From the lowdown to Motown: Business with Berry Gordy

Early years

Gordy, Jr. (born in Detroit, Michigan) was the seventh of eight children born to the middle class family of Berry Gordy II (a.k.a. Berry Gordy, Sr.)[1] 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. Berry Gordy II (1888–1978) was the son of Berry Gordy I and a woman named Lucy. Berry Gordy I was the son of James Thomas Gordy, a white farmer, and a female slave in Georgia

Berry Gordy II was lured to Detroit by the many job opportunities for blacks offered by booming automotive businesses.

Berry Gordy, Jr’s older siblings were all prominent black 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 (not the singer), owner of the Flame Show Bar talent club, where he met singer Jackie Wilson.

In 1957, Wilson recorded Reet Petite, a song Gordy had co-written with his sister Gwen and writer-producer Billy Davis. It became a modest hit but had more success internationally, especially in the UK where it reached the Top 10 and even later topped the chart on re-issue in 1986. Wilson recorded four more songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years, including “Lonely Teardrops”, which topped the R & B charts and got to number 7 in the pop chart. Berry and Gwen Gordy also wrote “All I Could Do Was Cry” for Etta James at Chess Records.

Motown Record Corporation

Gordy reinvested his songwriting success into producing. In 1957, he discovered The Miracles (originally known as The Matadors) and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In 1959, at Miracles leader Smokey Robinson’s encouragement, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create an R&B label, Tamla Records. On January 21, 1959, “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson was issued as Tamla 101. United Artists Records picked up “Come To Me” for national distribution, as well as Johnson’s more successful follow-up records (such as “You Got What It Takes,” co-produced and co-written by Gordy). Berry’s next release was the only 45 ever issued on his Rayber label, and it featured Wade Jones with an unnamed female back-up group. Although Wade’s songs “I Can’t Concentrate” and “Insane” are quite good, the record did not sell well and is now one of the rarest issues from the Motown stable. Berry’s third release was “Bad Girl” by The Miracles, and was the first-ever release for the Motown record label. “Bad Girl” was a solid hit in 1959 after Chess Records picked it up. Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” initially appearing on Tamla and then charted on Gordy’s sister’s label, Anna Records, in February 1960. The Miracles’ hit “Shop Around” peaked at #1 on the national R&B charts in late 1960 and at #2 on the Billboard pop charts on January 16, 1961 (#1 Pop, Cash Box), which established Motown as an independent company worthy of notice. Later in 1961, The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” made it to the top of both charts.

In 1960, Gordy signed an unknown named Mary Wells who became the fledging label’s first star, with Smokey Robinson penning her hits “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Two Lovers” and “My Guy”. The Tamla and Motown labels were then merged into a new company Motown Record Corporation, which was incorporated on April 14, 1960.

Gordy was not known for cultivating white artists, although some were signed, such as Nick and the Jaguars, Mike and The Modifiers, Chris Clark, Rare Earth, the Valadiers, Debbie Dean and Connie Haines. Berry produced a record for a white artist named Tom Clay some time in 1959. The record was released on a tiny Detroit label called Chant. It is not currently known if Berry owned Chant records, but the 45 is recognized by many collectors to be one of the rarest of all Gordy singles. Tom Clay became a DJ in LA, and recorded again for Gordy on his MoWest label in the 70’s. Kiki Dee became the first white female British singer to be signed to the Motown label. Gordy also employed many white workers and managers at the company’s headquarters, named Hitsville U.S.A., on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. He largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal.

Gordy’s gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent, along with the careful management of his artists’ public image, made Motown initially a major national and then international success. Over the next decade, he signed such artists as The Supremes, Marvin Gaye,The Contours, Jimmy Ruffin, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Commodores, The Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5.

Relocation to Los Angeles

In 1972, Gordy attended FIDM in Los Angeles, where he produced the commercially successful Billie Holiday biography Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross (who was nominated for an Academy Award) and Richard Pryor, and introducing Billy Dee Williams. Initially the studio, over Gordy’s objections, rejected Williams after several screen tests. However, Gordy, known for his tenacity, eventually prevailed and the film established Williams as a star. (Williams would also go on to portray Gordy in the 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream.) Berry Gordy soon after produced and directed Mahogany, also starring Diana Ross. In 1985, he produced the cult martial arts film The Last Dragon, which starred martial artist Taimak and one of Prince’s girls, Vanity.

Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s by artists like the Jacksons, Rick James, Lionel Richie and long-term signings, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the record company was no longer the major force it had been previously. Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures on June 28, 1988 for $61 million. He also later sold most of his interests in the Jobete publishing concern to EMI Publishing.

Gordy published an autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994.

Statements about Motown artists

On March 20, 2009, Gordy was in Hollywood to pay tribute to his first group and first million-selling act, The Miracles, when the members received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Speaking in tribute to the group, Gordy said “Without The Miracles, Motown would not be the Motown it is today.”

He gave a speech during the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles on July 7, 2009. Gordy suggested that ‘The King of Pop’ was perhaps not the best description for Jackson in light of his achievements, and chose instead “the greatest entertainer that has ever lived.”

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