Berry Gordy: The Original HIT-MAN
Determination. Motivation. Dedication.
These are the things dreams are made of. Berry Gordy, who built an empire of musical royalty from $800 and the support of his family, is a prime example of the heights one can achieve if they dare pursue their dreams.
Chances are if you were asked to name a song you like from the 1960s and '70s it would be a Motown hit. What started as a makeshift recording studio in a two-story Victorian home on Detroit's west side flourished into the most successfully ran black recoding label in the world. Gordy is responsible for launching the careers of many of the industry's heavy hitters of the time - including Marvin Gaye, the "Temptations", and the King of Pop himself, just to name a few.
Born to Berry Sr. and Bertha Gordy on Nov. 28, 1929 in Detroit, MI, Berry Jr. was the 7th of eight children. His father was a man of many hats, who owned a carpentry business, a general store, and a printing stop. Hard work and the will to be the best they could be were values Berry Sr. instilled in all of his children.
Gordy, a former Golden Glove boxer, Korean War vet, and assembly line worker got his start in music as a record store owner. Gordy's 3-D Record Mart was his first business venture. The record shop, which specialized in jazz music (at a time when soul and blues music were in demand) tanked after 2 years, but he wouldn't be defeated.
Gordy got his big break into the music biz as a songwriter after being introduced to Jackie Wilson, who he would go on to pen songs like, "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" for. Shortly after beginning to work with Wilson, he was introduced to a 17-year-old William "Smokey" Robinson, who was then a member of the "Matadors", which Gordy would later rename the "Miracles".
At the time Gordy was working solely as a songwriter, however, after taking on the "Miracles", he soon found himself wearing the hats of producer and manager as well. It was then that he realized that he was ready to take the next big step, founding his own record label.
At the time of its inception in 1959, Motown was known as Tamla, named after a popular song entitled "Tammy" by Debbie Reynolds. Gordy, who by this time had been involved in the music industry for a while, knew from experience that it was best to own your own royalties and erected Jobete Publishing to accompany his new record label.
In an interview on WCI TV in 2015 Gordy likened Motown to the automotive plant, saying, "I'm trying to make an artist come in one door and out another door a brand new star". Many of the labels early acts were teens and young adults from Detroit - Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson are all natives of the Motor City.
Gordy almost immediately had success with the record label. By 1962 Motown was on top of the world... almost. In that year alone Motown had 11 songs go to the Top 10 on the R&B charts, but that wasn't good enough. Gordy wanted to crossover.
"I want the Jews, Gentiles, blacks, whites, cops, and the robbers to listen to my music", Gordy said.
Gordy knew that if he really wanted to take Motown to greater heights he would have to appeal to the pop audience, which meant appealing to whites. In '62 only four Motown hits made it to the Top 10 on the Pop charts. The following year ('63) Motown had 10 songs in the Top 10 on the Pop charts. He had arrived.
In 1973 Motown was named the top black-owned business in America by Black Enterprise magazine. By this time Gordy had relocated most of his operations to Los Angeles, CA, which accompanied by the changing musical climate, resulted in the inevitable decline of Motown. Nearly four decades after its birth Gordy would sell Motown to MCA Records.
In January 1988 Gordy took his rightful place among the greats when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The story of Berry Gordy is bittersweet, but one to learn from nonetheless. While Motown Records, as it was known in its hey-day is all but a memory now, the legacy lives on and will continue to live on through its many timeless classics.
To learn more about Berry Gordy and Motown's legacy visit: https://www.motownmuseum.org.
By Lisa Early