Gordy, Berry (1929—)

views updated

Gordy, Berry (1929—)

Founder of the Motown music empire, Berry Gordy was for many years America's most successful black businessman.

Gordy was one of eight children from a middle-class family in Detroit; his father, Berry Gordy, Sr., was a contractor and entrepreneur. The elder Gordy's gospel of achievement and competition found a respectful audience in his son, but Berry Gordy, Jr., always sought wealth rather than merely middle-class success. Gordy dropped out of high school to pursue a career in boxing and fought in 19 mostly successful professional bouts, but he quit the ring after concluding that he would never be great. Shortly afterwards he was drafted, serving in Korean War combat.

Returning to Detroit in 1953, Gordy started a jazz record store with borrowed money. It failed after a short time, and he next took an assembly line job at a Ford plant. Gordy's sisters had by then obtained the cigarette concession at one of Detroit's better black nightclubs, and he began spending much of his free time there. He was composing songs in his head during his long, boring shifts at Ford, and attempted to persuade the nightclub's talent to use his material. In 1957, with the first of his marriages falling apart, Gordy quit his Ford job to devote himself to composing full-time.

It was Jackie Wilson, an old acquaintance from his boxing days, who first recorded songs by Berry Gordy. Wilson was just on the brink of success when Gordy gave him "Lonely Teardrops" and several other songs to use, but he quickly discovered that a composer's royalties were very small, especially in the frequently corrupt music business of the day. He started doing freelance record producing as well, learning valuable lessons but still not making much profit.

In 1959, on a shoestring budget, Berry Gordy founded his own music production company. He named it Motown after Detroit, the Motor City, and brought several of his siblings and their spouses into the business. One brother-in-law was writer/producer/singer Harvey Fuqua of Harvey and the Moonglows; another was Marvin Gaye, who would become one of Motown's biggest, and most troubled, stars. Gordy also employed a number of would-be singers and writers in secretarial and production capacities, thus assuring a constant supply of willing talent at very little cost to himself.

Berry Gordy's earlier careers had prepared him well for Motown. From the outset he was a stickler for high production values, and quickly created a recognizable "Motown sound." He also sought to broaden his appeal beyond his core customer base of young black people to a larger and more affluent older white audience. In order to mask how many records Motown was releasing, Gordy created and managed a variety of labels, such as Tamla, Soul, Gordy, Rare Earth, and many others.

Early acts produced by Motown included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the Spinners, the Marvelettes, and Stevie Wonder. In the years to come, Gordy would sign up such performers as the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, the Isley Brothers, the Commodores, and the Jackson Five. In many cases, after a few years in Motown's mixture of production wizardry and tight-fisted, arbitrary control, the now-established stars left for greener pastures. Some critics argue that few ever sounded as good after Motown as they had as part of it.

Gordy retained almost complete ownership of his company, making him a very wealthy man. When his struggling female group, the Supremes, finally began to make a name for themselves, he determined to make Diane Ross—as she was then known—into a major star. Diane Ross was a skinny schoolgirl when the Supremes started with Gordy's record label, and was plunged, like many other new acts, into Motown's whirlwind of training bent on making stars. Following the practice of the big Hollywood studios, Motown's Artist Development Department coached the youngsters on speech, choreography, stage behavior, costume, and of course on singing. Diane, soon Diana, Ross of the Supremes was Motown's greatest success story, rising from poverty in Detroit to international stardom, just as Berry Gordy willed it. His strategy was methodical. First, he put Ross's name ahead of the group, then he fired Florence Ballard, her former equal and arguably the best singer ever to call herself a Supreme. Next, he separated Ross from the group and built her up as a solo act. Finally, he began to invest some of his millions in motion picture production, but only when Diana Ross was given the lead in each film. Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a biographical film about Billie Holiday, was a smash hit.

During production of the next film, Mahogany (1975), the producer's suggestions came so often that the director resigned, and Berry Gordy eventually took directorial credit for the film. It was quite successful; other films in which Gordy was involved were less so. The Wiz (1978) was an abject flop, losing millions despite the presence of Ross and Michael Jackson. Gordy left the movie business shortly thereafter. In 1972, much to the chagrin of Detroit residents and his employees, Berry Gordy relocated Motown to Los Angeles.

Gordy lived through many changes in the American recording industry, and left an indelible mark on popular music. A list of the artists who recorded for Motown's many labels over a 35-year period would include a disproportionate number of major stars whose songs created a musical dynasty. It was the end of an era when Berry Gordy sold Motown to the media conglomerate MCA in 1994.

—David Lonergan

Further Reading:

Benjaminson, Peter. The Story of Motown. New York, Grove Press, 1979.

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

Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved. New York, Warner Books, 1994.

About this article

Gordy, Berry (1929—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article