Veteran executive Suzanne de Passe is one of the most respected and accomplished women in any area of entertainment. Her storied career began when she became Berry Gordy’s creative assistant at Motown Records, eagerly taking on a variety of tasks: traveling with performers, conducting their publicity, styling them and periodically acting as A&R for new artists.
A native of Harlem, NY, de Passe’s passion, foresight and persistence were instrumental in igniting the careers of The Jackson Five, Rick James, Teena Marie, DeBarge, The Commodores and Lionel Richie. The radiant go-getter believes her random interests are a gift and a curse.
“I like too many different types of things,” asserts de Passe at this year’s Women SuperStars Luncheon during BronzeLens Film Festival, “so I specialize in not specializing. Sometimes that makes people nervous because they don’t know what to come for or what you’re giving.”
In fact, among those people who sometimes couldn’t easily accept de Passe’s relentless spirit or suggestions was Gordy. The former student enrolled at Syracuse University was introduced to The Jackson Five by Motown recording artist Bobby Taylor. The talented siblings performed four songs a capella for de Passe in the living room of Taylor’s apartment. She was blown away.
At that time, Motown’s most recent hire, de Passe, convinced her boss to sign the family act. Gordy didn’t want to have young acts on Motown’s roster because it was difficult dealing with a number of factors including protocol and chain of command. He eventually gave in to de Passe and agreed to add the Jackson 5 to his roster.
Telling this story numerous times for many years, de Passe is proud that she never gave up on what she believed in. “I didn’t have any practical skills,” says de Passe, “but I had a big mouth, a lot of input and a lot of opinions. If I have any claim to fame in terms of the Jackson story, it was that I didn’t take no for an answer. I persisted. [Berry] finally saw them, and the rest is history.”
Rising in ranks to ultimately become president of Motown Productions, de Passe became responsible for overseeing the company’s expansion into small and silver screen projects, adding multiple Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody and NAACP Image awards to the company’s list of accomplishments. She executive produced NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever anniversary celebration, the hit CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove, the ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream and the NBC miniseries The Temptations.
To date, de Passe is still the only woman of color honored with an Academy Award nomination for an original screenplay for the 1972 biopic on Billie Holiday Lady Sings the Blues. After de Passe departed from Motown in 1992, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Famer developed her own production company, de Passe Entertainment, which executive produced the shows Sister Sister, Smart Guy and It’s Showtime at the Apollo.
The entertainment maven became a distinguished instructor and lecturer at Howard University, Emerson College and Harvard Business School. de Passe likes to think of her interactions with students as an environmental exchange. While she was an endowed chair at Howard, she allowed eight student interns to accompany her to tapings of It’s Showtime at the Apollo.
“The most fundamental thing I’m interested in is for them to understand and ascertain if this business is for them,” points out de Passe. “Make that decision early enough in your life because it’s not for everybody.” de Passe then explained how some of her students adapted to the pace of filming 11 shows in four days.
Some were fast learners. Others couldn’t handle the behind-the-scenes chaos. “Some people need structure,” continues de Passe. “The rest of us find it okay to go with the flow of what the business energy is. Find out before you invest time, energy, money, blood, sweat and tears into a business. You really should know if it’s for you.”
de Passe likes to ponder sometimes over how the internet has changed the music industry, cautioning people that she can talk for hours about the transition. She believes wholeheartedly that there is no more record business but there is still a music business. “Talent has not changed, but the structure around it has vanished forever,” says de Passe. “The internet has been a place of discovery for talent. Music is the defining thing that gathers people together.”
These days, de Passe is co-chairman of de Passe Jones Entertainment Group. The production company she co-founded is currently developing a remake of the 1975 film Mahogany with Universal Pictures, a VH-1 original series adapted from Star Jones’ novel Satan Sisters, a vampire themed-series Fang and a biographical miniseries The Kings of Georgia.
Normally accustomed to taking on new projects with enthusiasm and gratitude, the delightful de Passe this go-round has no qualms about stepping away from her desk. The exceptional businesswoman still works hard and continues to face professional challenges when it comes to selling her vision.
de Passe suggests that constant reinvention in one’s career paired with a strong work ethic should warrant those people to take moments of clarity. “I’ve given myself permission to do something else, which is called stop,” she says.
“I stop. I don’t finish. There’s always another script to read, email to answer, call to make or something. If you don’t give yourself permission to stop and pull it up again the next day, it can be extremely frustrating.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.