Berry Gordy, Jr. (born 1929), founded Motown, the fledgling record company of 1959 that grew into the most successful African American enterprise in the United States and was responsible for a new sound that transformed popular music.
Berry Gordy, Jr., was born in 1929 and reared in Detroit. He was not the first businessman in the family; both parents were self-employed, his father as a plastering contractor, his mother as an insurance agent. Gordy dropped out of Northeastern High School in his junior year to pursue a career as a Featherweight boxer. Between 1948 and 1951 he fought 15 Golden Gloves matches, 12 of which he won, but his fighting career was clipped short when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War.
Upon his discharge from the Army in 1953, Berry Gordy returned to Detroit and used his service pay to open the Three-D Record Mart. His love for the jazz of Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk influenced his inventory more than his customers' requests for "things like Fats Domino," and his business soon failed.
Gordy worked for his father for a short period and then as a chrome trimmer on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. The monotony was formidable, and Gordy's way of overcoming it was to write songs in his head, some of which were recorded by local singers. Decca Records bought several of his compositions, including "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" (both recorded by Jackie Wilson), and when Gordy compared his royalty checks to what Decca made from the modest hits, he realized that writing the hits wasn't enough. He needed to own them.
At the suggestion of a friend, teenaged singer William "Smokey" Robinson, Gordy borrowed $700 from his father and formed his own company to manufacture and market records. Motown Records was headquartered in a row house on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard, where Gordy slept on the second floor and made records on the first. In time the company expanded, with nine buildings on the same street housing its branches: Jobete, music publishers; Hitsville USA, a recording studio; musical accompanists; International Talent Management Inc; the Motown Artist's Development Department (the embodiment of Gordy's personal interest in his performers, where they were taught to eat, dress, and act like polished professionals); and the Motown Record Corporation, an umbrella for several labels of Motown, including Gordy, Tamla, VIP, and Soul (the last being reserved for the hit song-writing machine of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland).
In 1960 Motown released "Shop Around," written by Smokey Robinson and performed by him and the Miracles. The song sold more than a million copies, and with that gold record, Berry Gordy's company launched the most successful and influential era in the history of popular music.
The Motown Sound was a musical genre that combined classic African American gospel singing with the new rock-and-roll sound that was being shaped by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. In a sense, this reflected the old "R & B" (for rhythm and blues), but it defined a new generation.
Motown produced over 110 number one hit songs and countless top-ten records, including "Please Mr. Postman," "Reach Out, I'll Be There," "My Girl," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "For Once in My Life," "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved by You," "Heard It Through the Grapevine," "My Guy," "Dancing in the Streets," "Your Precious Love," "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "I Hear a Symphony," "I Want You Back," and "I'll Be There." Equally impressive is a list of artists that Gordy brought into the spotlight: Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
By the mid 1970s, some of the Motown artists had begun to resist Gordy's tight control. Defectors began to break up Gordy's "family" of stars. The first to leave was Gladys Knight and the Pips, and in 1975 the Jackson Five announced that they would be moving to Epic Records when their Motown contract expired.
Although Gordy kept Stevie Wonder at Motown by promising him $13 million over seven years in the famous "Wonderdeal" of 1975, Gordy's public statements usually expressed disappointment that his superstars came to value money over loyalty. This sentiment was heard often from Gordy when, in 1981, Diana Ross announced her move to RCA Records.
Ross's move was particularly surprising and bitter for Gordy in view of the fact that in 1972 he moved his headquarters to Los Angeles to begin a career in film, not only for himself, but so he could turn Diana Ross into a movie star. His first production was the 1972 Paramount release "Lady Sings the Blues," the story of Billie Holiday starring Ross. The picture was nominated for five Academy Awards and grossed more than $8.5 million. In 1975 Gordy directed Ross in "Mahogany," the story of a African American fashion model's rise to fame. Although the film did well at the box office, it was not nearly the critical success of "Lady."
Other Gordy films were "The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings" (1976), "Almost Summer" (1978), "The Wiz" (1978) starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and "The Last Dragon" (1985).
In June 1988 Gordy sold his company to MCA, Inc. He retained control of Jobete, the music publishing operation, and Motown's film division, but sold the record label to the entertainment conglomerate for $61 million. He told the newspaper Daily Variety that he wanted to "ensure the perpetuation of Motown and its heritage."
Esther Edwards, Berry Gordy's sister, was also interested in preserving Motown's heritage. The brick house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, once modestly and unknowingly named "Hitsville USA," is now the site of the Motown Museum, thanks to the pack-rat tendency of Edwards. She saved hundreds of boxes of memorabilia, including original music scores, posters, and photographs, and until 1988 most of the mementos were stuck to the walls with thumbtacks. In an effort to have the collection professionally preserved, Michael Jackson, whose ties to Berry were still strong in 1990, donated the proceeds of the Detroit stop of his "Bad" tour—$125,000—to the Motown Museum.
Berry Gordy married Thelma Coleman in 1953. They had two sons, Berry IV and Terry, and one daughter, Hazel, who married Jermaine Jackson in 1973. Gordy's second marriage was to Raynoma Liles in 1959; they had one son, Kerry. Gordy also had a son with Margaret Norton in 1964 whom they named Kennedy, after John F. Kennedy, and who changed his name to Rockwell and recorded for Motown in 1984. In the Los Angeles area Gordy lived in a Bel Air estate and highly valued his privacy, rarely dealing with the press. In late 1994 a plan was announced to make a tribute album to Gordy. Even though Gordy was often times hailed as an entrepreneur, he was first and foremost a song-writer. Singers who have signed on to sing some of Gordy's songs on the tribute album include Diana Ross, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson.
Further Reading on Berry Gordy Jr
Numerous books recount the rise of Motown as a major contributor to popular music, all of which feature Berry Gordy as the man who started it all. Two books which tell the story particularly well, with outstanding photographs, are Motown: Hot Wax, City Cool and Solid Gold (1986) by J. Randy Taraborrelli and The Motown Story (1985) by Don Waller. Two more worthy accounts of Gordy and his empire are Motown: This History (1988) by Sharon Davis and Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985) by Nelson George, with a foreword by Quincy Jones. Two of Gordy's family members have written telling tales of the man: Berry, Me and Motown (1990) by Raynoma Gordy Singleton, Gordy's second wife; and Movin' Up: Pop Gordy Tells His Story (1979) by Berry Gordy Senior. Gordy was interviewed by the popular media numerous times over the years, especially in 1983 during the celebration of Motown's 25th anniversary. Newsweek (May 23, 1983) featured an interview and well-told background story.