Berry Gordy, Jr.
Berry Gordy, Jr.
When it comes to impact on the music of America in the 60s and 70s, there was Berry Gordy, Jr., and then there was everyone else. A former boxer and factory worker in his hometown of Detroit, Gordy went on to create perhaps the most iconic music label of the 20th century, Motown. And now, more than 60 years after the label was founded, its accomplishments seem even more otherworldly than when they originally occurred.
Born in 1929, as the seventh of eight children, Gordy progressed through Detroit schools until 11th grade, when he dropped out to become a boxer. He was drafted into the Army at age 20 and was stationed in Korea during the Korean War. When he returned, he had the vision of a life in music, and became a successful songwriter, scoring a number of hits with local star Jackie Wilson.
Borrowing $900, he created the Tamla and Gordy record labels, and landed some regional hits such as Barrett Strong’s “Money.” His bigger vision was the establishment of the new Motown label (a mashup of “Motor” and “Town”), creating a music assembly line similar to the automotive assembly lines of his hometown. His dream received a major shot in the arm when “Shop Around” by The Miracles leaped to #1 on the charts in 1960.
Over the course of the next decade, Motown (with its associated labels) became the most successful independent label ever, and the unofficial “Sound of Young America.” Stars like The Temptations, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five and countless others came of age during the label’s decade of dominance, creating a discography of music that is unparalleled.
Wanting to expand into the movie business, Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1968. It was a blow to Detroit, which had become the center of the musical world, and it turned out to have more mixed results on the Motown empire. Over the course of the next decade, Motown – while certainly having its share of hits, and even some successful movies – began a long decline from its late 60s peak, and Gordy was largely unable to recreate the magic combination of songwriters, producers and new artists that fueled the label’s growth. Many of Motown’s stalwart acts, from The Four Tops to Gaye to Ross left for other labels, and, save a few new stars like DeBarge and Rick James, Motown became just another music label.
By 1990, Gordy had sold his interests in Motown to MCA, and largely retired from the music business. He ultimately wrote a well received autobiography and also created a hit stageplay about the heyday of the label. He also assisted in the visioning of an expansive Motown Museum at the site of his original Hitsville USA studio on Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
By Chris Rizik