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How I portray a Motown legend night after night

As Berry Gordy celebrates his birthday, Cedric Neal who plays him in the West End musical Motown explains what it's like stepping into his shoes every night

Cedric Neal, as Berry Gordy in Motown, and Berry Gordy
(© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage))

"Mr Gordy won't be coming after all. He's not feeling well."

That's what I was told, while waiting in the hallway for my fifth of six recalls for the role of Berry Gordy in Motown The Musical. So I took a deep breath of relief, and tried to quiet the symphony of nerves in my stomach. I hum a little to keep the chords warm, make small-talk with the audition monitor and enjoy the young man already in the room obviously wowing the creatives with his rendition of "Do You Love Me" (a song Gordy wrote in response to a young lady that wouldn't date him because he couldn't dance). I finally wrap my head around the fact that the man who not only changed the world of music, but changed the sound of the world, was not going to be behind the table, deciding whether or not I should portray him in his musical biography, when the door to the studios opened, and in walked THE Berry Gordy.

The next words I heard were, "Cedric they're ready to see you now." That symphony of nerves returned, accompanied by an indescribable desire to make this icon, this legend, this black man who is responsible for discovering the artists that shaped my sound, proud.

Of course he asked me to sing "Can I Close The Door" (the 11 o'clock song the Berry Gordy character sings at the end of the show), and when I sang the last phrase, "Can I close the door on LOVE," Mr. Gordy said "You damn sure can!!!"

That was my introduction to the man I have had the privilege of playing for almost two years now. The man that has become "Pops" to me, and the rest of the Motown family.

Cedric Neal
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

The person responsible for such artists as Smokey Robinson (whom I met on opening night, and is just as smooth as you would think), Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, also chose me. He would sit Lucy St Louis (who brilliantly plays Diana Ross) and I down, in the rehearsal room, and share candid stories of how their relationship developed, and how he had a familial relationship with every artist on the Motown label. It was as if we were there with him. He makes everyone feel like they are back in "Hitsville USA."

On opening night, Berry Gordy came onstage, took my face in his hands and said something that I wish I could say to myself. He said, "Cedric, you're the best me ever." I had no words that night. But, I want to let The Chairman/B.G./Black/Pops know, there would be no me if it had not been for him. My entire life, career and voice is because of "the Motown sound". Thank you Berry Gordy.

The world sounds and moves soulfully because of you!

And as he says through the lyrics of probably my favourite Berry Gordy song, "To Be Loved:"

Some wish to be a king or a queen
Some which for fortune and fame
But to be truly, truly loved Is more than all of these things.

Motown The Musical is currently booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 9 January 2019.