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Andre Harrell, Uptown Records Founder And Role Model To Sean "Diddy" Combs, Dies At 59

Andre Harrell attends the Recording Academy/Clive Davis Pre-GRAMMY Gala in 2019

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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Andre Harrell, Uptown Records Founder And Role Model To Sean "Diddy" Combs, Dies At 59

The New York-born record executive and his influential label were pivotal in mainstreaming hip-hop and R&B music and culture in the mid-1980s while bridging both genres closer together

GRAMMYs/May 10, 2020 - 01:08 am

Influential music executive Andre Harrell, the founder of the pioneering hip-hop and R&B label Uptown Records who's credited with giving Sean "Diddy" Combs his first career opportunity in the record industry, died Thursday (May 7) in his Los Angeles home. He was 59.

The New York Times reports that Harrell, who suffered from heart problems, died of heart failure, as confirmed by his ex-wife, Wendy Credle. 

A former rapper himself—he released original music as a founding member of the hip-hop duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, alongside his high school friend, Alonzo Brown, across the '80s—Harrell brought the artist perspective and highlighted the artistry of rap during his various executive roles throughout his career. This firsthand know-how would prove pivotal to his success and long-standing career as an executive: When rap was just beginning to establish a major commercial foothold within the U.S. music industry in the mid- to late-'80s, Harrell capitalized on the then-burgeoning hip-hop genre and culture, using his insider experience to champion the sound and bolster both an artist community and committed listener audience through his trailblazing Uptown Records. 

Harvey Mason jr., Chair and Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, shared a touching message about Harrell's passing on behalf of the organization.

"Andre Harrell was a pioneer who defined culture and created an indelible legacy in music," Mason jr. said. "His influence and impact transcends time and Andre's contributions will continue to inspire generations of musicians for years to come."

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1960, Harrell first broke into the music scene as an artist. His hip-hop duo, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, released several successful singles in the early '80s, The New York Times writes, including "Genius Rap" (1981), "The Challenge" (1982), "A.M./P.M." (1984) and "Fast Life" (1984). The group released its debut album, The Champagne Of Rap, its sole full-length, in 1985 before disbanding in 1987. 

Following stints at two NYC radio stations, Harrell began working with Russell Simmons' Rush Management in the early '80s, where the former worked with the company's marquee acts, including Run-DMC and LL Cool J, among others. Simmons, himself a legendary record executive, was also co-founder of the iconic rap label Def Jam Recordings; Harrell quickly rose to become Def Jam's vice president and GM, according to Variety. (Simmons would become one of the first patriarchal figures in a long line of black hip-hop executives that connected Harrell and Sean "Diddy" Combs and opened doors for today's generation of leaders, like Top Dawg Entertainment's (TDE) Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith and Quality Control's Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas.)

Harrell launched his own record label, Uptown Records, in 1986; within two years, in 1988, the imprint entered a partnership with the major label, MCA.

Like his mentor Simmons and Def Jam, Harrell's imprint saw the potential of hip-hop's growing fan base, particularly black audiences, and cultural reach before others could even understand the music itself.  As The New York Times points out, Harrell "understood his target audience intimately," digging into his deep understanding, rooted from his own rapping days, of both the music and its surrounding culture. 

"Andre thought he could deliver entertainment to the black audience in a full and total way," Al Teller, former chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, told Vanity Fair in 1993. "He had tremendously clever insights into the audience and how to connect the dots. He was talking like an advertising executive who knew everything about music."

Uptown became a breeding ground for artists who blurred the line between hip-hop and R&B, with acts like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Al B. Sure! and Guy leading the label's roster. With the help and musical innovation of Teddy Riley, the label was pivotal in the formation and popularization of New Jack Swing, a hybrid genre mixing hip-hop production with R&B influences, which dominated the U.S. charts throughout the  mid-'80s and early '90s.

The label was also influential in mainstreaming crossover hip-hop music via artists like Heavy D & The Boyz and Father MC, Variety notes. Blige, who Harrell signed to Uptown in the late '80s when she was a teenager, would go on to embody the hip-hop-meets-R&B formula: Her 1992 debut album, What's the 411?, for Uptown/MCA earned her the moniker, "Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul."

During his tenure at Uptown, Harrell also discovered a then-young Sean Combs, who joined the label as an intern before rising to become the imprint's talent director and A&R man. (For his part, Combs would continue Harrell and Uptown's hip-hop/R&B hybrid sound through the former's own influential Bad Boy Records via acts like Faith Evans, 112 and Lil' Kim.) 

While Harrell ultimately fired Combs from Uptown due to a power dynamic in 1993, according to The New York Times, the two reconciled and remained close throughout the years. Harrell served as president of Bad Boy as well as Vice Chairman of Revolt, the music-oriented multi-platform TV and digital network Combs launched in 2013. 

During his speech at this year's Pre-GRAMMY Gala and GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons event honoring him, Combs paid tribute to Harrell at length. 

"I want to take the time to thank Andre for being a big brother, for believing in me ... I'm only standing up here because you gave me the chance, you gave me the opportunity," Combs said. "But most importantly … as a black man, you took me underneath your wing ... You taught me what it was to be a record man."

"Even to today," he continued, "you still teach me. And I call you my big brother, but tonight I got to tell you the truth. I told you my father died when I was 2-and-a-half. Andre, you've been my father for the last 30 years."

In 1992, Harrell secured a multi-million-dollar, multimedia deal with MCA. The contract helped the executive span into film and TV—he executive-produced the hit FOX TV show "New York Undercover" and produced the 1991 comedy Strictly Business—with Harrell subsequently rebranding the company as Uptown Enterprises

In 1995, he became the CEO of Motown Records, where he worked for two years.

Later in his career, he remained active in R&B circles. He was pivotal in developing the career of a then-young Robin Thicke in the 2000s, according to Billboard. Harrell later launched his own Harrell Records in the early 2010s.

The legacy of both Harrell and his Uptown Records will see new life via a three-part scripted miniseries, called Uptown, set to debut on BET this year.

Harrell is survived by his son, Gianni Credle-Harrell, his brother, Greg, and his father, The New York Times reports.

2020 GRAMMYs: Clive Davis And The Recording Academy Celebrate Sean "Diddy" Combs With Industry Icon Honor At Star-Studded Pre-GRAMMY Gala

Songbook: How Mary J. Blige Became The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Through Empathy, Attitude And An Open Heart
Mary J. Blige

Photos: (L to R): Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; KMazur/WireImage; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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Songbook: How Mary J. Blige Became The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Through Empathy, Attitude And An Open Heart

With 14 albums and nine GRAMMYs under her belt, Mary J. Blige puts no limitations on the music she creates. Explore her extensive catalog of hits, soundtrack favorites, stunning covers and impactful remixes.

GRAMMYs/Jan 30, 2023 - 06:26 pm

Mary J. Blige’s tireless work ethic, extraordinary singing talent and soul-level relatability are the secret ingredients to her longevity as a recording artist. Her discography includes nine GRAMMY wins and 37 nominations, and the multi-hyphenate artist continues to demonstrate that there's no limit to her creativity.

Blige is nominated for six awards at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album for Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe). The title track is nominated in three categories: Record Of The Year, Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song, and "Here With Me" is up for Best R&B Performance.

Good Morning Gorgeous encapsulates the true self-love Blige felt after healing from divorce, abusive relationships and depression. As she explains on an album interlude "good morning gorgeous" is the affirmation Blige now says to herself in the mornings — and, for the first time, she believes it. And when it comes to the odds of adding to her GRAMMY wins on Feb. 5, it’s safe to wager that Blige thinks they’re sound.

"Bet on me, why not?" Blige sings in the chorus of the album’s "On Top." "Don’t act like I never left on top."

For her resonant musical messages, Blige has been crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But  she’s also an industry professional who deftly sets and iterates on trends, keeping even her earliest releases relevant and exciting. 

Blige became a record label boss when she released Good Morning Gorgeous as a joint venture between Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment and her own Mary Jane Productions. She’s a frequent executive producer of her albums and multimedia projects and is set to executive produce two fictional films for Lifetime in 2023 through her production company Blue Butterfly. Real Love and Strength of a Woman are both named for her songs. Real Love is described as a romantic drama set in an upstate New York college. 

After more than 30 years of recording, Blige has amassed an acclaimed and extensive discography of consummate original classics, deep soundtrack cuts, scene-stealing covers and remixes. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist above and use the below guide as a diving board into a career full of the empathetic pain, healing, promise and happiness that she has shared with unflinching honesty and vulnerability.

The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul

Blige was living in a housing project in Yonkers, N.Y. when the late Andre Harrell signed her to his Uptown Records, which released her 1992 debut album, What’s The 411? Harrell coined the nickname Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to describe the fresh way Blige's music melded rap beats with R&B hooks.

Harrell and his then-intern Sean Combs gave her a rugged style to match her music, with boots and baseball caps instead of heels and sparkles. Young women from the inner city saw themselves in Blige's aesthetic and in her rawness.

Yet admiration for Blige’s powerful vocals and unique tone grew before her name was ever recognized. Blige was first heard as a backup singer for Father MC’s 1990 hit "I'll Do 4 U" and, the following year, her own single "You Remind Me" (from the Strictly Business soundtrack) gave Blige some street buzz to lead into What’s The 411? The hip-hop swagger of "Real Love" — which samples "Top Billin'" by Audio Two, a beat highly familiar to New York City fans at the time — served as her formal introduction to the world and remains a calling card decades later.

The My Life Era (Extended Mix)

Contrary to the music industry’s sophomore slump stereotype, Blige’s second album is a seminal work. 1994's My Life became career-defining, and an album that she has subsequently reflected on to show her growth.

The album is a reflection of her volatile relationship with singer Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, Blige explained in Mary J. Blige’s My Life, a documentary she executive produced for Amazon Studios in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Throughout, Blige keenly pairs heights of happiness with depths of her despair on songs like "You Bring Me Joy," "I’m Goin’ Down," "I Love You" and "Be Happy." 

"The whole 'My Life' album is, 'Please love me, don’t go, I need you,'" she said in the documentary. Combs, then known as Puffy, continued: "When she made that album, she was fighting for her heart." (Combs and Harrell served as executive producers of My Life.)

Blige and Combs never collaborated quite so closely again, though they remained friends. Combs didn’t produce 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), but he appears in a telephone skit to open the album, similarly to how he did on My Life. The sequel features guest stars such as Nas, Beyoncé and Drake.

Though her earlier works hinted at the potential, My Life most firmly established Blige as a beacon for hurt hearts everywhere. In a 2021 interview with Trevor Noah, Blige described how childhood physical and mental abuse, as well as her relationship with Hailey, led to substance abuse and depression. When she used the songs on My Life as a way of saying she needed help, "four million people responded and said, ‘'We need help, too.'"

Covers, Collaborations And Remixes

Cover songs have been an acclaimed — and long-lasting — part of Blige’s career ever since she sang "Sweet Thing" by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan on What’s The 411? Blige released her hugely popular version of Rose Royce’s "I’m Goin’ Down" in 1994, which reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, and she beat Beyoncé to the punch in 2000 with her take on Maze’s "Before I Let Go."

But her ascension to rock star status has a lot to do with her scene-stealing covers of songs of stadium-level acts. Blige has delivered epic versions of songs by Led Zeppelin ("Stairway To Heaven") and Sting ("Whenever I Say Your Name"), and when she collaborated with U2 on a new version of "One," there’s an audible battle with Bono as to whose song this is now.

Blige collaborates with rap, R&B, rock, country, electronic and classical artists with equal ease, and her discography includes work with late legends, including "Holdin’ On" with Aretha Franklin and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "As" with George Michael. She won her first career GRAMMY in 1995 for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for "I'll Be There For You / You're All I Need To Get By," a collaboration with Method Man that covers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

A dance music collaboration with London duo Disclosure called "F for You" in 2013 helped to catalyze an entire album from the Capital of England called The London Sessions. The 2014 album features a second collaboration with Disclosure ("Right Now"), a cameo from UK garage DJ/producer MJ Cole ("Nobody But You") and guest vocals from Scottish singer Emeli Sandé ("Whole Damn Year").

Blige has long understood the potency of both hip-hop and dance music remixes, which remain a part of her single roll-outs. Over the years, she created a remix album of songs from What’s The 411?, and in 2002 released club-focused reworks of songs from No More Drama, Mary and Share My World on Dance For Me

Blige's remixes also pay homage. On her cover of First Choice’s "Let No Man Put Asunder," Blige honors singers who came before by featuring guest vocals from the group's lead singer, Rochelle Fleming.

Her Rap Alter Ego

Blige has rapped a few times on her albums, beginning with a verse in "Love," from 2001’s No More Drama. She won her first solo GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2003 for "He Think I Don't Know" from No More Drama. By the time she rhymed on "Enough Cryin’" and "Take Me As I Am" (both from 2005’s The Breakthrough), her rap alter ego had a name: Brook Lynn.

Her cadence caught the ear of her friend Busta Rhymes, who recruited Blige for his "Touch It (Remix)" the next year. "The haters plot and they watch, lookin’ all pale/While I’m on a yacht overseas, doin’ my nails," she raps alongside Busta, Missy Elliott and Rah Digga.

Brook Lynn took a hiatus for a few years after that, but she came back blazing in 2011. "Homegirls love me and we be ridin' Phantoms/Mad chicks hate me 'cause I be writin' anthems," she rhymes on "Midnight Drive" from My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)

The Soundtracks

Since "You Remind Me," her first Top 40 entry, appeared on the soundtrack to Strictly Business, Blige has written stunning original songs such as "I Can See in Color" for Precious (2009). She has also licensed other hits to dozens of movies.

After years of contributing to soundtracks, Blige created her own as executive producer and performer of the soundtrack for Think Like a Man Too (2014), which includes a cover of Shalamar’s "A Night to Remember" and guest appearances by Pharrell Williams and The-Dream.

Blige has been cast in several acting roles since she guest starred in an episode of The Jamie Foxx Show in 1998 and has played fictional characters as well as real life figures Betty Shabazz (Betty and Coretta) and Dinah Washington (Respect). She received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for her work on 2017 film Mudbound.

More than 30 years into her recording career, Blige appears happy, energized and ready to add more hits and heartfelt anthems to her songbook.

Songbook: A Guide To Whitney Houston's Iconic Discography, From Her '80s Pop Reign To Soundtrack Smashes

2023 GRAMMYs Performers Announced: Bad Bunny, Lizzo, Sam Smith, Steve Lacy, Mary J. Blige & More Confirmed
(Clockwise, L-R): Bad Bunny, Kim Petras, Sam Smith, Luke Combs, Steve Lacy, Brandi Carlile, Lizzo, Mary J. Blige

Photos Courtesy of the Artists

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2023 GRAMMYs Performers Announced: Bad Bunny, Lizzo, Sam Smith, Steve Lacy, Mary J. Blige & More Confirmed

The first wave of 2023 GRAMMYs performers has been announced: Bad Bunny, Mary J. Blige, Brandi Carlile, Luke Combs, Steve Lacy, Lizzo, Kim Petras, and Sam Smith. Catch them all on Sunday, Feb. 5, on CBS, Paramount+, and live.GRAMMY.com!

GRAMMYs/Jan 25, 2023 - 03:00 pm

(Editor’s note: since this post’s publication, Harry Styles has been added as a performer, and Questlove announced he is co-curating the Hip-Hop 50 tribute performance at the 2023 GRAMMYs.)

We all knew Music's Biggest Night would be explosive this year. Now, GRAMMY night just got bigger! The first round of performers for the 2023 GRAMMYs has been announced. Taking the GRAMMY stage will be current nominees Bad Bunny, Mary J. Blige, Brandi Carlile, Luke Combs, Steve Lacy, Lizzo, Kim Petras, and Sam Smith.

Live from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles and hosted by Trevor Noah, the 2023 GRAMMYs will be broadcast live on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on the CBS Television Network and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

Prior to the Telecast, the GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony will be broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater at 12:30 p.m. PT and will be streamed live on live.GRAMMY.com. Additional performers will be announced in the coming days.

On GRAMMY Sunday, fans can access exclusive, behind-the-scenes GRAMMYs content, including performances, acceptance speeches, interviews from the GRAMMY Live red-carpet special, and more via the Recording Academy's digital experience on live.GRAMMY.com.

Read More: Where, What Channel & How To Watch The Full 2023 GRAMMYs

Learn more about the 2023 GRAMMYs performers and host here and below:

Two-time GRAMMY winner Bad Bunny is up for three GRAMMY nominations: Album Of The Year (Un Verano Sin Ti), Best Pop Solo Performance ("Moscow Mule") and Best Música Urbana Album (Un Verano Sin Ti).

Nine-time GRAMMY winner Mary J. Blige is nominated for six GRAMMY Awards: Record Of The Year ("Good Morning Gorgeous"), Album Of The Year (Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe)), Best R&B Performance ("Here With Me"), Best Traditional R&B Performance ("Good Morning Gorgeous"), Best R&B Song ("Good Morning Gorgeous"), and Best R&B Album (Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe)).  

Six-time GRAMMY winner Brandi Carlile is nominated for seven GRAMMY Awards this year: Record Of The Year ("You And Me On The Rock"), Album Of The Year (In These Silent Days), Best Rock Performance ("Broken Horses"), Best Rock Song ("Broken Horses"), Best Americana Performance ("You And Me On The Rock"), Best American Roots Song ("You And Me On The Rock"), and Best Americana Album (In These Silent Days). 

Listen Now: The Official 2023 GRAMMYs Playlist Is Here: Listen To 115 Songs By Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar & More

Luke Combs is up for three GRAMMY nominations: Best Country Duo/Group Performance ("Outrunnin' Your Memory"), Best Country Song ("Doin' This") and Best Country Album (Growin' Up). 

Steve Lacy is up for four GRAMMY nominations: Record Of The Year ("Bad Habit"), Song Of The Year ("Bad Habit"), Best Pop Solo Performance ("Bad Habit"), and Best Progressive R&B Album (Gemini Rights). 

Read More: A Look At The Nominees For Album Of The Year At The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

Three-time GRAMMY winner Lizzo is nominated for five GRAMMY Awards: Record Of The Year ("About Damn Time"), Album Of The Year (Special), Song Of The Year ("About Damn Time"), Best Pop Solo Performance ("About Damn Time"), and Best Pop Vocal Album (Special).

First-time nominee Kim Petras is up for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance ("Unholy").

Four-time GRAMMY winner Sam Smith is nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance ("Unholy").

Keep checking back here on GRAMMY.com for more details on the 2023 GRAMMYs — and tune in on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT to watch who takes home GRAMMY gold. And head to live.GRAMMY.com for a dynamic and expansive online experience where you can explore Music's Biggest Night in full.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

Berry Gordy And Smokey Robinson Are The 2023 MusiCares Persons Of The Year: Why The Motown Legends Deserve The Honor
(L-R) Berry Gordy & Smokey Robinson

Photo: Mario Escobar

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Berry Gordy And Smokey Robinson Are The 2023 MusiCares Persons Of The Year: Why The Motown Legends Deserve The Honor

Berry Gordy and his first Motown signee, Smokey Robinson, are MusiCares Persons Of The Year for a very good reason: They're trailblazers whose legacies will forever stand the test of time.

GRAMMYs/Jan 4, 2023 - 10:04 pm

It's virtually impossible to imagine a world without Motown Records.

None of their sweet soul music blasting from car windows and storefronts. No Supremes or Temptations or Stevie Wonder providing the rhythms for TV and film. No Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On," or Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," or Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears." What kind of world would that be?

For Motown's existence, boom and continued success, one indomitable, canny visionary can take the lion's share of credit: Berry Gordy, who founded the Detroit label back in 1959. Equally as influential to Motown's legacy is Smokey Robinson — Gordy's creative and business partner, and best friend of more than 65 years.

Both loom so large in music, and their stories are so intertwined, that picking just one as the MusiCares Person Of The Year — an honor previously bestowed on Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Aerosmith, and other luminaries — would be a half-measure. For the first time, MusiCares has expanded the honor to include two Persons Of The Year of equal and parallel esteem.

Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson fulfill the Person Of The Year dictum to a tee: Together and apart, their creative accomplishments and philanthropic work have few equivalents. And prior to the  65th Annual GRAMMY Awards®, which occur Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, MusiCares will throw a gala to remember, to celebrate the two men while raising funds toward the music charity’s programs and services that assist the music community all year long.

"I am grateful to be included in MusiCares' remarkable history of music icons. The work they do is so critical to the well-being of our music community, and I look forward to a most exciting evening," Gordy said in a statement. Added Robinson: "I am honored that they have chosen me and my best friend and Motown founder Berry Gordy to share this beautiful honor and celebrate with you all together."

Berry Gordy

Berry Gordy. Photo: Mario Escobar

Motown has influenced all sorts of music and inspired generations of artists throughout the decades, and Robinson's unforgettable recordings, like "Shop Around," "I Second That Emotion" and "Mickey's Monkey," are forever beloved. Not only via Robinson's pipes, but those who interpreted material he wrote or co-wrote, like Marvin Gaye ("I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar"), the Temptations ("My Girl"), Mary Wells ("The One Who Really Loves You"), the Marvelettes ("You're My Remedy"), and the Jackson 5 ("Who's Loving You").

Not to mention the Beatles, who were deeply influenced by Robinson and covered "You Really Got a Hold On Me" on 1963's With the Beatles. (George Harrison included a tribute to Robinson, "Pure Smokey," on his 1975 solo album Extra Texture (Read All About It); Paul McCartney once remembered, "Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.")

Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson. Photo: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

If Gordy and Robinson represent the divine to some, Genesis 1:1 was their meeting in the summer of 1957. Gordy — a high-school drop-out, ex-boxer and Korean War veteran who quit his job at Ford to pursue songwriting — discovered Robinson by way of his vocal harmony group, the Matadors, which featured Robinson's then-wife, Claudette.

An enamored Gordy took the group under his wing, renaming them the Miracles and highlighting Robinson as the leader; he produced their first single, "Got a Job," an answer song to the Silhouettes' hit single, "Get a Job." Eventually, on a drive from Detroit to Flint, Michigan, Robinson convinced Gordy to seriously ponder starting his own label.

In 1959, Gordy did just that. He founded Tamla Records with an $800 loan from his family, along with a publishing arm, Jobette, and the rest is history. Robinson not only became Gordy's first writer and debut Motown signee, but, in 1962, he rose to become Motown's vice president. In 1972, Robinson left the Miracles to pursue a solo career, but their brotherhood remained ironclad.

Motown hasn't just gifted the world with an ocean of spectacular music; as one of the most successful, Black-owned businesses in American history, it lit a beacon for Black leadership and innovation forevermore. And it wouldn't be the same without Robinson's vision and artistry, and how it synergized with Gordy's to change the face of music and American culture.

And that's why Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson aren't just Persons Of The Year. They're trailblazers whose legacies have — and forever will — stand the test of time.

This article appears in the 2023 GRAMMYs program book, which will be released soon.

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