Berry Gordy, Jr.
Berry Gordy, Jr.
Berry Gordy, Jr. is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and important figures in the development of R&B as a dominant popular music style, and in the development of African-American owned businesses. His success as the leader of Motown and its affiliated companies made him a role model for both a generation of musicians and a generation of aspiring young businesspeople.
Born in 1929, Gordy was the seventh of eight children born to the middle class family of Berry Gordy, Sr. and Bertha Fuller Gordy, who had relocated to Detroit from Milledgeville, Georgia in 1922. Gordy was brought up in a tight-knit family with strong morals.
His father was the grandson of a slave in Georgia and was lured to Detroit by the many job opportunities for blacks that booming automotive businesses like Ford offered. Berry Gordy's older siblings were all prominent citizens of Detroit. Berry, however, dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to become a professional boxer in hopes of becoming rich quick, a career he followed until 1950 when he was drafted by the United States Army for the Korean war.
After his return from Korea in 1953, he married Thelma Coleman. He developed his interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record store featuring jazz music. The store was unsuccessful and Gordy sought work at the Lincoln-Mercury plant, but his family connections put him in touch with Al Green, owner of the Flame Show Bar talent club, where he met Jackie Wilson.
In 1957 Wilson recorded "Reet Petite," a song Gordy had co-written with his sister Gwen and Billy Davis, which became a modest hit. Wilson recorded four more songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years.
Gordy reinvested his songwriting successes into producing, and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In January 1959 Gordy founded an R&B label called Tamla Records, which produced Marv Johnson's first hit, "Come To Me." At the encouragement of friend Smokey Robinson, Gordy created Motown on December 14, 1959. Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," besides appearing on Tamla, charted on Gordy's Anna label from February 1960. The Miracles' hit "Shop Around" peaked nationally at #1 on the R&B charts in late 1960 and at #2 on the pop charts in early 1961 and established Motown as an independent company worthy of notice.
Gordy's gift for identifying musical talent, along with the careful management of his artists' public image, made Motown a national success. Over the next decade he signed such artists as Mary Wells, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Pips, The Commodores, The Velvelettes, The Marvelettes, Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5.
In 1968 Gordy moved to Los Angeles, California, and expanded Motown's offices there. In June 1972 he relocated the entire Motown Records company to LA, and the following year he reorganized the company into Motown Industries, an entertainment conglomerate that would include record, movie, television and publishing divisions.
In the 70's Gordy produced the successful film Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross, who was nominated for an Academy Award. Gordy soon after produced and directed Mahogany, also starring Ross.
Unfortunately, the transition from a "family" in Detroit to a big business in LA was rough, and Motown began a long, slow decline both creatively and financially. Hits became harder to come by, and the artist development machine that was the foundation of the label faltered. Further, bread-and-butter artists like the Four Tops, the Temptations and even Ross in time defected to other labels.
By the 80s, Stevie Wonder, Rick James and Smokey Robinson were the principal hitmakers on Motown, but there was little to distinguish the label from dozens of other R&B focused organizations, save its illustrious past.
Gordy sold his interests in Motown to MCA and Boston Ventures in the late 80s and ultimately sold the lucrative publishing rights. He is currently retired in California.