November 28, 1929
The music executive Berry Gordy Jr., the third in his family to carry that name, was born in Detroit. He was attracted to music as a child, winning a talent contest with his song "Berry's Boogie." He also took up boxing, often training with his friend Jackie Wilson, who would later become a popular rhythm-and-blues singer. Gordy quit high school to turn professional, but he soon gave up boxing at the urging of his mother. After spending 1951 to 1953 in the army, Gordy married Thelma Louise Coleman and began to work in the Gordy family printing and construction business.
In 1953 Gordy opened a jazz record store in Detroit. However, since rhythm-and-blues records were more in demand, the business closed after only two years. Gordy then began working at a Ford Motor Company assembly line, writing and publishing pop songs on the side, including "Money, That's What I Want" (1959). During this time, Gordy, who had separated from his wife, wrote some of Jackie Wilson's biggest hits, including "Lonely Teardrops" (1958), "That Is Why I Love You So" (1959), and "I'll Be Satisfied" (1959). He also sang with his new wife, Raynoma Liles, whom he married in 1959, on a number
of records by the Detroit singer Marv Johnson. In the late 1950s Gordy met and worked with Smokey Robinson and the Matadors, who at Gordy's suggestion changed their name to the Miracles. Gordy recorded them on their first record, "Got a Job" (1958).
During this period Gordy became increasingly dissatisfied with leasing his recordings to larger record companies, who often would take over distribution. At the urging of Robinson, Gordy borrowed eight-hundred dollars and founded Tamla Records and Gordy Records, the first companies in what would become the Motown empire. He released "Way Over There" (1959) and "Shop Around" (1961) by the Miracles. Gordy began hiring friends and family members to work for him, and he began to attract young unknown singers, including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, and Stevie Wonder. The songwriting team of Eddie Holland, his brother Brian, and Lamont Dozier began to write songs for Gordy, who had formed a base of operations at 2648 Grand Boulevard in Detroit. From that address Gordy also formed the publishing and management companies that would constitute the larger enterprise known more generally as Motown. Over the next ten years, Motown, with Gordy as chief executive and chief shareholder (and often producer and songwriter as well), produced dozens of pop and rhythm-and-blues hits that dominated the new style known as soul music.
In the mid-1960s Gordy began to distance himself from the company's day-to-day music operations, spending more and more time in Los Angeles, where he was growing interested in the film and television industries. He divorced Raynoma in 1964 and married Margaret Norton, whom he also later divorced. (Gordy again married in 1990, but that marriage, to Grace Eton, ended in divorce three years later.)
In the late 1960s, many Motown performers, writers, and producers complained about Gordy's paternalistic and heavy-handed management of their finances. Some of them—including the Jackson Five, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and the Temptations—left the company, claiming that Gordy had misled and mistreated them. By this time he was quite wealthy, living in a Los Angeles mansion that contained a portrait of himself dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte. He resigned as president of the Motown Records subsidiary in 1973 in order to assume the chair of Motown Industries, a new parent corporation. The following year he completed what had been a gradual move of Motown to Los Angeles and produced several successful television specials. His film ventures—including the Diana Ross vehicles Lady Sings the Blues (1973), Mahogany (1975), and The Wiz (1978)—were not as successful.
Despite the departure of its core personnel over the years, the company Gordy presided over in the 1980s remained successful, with more than one-hundred-million dollars in annual sales in 1983, making it the largest black-owned company in the United States. In 1984 Gordy allowed MCA to begin distributing Motown's records, and the company bought Motown in 1988 for sixty-one million dollars. Gordy kept control of Gordy Industries, which ran Motown's music publishing, film, and television subsidiaries. His net worth in 1986, as estimated by Forbes, was more than $180 million, making him one of the wealthiest people in the United States at that time. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Gordy branched out into other fields, including sports management and the ownership and training of racehorses.
Although Gordy, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, began his career as a successful songwriter and producer, his greatest achievement was selling soul music to white pop audiences, thus helping to shape America's youth into a single, huge, multiracial audience. In 2004, Gordy sold the last piece of his Motown legacy: EMI Music Publishing bought the rights to fifteen hundred compositions for eighty million dollars.
George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
Posner, Gerald. Motown: Money, Music, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House, 2002.
Waller, Don. The Motown Story. New York: Scribner, 1985.
jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
"Gordy, Berry." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gordy-berry
"Gordy, Berry." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gordy-berry
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