Sept. 7 2016 09:57 AM

Suzanne de Passe waxes eloquent over her long showbiz career

Suzanne de Paas discovered several of Motown Records' biggest acts, including the Jackson 5 (shown), Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Rick James and Debarge.
Courtesy Photo
In the late ‘60s, Suzanne de Passe had recently moved to Detroit from New York to work as a creative assistant for Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. That’s when a phone call from friend Bobby Taylor, bandleader for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, really set her career in motion.

“Bobby called me one day and said, ‘I’d like you to come down to my apartment. There’s something I think you should see,’” she recalled. “I did, and that’s how I met the Jackson 5.”

de Passe

De Passe brought the group to Gordy’s attention, and the Jackson 5 went on to become one of the label’s most successful acts. For over 10 years, de Passe worked closely with the group.

“My cousin, Tony Jones, and I were responsible for everything that had to do with the Jackson 5 except making the record — their wardrobe, their choreography, their lineup for the shows, putting them in school, finding them a house, all that stuff,” she said.

De Passe followed Gordy out to the West Coast in the early ‘70s and rose through the company, eventually being named president of Motown Productions in 1981. She struck out on her own in the early ‘90s and is cochairwoman/co-founder of DePasse Jones Entertainment, a television and film production company.

“(Gordy) recognized very early on that television, and subsequently film, was a way to expand the popularity and success of his artists,” de Passe said. “Because he had that vision, I got to ride the coattails of that into new kinds of meetings, new kinds of opportunities. So by the time he appointed me president of Motown Productions, I had really had a fantastic 12-year education.”

De Passe, 70, comes to East Lansing Friday for Sparrow Foundation’s 42nd annual Kaleidoscope, an all-day event that focuses on women’s health and community leadership. Her keynote address will cover her impressive career in music, television and film, and she’ll share some personal stories from her time in Detroit.

“People in Michigan, in particular, like to hear about behind the scenes at Motown,” she said, “going to a Temptations recording session or watching Marvin Gaye lie on a couch and lay down background vocals, traveling on the road with various acts, supervising them on television appearances.”

In addition to de Passe’s keynote address, the event includes sessions on fitness, business, art, healthy eating and Michigan travel ideas.

After leaving Motown Productions, de Passe focused almost entirely on film and television. She recently started filming a show for VH1, “Daytime Divas,” based on Star Jones’ 2011 novel, “Satan’s Sisters.” The show, which stars Vanessa Williams, is centered on a fictional daytime talk show.

“Star and I have been working on it for quite some time,” she said. “The stories really take us under the hood of a daytime talk show, albeit an invented one.”

One of de Passe’s most successful productions is the 1989 CBS miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” which she produced for Motown Productions. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the epic Western took home seven Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes.

“I met Larry McMurtry and invited him to lunch in L.A.,” de Passe recalled. “I asked him what he had that hadn’t been produced yet — this was shortly after ‘Terms of Endearment’ had come out — and he said, ‘I have a book coming out in June, but you probably wouldn’t be interested in it. It’s a Western.’ And I said, ‘Oh yes I would.’ I love Westerns and really love the aesthetic and romance of the West.”

De Passe jumped on the opportunity, thinking she had beaten other studios to the punch.

“I was able to option the book before it was published, only to find out that I got it because everybody else — the studios and the networks in L.A. — had already passed on it,” she said. “But as fate would have it, the book won the Pulitzer Prize, and suddenly I went from goat to goddess. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had, and we went on to produce over 60 hours of Westerns.”

De Passe credits Gordy with teaching her “just about everything” she knows about business.

“He really was a tough boss but a very inspirational one,” she said. “I got to learn a lot from day one. He’s a perfectionist — and when anybody’s starting out, we’re far from perfect. It was phenomenally exciting time, but it was also very taxing — no vacations, just work. But it’s the kind of work that doesn’t seem like work to other people. It was my good fortune to end up in that position.”

As for the music industry today, de Passe hardly recognizes the landscape.

“To say that there’s still a record business would be completely erroneous,” she said. “There is a music business, but everything is different. The Internet changed everything. Now it’s like the Wild West. I don’t think there will ever be that kind of robust record company like we understood even 15 years ago.”

While de Passe still sees a place for record companies, the business model has significantly shifted from the days of record stores and FM radio.

“There are two and a half generations of people who don’t even understand the concept of paying for music, except for through a subscription service,” she said. “It seems that the selling of music is the lowest revenue stream — it’s almost a loss leader to become popular enough to tour and to sell merchandise and get endorsements.”

While de Passe has lived on the West Coast since the early ‘70s, she still keeps an eye on Detroit and has been back to the city several times as a consultant for the Motown Museum. She’s watched the city go through some hard times but feels that Detroit is “coming back in a big way.”

“When you hit rock bottom, there’s no way to go but up, and I mean that in the most positive way,” she said. “Detroit is finding its new normal, its new future, through the opportunities that are being provided for young people and entrepreneurs to make the city robust again, from a financial standpoint. It’s always been a great city, in terms of the people.”

7:45 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9
Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center 219 S. Harrison Road, East Lansing

(800) 772-7769, kaleidoscope