“I have this ability to find this hidden talent in people that sometimes even they didn’t know they had.”
Berry Gordy, Jr. was born to the middle-class family of Berry Gordy II a.k.a. Berry Gordy, Sr. who had relocated to Detroit from Oconee County, Georgia, in 1922. The first Berry Gordy was the son of a white plantation owner in Georgia, and his female slave. Berry Gordy, Sr. was lured to Detroit by the many job opportunities for black people offered by booming automotive businesses. 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 (no relation to the singer, Al Green), 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 six 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 the profits from 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 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. 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 No. 1 on the national R&B charts in late 1960 and at No. 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 fledgling 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, 1959.
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 Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, the Contours, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. Though he also signed various white acts on the label, he largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal.
Relocation to Los Angeles
In 1972, Gordy relocated to 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 (cast in a role originally forLevi Stubbs of the Four Tops). 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 major movie star. Berry Gordy soon after produced and directed Mahogany, also starring Ross and Williams. In 1985, he produced the cult martial arts film The Last Dragon, which starred martial artist Taimak and one of Prince’s proteges, Vanity.
Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s by artists including 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 later sold most of his interests in Jobete publishing to EMI Publishing. Gordy has written or co-written 240 songs for Motown’s Jobete music catalogue, consisting of approximately 15,000 songs. However, the true test of the label’s worth would come a few years later when Polygram paid over $330 million (Diana Ross was given shares in this version of the label) for the Motown catalog. (Though the current label bearing its name is a shell of its former self, the Motown sound is now practically a genre of its own).
Gordy published an autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994.
Awards and accolades
Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Gordy was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1998.