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de Passe, Suzanne - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Suzanne de Passe

motown business talent award

de Passe Productions


As a producer, and a record and film company executive, Suzanne de Passe is recognized as the creative driving force in the Motown industry headed by Berry Gordy. Beginning with Motown’s conception in Detroit, Michigan to its present Los Angeles, California location, de Passe diversified as the business grew from music to motion picture and film winning accolades. De Passe eventually went on to form her own company, de Passe Entertainment.

Personal Life

Suzanne Celeste de Passe was born in middle class Harlem, New York in 1948. Her father, a Seagram’s executive and mother, a school teacher, divorced three years later. Subsequently Suzanne’s father remarried providing an encouraging family atmosphere for his daughter, who dreamed of limousines and modeled original clothes for the Harlem elite. She attended illustrious Manhattan high school, and private, integrated New Lincoln School. With writing ambitions, she went on to Syracuse University in 1964, where she placed more emphasis on social life than on her schooling. When asked to leave, she transferred to Manhattan Community College where she majored in English. Later, de Passe married actor, Paul Le Mat, while continuing to experiment with a varied succession of employment from sales-woman to horse riding instructor. The couple is still married and lives in Los Angles.

Career Details

Suzanne de Passe’s serendipitous beginnings included a flair for recognizing talent which she developed early as a talent coordinator at an up-scale Manhattan club, Chettah Disco. There she auditioned and scheduled performers, developing a keen business sense and invaluable experience. In a similar fashion, Suzanne went on to work for the Howard Stein firm, where she obtained the position of talent coordinator. The Motown sound captured her interest, but her inability to schedule those artists proved frustrating. In an article by Robert DeLeon featured in Jet Magazine she stated, “Cindy Birdsong, former member of the Supremes introduced me to Berry Gordy. His limousine didn’t show up to take him for some reason, so I offered him a ride. A friendship blossomed then, and every time he or some other Motown people would come to town, I’d take them around.”

The Gordy/de Passe friendship proved to be a fortunate alliance, resulting in a job offer from Gordy in 1968 to join his Motown staff as his creative assistant. There in offices in Gordy’s home in Detroit, Michigan she worked first with artist Smokey Robinson. At its peak, the Motown sound climbed the charts featuring all time greats like Diana Ross and the Supremes. Suzanne participated in new developments discoveries, such as the Jackson Five, the Four Seasons, the Commodores, Lionel Richie, and others. Following the company’s move to Los Angeles, California, de Passe quickly kept pace with phenomenal growth from then director of the West Coast’s creative division to vice-president and later would continue to diversify.

Without a doubt the motion picture industry was another of Gordy’s interests and he formed a new division, Motown Productions, to develop more facets of the company. As a newly named President, de Passe shrewdly contracted new talent such as Rick James and Stevie Wonder.

De Passe moved away from the recording side of business and put to use her talent as a writer in 1970 when Diana Ross was featured in a T.V. special, “Diana.” Later in 1972, she turned to screen play writing and was quite successful. The critically acclaimed screen play “Lady Sings the Blues”, was written by de Passe and Chris Clark, in which Diana Ross played the famous Billie Holliday in the film. This earned Suzanne a prestigious Academy Award nomination. Television proved to be another venue for de Passe’s magic touch with the famous NBC special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” “Callie and Son,” and “Happy Endings” starring Lindsey Wagner, and John Schneider respectfully were de Passe’s productions. De Passe also played a substantial role in the writing and production of other Motown productions, including The Wiz and Mahogany .

In 1988 de Passe left Motown and formed her own company, de Passe Entertainment, four years later. Her genius for choosing talent was particularly demonstrated when she bought the rights for the Lonesome Dove eight hour miniseries and its sequels, which earned her Golden Globe, Emmy, and Peabody awards. De Passe was also responsible for the sitcoms “Sister,Sister,” which was scheduled for syndication in late 1998 and “Smart Guy.”

Numerous accolades included her in Women of the Year, one of 12, by Ms. magazine in 1972, and the Women in Film Crystal Award in 1988. In 1992 Suzanne was inducted into the Legacy of Women in Film and Television, while the following year the Executive Leadership Council present her with the Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award and the Achievement Award from the Executive Leadership Council. She also joined the Board of Morehouse College as the first woman to serve in their 127 year history. In addition, she remains culturally productive in ballet and opera. Clearly Suzanne de Passe’s contributions to the entertainment industry make her a powerful business leader.

Social and Economic Impact

There is no question that the Motown sound of which de Passe was a significant contributor, brought people together, having a particularly beneficial effect on existing race relations. In an article by Phil Gallo in Variety, in early 1998, politician Julian Bond was referenced as saying, “If you can’t understand Motown’s effect on youth, then you can’t understand the United States.” As an African American woman, de Passe overcame perceived notions of both gender and race discrimination. Who’s Hot featured de Passe’s response to questions on her experiences producing the Lonesome Dove series, “I find it ironic, that people have such trouble with a black woman wanting to produce a Western. I don’t think Stan Margulies or David Wolper had to answer, ‘Why are you two white guys producing Roots?’…I’m not angry about it-it’s just a fact.”

In an industry generally dominated by European American males, de Passe’s talents include powerful leadership, communication, and organizational skills along with a determined commitment to produce continuous high quality entertainment. Having to overcome both racial and gender stereotypes, de Passe has remained positive. “You can bark at the moon or you can get things done,” was how she characterized her own working philosophy. Her ability to change and evolve in the industry has been remarkable.

Chronology: Suzanne de Passe

1948: Born.

1967: Hired as a talent coordinator.

1968: Became Creative Assistant to President, Motown Productions Los Angeles.

1970: Writer: “Diana” Diana Ross’s solo television special.

1972: Co-authored the screenplay “Lady Sings the Blues.”

1972: Named one of 12 Women of the Year by Ms. Magazine.

1972: Received Academy Award nomination for “Lady Sings the Blues.”

1981: Became president of Motown Productions Los Angeles.

1988: Received the Women in Film Crystal Award.

1992: Became CEO, de Passe Entertainment.

1993: Accepted the Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Award.

Despite starting her own company in 1992, de Passe often speaks about the business strategies and principles she learned from Berry Gordy and from working for Motown. In an interview with BET Tonight in early 1998, de Passe discussed these ideas and how they have affected her business style. She says he taught her that “a business based on principles is more important than a business based on revenue.” She credits much of her success to her direct and honest business style.

De Passe, Suzanne (1948–) [next] [back] De Palma, Brian - Director and screenwriter, Career, Sidelights

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