Born: November 28, 1929
Founder, Motown Records
Berry Gordy began his career in music by writing songs that others turned into hits. In 1959, he formed Motown Records and built a distinct "Motown sound," a mixture of traditional African American musical styles with modern pop music. That blend did more than create danceable, tuneful songs; it also had an important social and economic impact. In the words of Suzanne E. Smith, author of Dancing in the Streets, "the Motown Record Company completely transformed the American popular music scene. Never before had a black-owned company been able to create and produce the musical artistry of its own community, and then sell it successfully … across racial boundaries."
"Songwriting was my love, and protecting that love… was the motivation for everything I did in the early years of my career. Producing the artists who sang my songs was the next logical step to making sure my songs were done the way I wanted. Protecting my songs was also the reason I got into publishing and eventually the record business."
Berry Gordy III was born one of eight children on November 28, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan. His parents Berry (often called "Pops") and Bertha had come north from Georgia in 1922. During Gordy's younger years the family struggled financially. Eventually, however, the elder Gordy turned things around, and over the years he owned several businesses, including a grocery store, a plastering and carpentry service, and a print shop. As a boy, Gordy sometimes worked with his father. One early moneymaking venture was taking a friend door-to-door to sing for neighbors. The friend had a beautiful voice and Gordy had the marketing skills to convince neighbors to pay fifty cents to hear a song.
Gordy loved music, although he had little formal training other than some early piano lessons. He also loved boxing, and he spent hours working out in a local gym. Dropping out of high school, Gordy fought professionally for several years, then quit in 1950 to concentrate on writing songs. In his autobiography To Be Loved, Gordy recalled that he wrote about everything: "license plates, the sky, people, love, paper clips, you name it. I was a writing fool." The highlight of his early musical career was writing and recording a one-minute advertisement for his family's print shop.
In 1951, Gordy was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Korea. In the army, Gordy earned his General Education Development (GED) certificate, equivalent to a high school diploma. When he returned to Detroit in 1953, he opened a record shop with his friend Billy Davis. They wanted to sell jazz, but R&B had become the musical favorite of many young African Americans. The store soon closed. Gordy took a job selling cookware, but quit to again focus on songwriting. By then, Gordy had married Thelma Coleman. (Gordy divorced his first wife in 1959, and remarried two more times.) In 1954, they had their first child. As the next two children arrived, Gordy realized he needed a full-time job, and he went to work for the Ford Motor Company (see entry) on the assembly line.
The highlight of Berry Gordy's boxing career came in 1948. He won a fight while appearing on the same program as Joe Louis (1914-1981), the former heavyweight champion of the world, and one of Gordy's childhood heroes.
Working on the assembly line, Gordy wrote songs in his head to pass the time. In 1957, he quit his job at Ford to once again attempt writing songs full time. His sister Gwen had contacts in the music industry through her job in a Detroit nightclub. Gordy was introduced to a songwriter named Roquel Billy Davis, and the two began writing songs for the Pearl Music Company. At times, Gwen Gordy collaborated with them. Their first hit was "All I Could Do Was Cry," sung by Etta James (1938-).
Gordy's next big success came when Jackie Wilson (1932-1984) recorded "Reet Petite" (1957), the first of several songs Gordy wrote for him that reached the national record charts. Wilson was known as "Mr. Excitement." According to Gordy, "Jackie took … a so-so song, and turned it into a classic." Gordy's other hits for Wilson included "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops," both from 1958.
Around this time, Gordy met Smokey Robinson (1940-), an aspiring songwriter and leader of a group soon to be called the Miracles. Gordy made suggestions to improve Robinson's songs and helped record the Miracles's first release in February 1958.
Gordy was supposed to receive royalties from the companies that published his songs, but at times the publishers refused to pay. To make sure he received his fair share of royalties, Gordy started Jobete Publishing, taking the name from the first two letters in his three children's names. Robinson was the first writer to sign with Jobete. Robinson also suggested that Gordy form his own record company. Gordy approached his family for a loan. The Gordys had set up a savings account that everyone paid into; to get money out required unanimous family approval. Despite his sister Esther's reluctance, Gordy sold his family on his plan and received a loan of $800.
With that money, Gordy started Tamla Records in 1959, which was soon followed by Motown and several other labels. As his first songs sold well, Gordy built his own simple recording studio and signed more acts. He relied on his family to help run the company, and his second wife, Raynoma Liles, sang background vocals and helped arrange songs.
Gordy worked closely with his staff, choosing and producing the songs his acts would record, arranging concert tours, and looking for new artists. He also continued writing songs.
Motown's early releases did well on the rhythm & blues charts, which tracked songs largely marketed to African Americans. But even more important to the company's growth was its success on the pop chart, which reflected sales to the widest audience possible.
Motown found a new sensation in the Supremes, featuring Diana Ross (1944-). The group had been singing for Motown since 1961 but had, as Gordy wrote in his autobiography, "flop after flop." That changed in 1964, when the Supremes released three number-one hits. Gordy devoted more and more of his attention to the group. As he told Billboard in 1994, "I saw the Supremes as the vehicle to lead Motown into a whole new world of music, and appreciation of our music."
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, the Supremes and other popular groups made Gordy rich. His stars, however, sacrificed control over their lives, as Motown shaped their music and kept some of them on allowances of $50 per week. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland sued Motown in 1968, accusing Gordy of holding back royalties. The charge stunned Gordy, who always thought he treated his artists as family. Motown eventually paid several hundred thousand dollars to end the lawsuit. Gordy also had to give musical control to two of his biggest acts, Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) and Stevie Wonder (1950-).
Despite these problems, Gordy ran the most successful African American company of the time. He moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1968. In 1972, the company followed. Gordy wanted to expand Motown into films and television, and in 1972 he produced Lady Sings the Blues, which received five Academy Award nominations. In 1975, he directed and produced Mahogany, which was followed by several other films.
Late in 1979, Motown ran into financial troubles, spending more than it earned. Gordy cut salaries for some of his executives and considered selling off pieces of his company. Motown survived these tough times, but by 1988, Gordy saw that Motown could not remain independent. Soon after, he sold Motown to MCA, with Gordy keeping Jobete Music and Motown Productions, the company's film division. He called his new business the Gordy Company, with Berry Gordy IV as president and himself as chairman of the board.
At Motown Productions, Gordy counted on the expertise of Suzanne de Passe, who had started working at Motown in the late 1960s. De Passe gave Motown Productions its first hit with Lonesome Dove (1989). A made-for-television movie set in the Old West, Lonesome Dove won critical and popular acclaim. Gordy eventually changed the name of Motown Productions to Gordy-De Passe Productions, then sold out entirely to his partner.
In 1997, Gordy made another major move, selling 50 percent of Jobete to EMI Music Publishing for $132 million. He had discussed selling to Michael Jackson (1958-), who had already bought the publishing rights to many songs written by the Beatles. But as Gordy told Black Enterprise after the sale, he had worked with EMI, the world's largest music publishing company, for fifteen years, "and now there's a situation where they can possibly build movies or television projects around our songs."
Although he still lived in Los Angeles, Gordy made a major investment in Detroit. In 2001, he led an effort to raise private funding for the Motown Center, a museum that would honor Motown and the city of Detroit. It would be much larger than the first Motown Museum, located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, site of the original Motown offices and studio. Gordy donated land for the new center as well as cash. The move showed he remained committed to his hometown and the music he loved.
In 1990, Berry Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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In 2000, Berry Gordy donated $750,000 to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which promotes R&B music and honors its contributors. Gordy made a separate donation to the foundation's ongoing efforts to collect royalties owed to longtime R&B writers and performers.