The announcement on Wednesday (July 21) that Motown founder Berry Gordy will receive the Kennedy Center Honors in December was welcome news to fans of American pop and R&B from the last 60-plus years — which is to say, just about everybody.
Gordy will be honored alongside Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and operatic bass-baritone Justino Díaz. The ceremony is set to tape at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 5 for airing as a two-hour CBS special around the holidays.
Gordy, 91, founded Motown Records in 1959. Four of his biggest stars received the honor before he did. Take a look:
Stevie Wonder: Wonder was just 49 when he got the honor in 1999. That makes him one of the youngest Kennedy Center Honorees in history, along with LL Cool J (2017) and Midori (2021), who were also 49 when they were honored in 2017 and 2021, respectively, and the creators of Hamilton: An American Musical, who were even younger when they received a special Kennedy Center Honor in 2018. Wonder is the only artist in Grammy history to win album of the year with three consecutive studio albums: Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Wonder has amassed 25 Grammys and also won an Oscar for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from The Woman in Red (1984).
Smokey Robinson: The songwriter, former leader of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and solo star was 66 when he was honored in 2006. Robinson, one of the greatest songwriters in history, has won just one Grammy in competition, for “Just to See Her” (which he didn’t write!). The song, a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, took the 1987 award for best R&B vocal performance, male.
Diana Ross: The former leader of Diana Ross & the Supremes and solo superstar was 63 when she was honored in 2007. Ross has yet to win a Grammy in competition, despite 12 nominations over the years. (That’s hard to imagine.) She received an Oscar nod for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972).
Lionel Richie: The former leader of Commodores and solo star was 68 when he was honored in 2017. Richie has won four Grammys, including album of the year for his second solo album, Can’t Slow Down (1984), and song of the year for “We Are the World” (1985), which he co-wrote with Motown alum Michael Jackson. Richie also won an Oscar for “Say You Say Me” from White Nights (1985).
Two other artists who rose to fame on Motown — Marvin Gaye and Jackson — are of sufficient stature to be seriously considered for Kennedy Center Honors, but both died before they could be honored. Gaye was shot to death in 1984. Jackson died of cardiac arrest in 2009. The Kennedy Center has never honored a solo artist posthumously (though they have recognized two deceased group members — Glenn Frey of Eagles and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire).