Born in Harlem, New York in July, 1947, Suzanne de Passe was an assistant to Berry Gordy of Motown where she learned every aspect of the entertainment business and brought Motown hit-making artists, including The Jackson 5. She went on to become the president of Motown Productions, and formed her own production company in 1992. She's been nominated for the Academy Award and won multiple Emmys.
Entrepreneur. Born Suzanne Celeste de Passe in July of 1947 in Harlem, New York, to West Indian immigrants. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and her father an executive with Seagrams, Inc. Part of the African-American elite of New York City, de Passe and her family lived in the middleclass Riverton Apartments in Harlem, where she enjoyed visits to the theatre, taking ballet classes and going on summer trips to Martha's Vineyard.
Suzanne's parents divorced when she was three years old, but the former couple remained on good terms. When her father remarried six years later, de Passe says she "had the benefit of an extremely harmonious relationship between three people." This atypical arrangement fostered an encouraging family atmosphere. As a child, De Passe attended several progressive, integrated private schools, including Jack and Jill as well as the New Lincoln School, which she credits for her assertive business style. She went on to attend Manhattan High School and, after graduation in 1964, De Passe entered Syracuse University with the intention of studying writing.
On the Music Scene
Her first year at Syracuse was less than successful; unhappy with the small African-American community there, de Passe transferred to Manhattan Community College to be closer to home. But de Passe was still unsatisfied with her educational experience, and began spending more time at her favorite hang out, a New York dance club called Cheetah Disco, than at the library. The Cheetah's owners took a shine to de Passe, who had no trouble telling the staff what she thought of each evening's live music. Impressed by her natural ear and no-nonsense style, the Cheetah hired de Passe to be the club's talent coordinator. In this position, she was "the last living authority on live music in New York," she says. "I guess I was pretty obnoxious."
From the Cheetah Disco, de Passe moved on to become a booking agent for the Howard Stein talent agency. In 1964, Supreme's member Cindy Birdsong introduced de Passe to Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records. The young de Passe was frustrated with her failed attempts to book talent from Motown, and let Gordy know it. "I want to book Smokey and Martha and the Vandellas but your man won't return my calls," she complained. Gordy offered her a job on the spot, inviting her to come over and "help us straighten it out." Three weeks later, de Passe moved to Detroit, Michigan, and began work as Gordy's personal assistant.
Gordy became her mentor, and began teaching his young charge the creative side of the business. "Gordy let me mess up a lot of things [and] spend a lot of his money," de Passe says of their business relationship. Within the next few years, de Passe worked in every capacity for Motown, from helping to pick new talent to going on the road with performers. Her quick thinking and sharp wit quickly earned her a promotion as the vice president in charge of creative operations for the new West Coast creative division in Los Angeles.
An Eye for Talent
While in California, de Passe discovered a five-brother singing act, called the Jackson Five. "I was just knocked out," de Passe later said. She convinced Gordy to sign the group after watching them perform in an acquaintance's apartment. De Passe took the group under her wing, supervising their music and choreography. The group would later become an international success, and would launch the career of pop singer Michael Jackson. In addition to Jackson Five, de Passe was responsible for signing many future music icons during her tenure in creative operations at Motown, including The Commodores, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Lionel Richie, Thelma Houston, Billy Preston, Teena Marie, Rick James and Stephanie Mills.
In 1972, de Passe co-wrote a screenplay for Motown's Billie Holiday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. The script earned her an Academy Award nomination, and helped her rise in the ranks—first as vice president of Motown's West Coast division, and then vice president of Motown Industries as a whole. During this time, De Passe also met actor Paul Le Mat, whom she married in 1978.
By 1981, de Passe was the president of Motown Productions, where she continued to write and produce films under the Motown label. She quickly proved her mettle when she won a 1983 Emmy for the retrospective, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. She earned yet another Emmy in 1985 for Motown Returns to the Apollo. That same year, de Passe raised eyebrows when she purchased the movie rights to Larry McMurtry's Western novel, Lonesome Dove. The CBS miniseries seemed destined for failure; the four-night, eight-hour presentation was deemed "too long" for network television, and many critics claimed that an African-American woman was a poor fit to produce a Western. But de Passe proved everyone wrong when the series hit the air in 1989. Not only was Lonesome Dove the most popular mini-series in five years, but it also brought Motown more than $10 million in profits and earned de Passe yet another Emmy nomination.
De Passe formed her own production company, de Passe Entertainment, in 1992. Among her productions in this period were the sitcoms Sister, Sister (1994) and Smart Guy (1997) as well as the successful Showtime at the Apollo series (2002).
De Passe's career has been nationally recognized by Time magazine, who named her "one of the most promising new mini-moguls in Hollywood" in 1988. She was also honored with the Women in Film Crystal Award (1988), an Essence Award (1989), the Revlon Business Woman of the Year Award (1994), an American Women in Radio and Television Silver Satellite Award (1999), and an induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1990). From 2002 to 2005, she held the Time Warner Endowed Chair in Media at Howard University. In 2004, Ebony Magazine selected her for its highest honor, presenting her with the Madame C.J. Walker Award. She was also the recipient of the 2006 Producer of The Year Award from the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors.
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