Gordy Jr., Berry

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Berry Gordy Jr.

Born November 28, 1929
Detroit, Michigan

Music industry business manager;
founder of Motown Records

In 1959, thirty-year-old Berry Gordy Jr. was a former professional boxer, failed record-store owner, ex-automobile plant assembly line worker, and moderately successful songwriter. That year he started his own company, which came to be known as The Motown Record Corporation. The company began releasing singles and record albums featuring African American artists. The following year, the Motown single "Shop Around" by The Miracles gave Gordy his first gold record, selling five hundred thousand copies. Many more gold records were to follow. During the 1960s, Motown became one of the leading independent record companies in the United States. It was also the country's biggest and most successful black-owned entertainment-industry business. Its distinctive "Motown Sound" appealed to people of all races and was among the most popular music of the 1960s.

"White people are the same as black people. We all want love, we all want happiness, we all want peace. Our problem is communicating. You think I hate you, and I think you hate me.… What Motown music did was to bring out the sameness—everybody wants love, everybody wants happiness."

—Berry Gordy Jr.


Berry Gordy Jr. was born on November 28, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan. He was the son of Berry Sr. and Bertha Gordy. Unlike many other African Americans of the period, his family was solidly middle-class. The Gordy family operated a successful painting and construction company. His father owned a grocery store, and his mother was one of the founders of a life insurance company.

Young Berry was not interested in following his parents into business, however. He left high school during his junior year to become a professional prizefighter. He served in the U.S. Army between 1951 and 1953. Upon returning to Detroit, he opened a record store that specialized in jazz records. Because of his fondness for this type of music and his desire to promote it commercially, Berry refused to sell the rhythm-and-blues recordings that were more popular in the African American community. In 1955 Gordy's store went out of business.

By the mid-1950s, Gordy had married and fathered three children. To support his family, he took a job working as an upholstery trimmer on an assembly line at a Lincoln-Mercury automobile manufacturing plant. But Gordy remained consumed by his fascination with music. He was convinced that he could build a career in the entertainment industry. He soon left the plant to seek his destiny as a songwriter.

First success

In the mid-1950s, the Flame Show Bar was a popular Detroit nightspot that presented many of America's top black entertainers. Al Green, the bar's owner, also managed a number of these performers. Gordy began composing songs for them. His initial success came in 1957 with "Reet Petite," written with Tyran Carlo, who also worked under the name Roquel "Billy" Davis. The tune was sung by Jackie Wilson, who was celebrated for his striking tenor voice. With his sister, Gwen, and Billy Davis, Gordy wrote additional hits for Wilson. The trio composed the rhythmic classic "Lonely Teardrops" and a ballad, "To Be Loved," both of which became hits in 1958. They also wrote the bouncy "That's Why (I Love You So)" and "I'll Be Satisfied." In the late 1950s Gordy also began producing some of the songs he composed.

One day, Gordy saw the singing group The Matadors audition for Jackie Wilson's manager. The manager was unimpressed, but Gordy felt the group had talent. Gordy began managing the group, which changed its name to The Miracles. In 1958 the group produced its first record, "Got a Job," a musical response to "Get a Job," a hit by The Silhouettes. "Got a Job" disappeared after gaining brief radio airplay. But in the process Gordy formed a close friendship with The Miracles' lead singer, Smokey Robinson.

At this point, Gordy's songs were recorded and released by different record labels. He had no influence on how they were marketed or on their ultimate success. For this reason, he decided to borrow $800 from his family and form his own record label. In January of 1959 the Tamla Record Company opened for business. "Tamla" was a variation of Tammy, a popular movie of the era starring Debbie Reynolds, who had scored a hit with the title song. Tamla's first release—"Come to Me" by Marv Johnson—was issued only regionally because Gordy lacked the resources to market it nationally. As it rose on the charts, he licensed it to United Artists Records. "Come to Me" eventually became a Top-30 hit. Later in 1959 Tamla enjoyed success with "Money," by Barrett Strong, which was distributed nationally by Anna Records and also broke into the Top 30.

"Hitsville U.S.A."

In 1960, Gordy renamed his company The Motown Record Corporation. He established offices in a two-story house located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit (now home to the Motown Historical Museum). He transformed the basement into a recording studio and placed a "Hitsville U.S.A." sign out front. Motown's first release, in June 1960, was "Sugar Daddy," by The Satintones. It was not a chart-buster. Around this time, Gordy also established his own music publishing company—named Jobete in honor of his three children, Hazel Joy, Berry, and Terry. He also started a management agency, International Talent Management.

The year 1961 was a banner year for Gordy and Motown. In January, "Shop Around" by The Miracles rose to number one on the national rhythm-and-blues charts and to number two on the pop Top 100. At a time when civil rights demonstrations were increasing racial tensions across theUnited States, the record's rating was an extraordinary accomplishment. The across-the-board success of "Shop Around," not to mention Motown's future hits, was proof that Gordy's music transcended racial barriers. That June, Gordy issued his first full-length record albums on the Tamla label: Hi! We're The Miracles and The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. Gordy signed such future star acts as The Supremes (who started out as backup vocalists), The Temptations, and Steveland Morris. Steveland was a sweet-voiced pre-teen who had been blind since birth and who was billed as Little Stevie Wonder. Finally in December, "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes—Motown's first girl group—became Motown's first number one pop hit. The singers first met Gordy through one of their high school teachers.

In 1962 Gordy helped assemble the songwriting-production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, soon to become legendary as Holland-Dozier-Holland. The team's first Top-30 hit, Martha and The Vandellas' "Come and Get These Memories," came the following year. That group's lead singer, Martha Reeves, came to Motown as a secretary. She and The Vandellas began recording for Gordy as backup singers. One of their later hits, "Dancing in the Streets," became an urban American anthem for celebration and good times. The Contours' "Do You Love Me" was another important Gordy hit of this period, as was Mary Wells' melodic "You Beat Me to the Punch." The latter became the first Motown single to be nominated for a Grammy Award, the music industry's top honor. The year 1962 climaxed with a national road tour of top Motown performers, which ended in a ten-day appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. The participating acts included The Miracles, Martha and The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Contours, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Marv Johnson, and Singin' Sammy Ward.

At Motown, the hits rolled in and the company rapidly developed into a hit-producing factory. The Supremes' first recordings were unsuccessful, but under the supervision of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the group became a star act. The group enjoyed a dazzling succession of number one singles, starting with "Where Did Our Love Go" in 1964. Between 1964 and 1967, The Supremes were the world's top female singing act. Two contrasting classics, Mary Wells's "My Guy" and The Temptations' "My Girl," both topped the charts. Marvin Gaye and the group Gladys Knight and The Pips each scored with different renditions of the same song, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Motown releases regularly crashed the charts, often hitting number one. In 1966, an astounding 75 percent of all Motown singles made the Top 100.

Grooming for stardom

Many Motown performers came to Gordy as raw, unpolished talents who were still in, or barely out of, their teens. He guided them, hiring top professionals to teach them how to talk, dress, and move onstage. Then he marketed them, arranging for appearances on the era's top TV variety shows, such as American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. However, not all Motown acts were entertainment industry novices. In 1963 Gordy signed The Four Tops, a group of singers who had been performing together for a decade. Under Gordy they enjoyed their greatest success with such smash hits as "Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out I'll Be There," and "Standing in the Shadows of Love." In 1969 The Temptations' "Cloud Nine" became the first Motown release to win a Grammy. The following year, five siblings called The Jackson 5, featuring lead vocals by twelve-year-old Michael Jackson, enjoyed their first Motown chart-topper: "I Want You Back."

By the end of the 1960s, Berry Gordy had built an entertainment industry empire. He owned numerous record labels, in addition to his management and publishing companies, and had earned millions. Motown had become the biggest and most profitable black-owned entertainment industry corporation in the United States and one of the most prosperous black-operated businesses of any type. The success of Motown also helped carve a spot in the record industry for younger, up-and-coming black producers and executives.

Despite its successes, however, Motown's foundation was jolted by discontent among its performers and production team. In 1967 Gordy fired Florence Ballard, one of The Supremes, who was becoming increasingly jealous of the popularity of lead singer Diana Ross. The next year, he dismissed The Temptations' David Ruffin. Finally, Holland-Dozier-Holland left the company in a dispute over royalties and filed a $20-million lawsuit against Motown.

During the 1970s Gordy focused on the careers of such emerging acts as The Jackson 5 and Diana Ross, who had left The Supremes and gone solo. He relocated to Hollywood, founded Motown Industries, and became involved in the production of motion pictures, television shows, and Broadway musicals. Although many of its original acts left the company and signed with other record labels, Motown remained a significant power in the industry. Diana Ross stayed with the label, as did Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Commodores. Unlike the good-time feeling that characterized previous releases, a few Motown records dealt with topical political and social issues. "War" (1970) by Edwin Starr mirrored the era's anti-Vietnam sentiment. Marvin Gaye's spiritual album, What's Going On (1971), generated three hit singles: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," and the title song.

The "Motown Sound"

At a time when crossover between African American and white culture in America was rare, the infectious gospel-inspired sound of Motown appealed to teenagers of all races and backgrounds. The classic mid-1960s Motown recordings followed a winning formula. They were danceable and soulfully romantic. Their beats were crisp and lively. They were characterized by the pounding, finger-snapping rhythms provided by The Funk Brothers, Motown's in-house band.

Motown lyrics centered on such youthful concerns as falling in or out of love, devotion to or yearning for one's boyfriend or girlfriend, and dancing and having fun. Motown recordings avoided traditional black blues, with its obvious references to sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and gloomy, tragic love affairs. This distinctive formula defined what came to be known as the "Motown Sound." It was publicized by Gordy as "The Sound of Young America."

The Motown of the 1980s resembled the original company even less, with additional performers leaving it. But in 1983 Gordy mounted a triumphant twenty-fifth-anniversary commemoration, featuring many original Tamla/Motown artists, that was broadcast on ABC-TV. At the same time, former employees, including various Marvelettes and Vandellas, sued Gordy, claiming that they had not been paid royalties.

In 1988, Gordy sold his Motown empire to MCA and Boston Ventures for $61 million. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Four years later, he published his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.

For More Information


Dahl, Bill. Motown: The Golden Years. Iola, WI: Krause, 2001.

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Gordy, Berry, Jr. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. New York: Warner Books, 1994.


Whitall, Susan. "Berry Gordy Jr." Detroit News (April 8, 2001).

Web Sites

"Berry Gordy Jr." Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=111 (accessed August 2004).

Classic Motown.http://www.motown.com/classicmotown (accessed August 2004).

Edwards, David, and Mike Callahan. The Motown Story and Album Discography.http://www.bsnpubs.com/gordystory.html (accessed August 2004).

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