Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records, the most successful black owned music company in the history of the United States. The legendary record producer’s compound totals more than 5 acres, making it one of the largest estates in Bel Air, CA formerly the house of Red Skelton.
Berry Gordy Jr. was born on November 28, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan (making him 86 years old this year). He was the seventh of eight children in a close-knit, hardworking family.
Unlike his siblings, Gordy struggled in school. He loved music—he was interested in songwriting at age 7—but when he was kicked out of his high school music class, he dropped out of school in order to pursue a boxing career. By the time he was 20, Gordy had triumphed in 13 of 19 professional fights. However, the realization that boxing would age him much faster than music prompted Gordy to return to songwriting. These plans were interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1951. After two years in the army, during which he earned his GED,
Gordy opened a record store with a friend. Unfortunately, the store focused on jazz while customers wanted R&B; Gordy realized this too late to keep the business from folding.
Gordy had gotten married in 1953; with a family to support, he took a job on a Lincoln-Mercury plant assembly line in 1955. The monotony of putting upholstery in cars all day had one benefit: He could compose songs in his head while working.
The tedious time he spent working in the assembly line at the automobile plant was put to good use. “Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end a spanking brand new car. What a great idea, maybe I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the streets, walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process and come out another door a star”.
At the age of 27, Gordy decided to hand in his notice and dedicate himself to music once more. Through family connections, Gordy encountered singer Jackie Wilson’s manager; he ended up co-writing the Wilson hit “Reet Petite,” which came out in 1957. Gordy also wrote Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved.”
Gordy soon started his own music publishing company, which he called Jobete, a combination of letters from his three children’s names. The business wasn’t as lucrative as he’d hoped, and he decided to open his own record company.
Using $800 his family had loaned him, Gordy formed Tamla Records on January 12, 1959. When Gordy set up shop in a house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, he chose the aspirational name Hitsville for his headquarters. One of Tamla’s labels was called Motown, the name that came to embody the company; the Motown Record Corporation was incorporated in 1960.
The 1960s and ’70s saw popular artists who Gordy developed—including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations. Marvin Gaye, and 3 teenage girls: Mary Wilson, Florence Ballad and Diana Ross—who would become the Supremes. that dominated the music scene.
The song “Money (That’s What I Want)”—performed and co-written by Barrett Strong—became a hit in 1960, with Gordy serving as co-writer as well. But after discovering that distributors took a large bite out of his income, Gordy, encouraged by his friend Smokey Robinson, decided to start handling his own national distribution.
In 1960, Robinson and his group, the Miracles, sold more than a million copies of “Shop Around,” which climbed to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 2 pop. The next year, the Marvelettes were the first Motown act to hit No. 1 on the pop charts with “Please Mr. Postman. As the company took shape, Gordy brought on talent such as Mary Wells, who would sing the popular “My Guy”.
Gordy directed his artists to create what became known as the Motown sound, which featured repeating choruses and a mix of gospel, R&B and pop that combined to form memorable melodies. With regular quality control meetings, Gordy made sure that Motown’s releases were ready to impress listeners. He also arranged for his performers to learn how to best present themselves both on and off the stage.
In 1965, Gordy’s company had $15 million in sales, more than triple what it had been making in 1963. The next year, 75% of Motown’s releases made it onto the charts. Five of Motown’s records climbed into the Top 10 on the pop charts in 1968. In 1969, the Jackson 5, fronted by a young Michael Jackson joined the label.
The departure of many artists, combined with a shift in musical tastes, prompted Gordy to sell Motown to MCA in 1988 for $61 million. Gordy held onto the film and television production arm of the company, as well as his publishing company, Jobete. (In 1997, Gordy received $132 million for selling half of Jobete, which owned the rights to popular songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”) It should be noted he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year
Though Gordy couldn’t read music or play an instrument, he had the musical chops to create the sound of Motown and to promote an incredible roster of talent. Gordy had dubbed his label’s output “the sound of young America,” but today Motown’s music is beloved by people of all ages from around the globe. “Motown was about music for all people—white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers.” — Berry Gordy, Jr.
His autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, was released in 1994. Gordy also wrote the book for Motown: The Musical, which reached Broadway in 2013. The Broadway show closed in 2015, but a national tour continues.
In Detroit, Hitsville is now home to a museum about Motown, and a section of West Grand Boulevard became Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard in 2007.
In September 2016, President Barack Obama honored Gordy, among other cultural icons, with a National Medal of Arts. At the ceremony, President Obama spoke of Gordy’s contribution to American culture, saying he helped “to create a trailblazing new sound in American music. As a record producer and songwriter, he helped build Motown, launching the music careers of countless legendary artists. His unique sound helped shape our nation’s story.”