and grandson…Rhonda Ross Kendrick (left) is the daughter Gordy fathered with Diana Ross. Diana was pregnant with Rhonda when she and Gordy split up. She married business attorney Robert Silberstein soon after and they raised Rhonda as his daughter. She didn’t find out until she was 13, but had suspicions because her sisters were so much lighter.