Sweet Soul Music
Founder of Motown Records
"I didn't want to be a big record mogul and all that stuff. I just wanted to write songs and make people laugh."-Berry Gordy
When Berry Gordy launched a small independent record label in 1959 in a two-story frame house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, he had no idea his dream of writing and producing his own music would spark a musical revolution. Throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s, the music industry was sharply divided along racial lines. Jazz, blues, R&B, soul and other so-called "black music" was played solely on "black" radio stations. But Gordy would change all that. His unique style of music, which he dubbed "the Sound of Young America," was the first to break the race barrier. In addition to gaining the national acceptance of black music and the well-deserved recognition of the singers and musicians behind it, Gordy's "Motown sound" gave birth to the largest and most successful black-owned business in America.
Growing up on Detroit's Lower East Side, Gordy's two greatest loves were boxing and jazz. By the time he graduated from Northeastern High School in 1948, Gordy was ready to put boxing first. But after winning 15 Golden Gloves matches, his career as a pugilist was cut short when he was drafted to fight in the Korean conflict. After the war, Gordy was too old to continue in boxing, so he turned to his other love, opening a record store specializing in jazz. Unfortunately, Gordy had failed to notice that blacks in Detroit were not especially interested in jazz. They wanted to hear rock 'n' roll. Gordy's 3-D Record Mart went bankrupt after only two years.
After this initial failure, Gordy reluctantly accepted a job at Ford Motor Co., nailing upholstery in Lincoln automobiles. But he wasn't about to give up his dream of a career in music. He began listening to rock 'n' roll and wrote several songs in this style, which he tried to sell to local singers and music labels. He had some success, but his big break came when he attracted the attention of singer Jackie Wilson, who recorded Gordy's "Reet Petite" and the now legendary "Lonely Teardrops." Both songs became instant hits, and based on their success, Gordy quit his $85-per-week job at Ford and struck out on his own as an independent producer.
But even with two hit songs under his belt, Gordy was far from a financial success. "As a writer, I had problems getting money at the time that I needed it," he explains. "I was broke even with hit records in certain cases." In one case, a New York publisher refused to pay Gordy. Advised that the cost of suing the publisher would be more than the royalties owed him, Gordy chose to cut his losses. But the incident taught him an important lesson about the music industry: If you have no control, you have no power.
To gain the control he needed, Gordy decided to start his own record company. Borrowing $800 from his family, he founded Hitsville USA in 1959. The first major hit for the fledgling label was "Way Over There" by William "Smokey" Robinson-a teenage singer Gordy had found performing on street corners. Under Gordy's guidance, Robinson and his group, the Miracles, quickly became a sensation, attracting other young black performers to the fledgling record company. Within three years, Gordy's stable of performers would grow to include a number of chart-toppers, including Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, the Prime (whose name Gordy changed to the Temptations), and a 9-year-old blind boy named Stevie Morris-better known as Stevie Wonder. By 1960 Gordy had produced no fewer than five hit records and changed the name of his company to Motown, a contraction of Detroit's nickname, Motor Town.
Scouring the nightclubs and street corners of Detroit, Gordy found a virtually limitless supply of talented, young black performers, including The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Vandella and the Spinners, all of whom he quickly signed to Motown Records. By 1966, three out of four Motown releases where chart-topping hit singles. The company was so successful that Gordy opened Tamla-Motown Records in London in 1965. The hits continued to pile up, and Motown would go on to dominate the pop charts throughout the 1960s.
The 1970s brought a series of changes to Motown, and not all of them for the better. Gordy moved his operations from Detroit to the heart of the entertainment industry-Hollywood. Gordy branched out, establishing a motion picture division whose first film, "Lady Sings the Blues," a biography of blues legend Billie Holiday starring Diana Ross, was both a commercial and critical success. Gordy also made plans to produce Broadway shows, television specials and television movies. In 1973, Gordy resigned as president of Motown Records to head Motown Industries, a huge umbrella corporation overseeing all his enterprises. But as Gordy achieved success in his other ventures, Motown Records began to lose its grip on the pop charts as most of the label's big stars left for other companies and new talent seemed to lack that "certain something" Motown was famous for. The hits were not coming nearly as fast or as plentifully as they once did.
In 1988, Gordy sold Motown to MCA and investment group Boston Ventures for $61 million. That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Gordy remains active in the entertainment industry, writing songs, producing records and working with the newly established Motown Historical Museum in Detroit.
Although Motown no longer dominates the charts as it once did, Gordy's impact on the music industry cannot be overstated. Motown's sound influenced everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to more recent chart-toppers such as Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. A true pioneer, Gordy assembled nothing less than the rock 'n' roll era's most remarkable roster of artists, musicians, songwriters and producers, and in pursuing his dream, he brought two races together through music.
Spit And Polish
One of the main reasons for Motown Record's tremendous success was the personal attention Berry Gordy paid to each Motown artist. At Gordy's insistence, every Motown performer attended an in-house finishing school, where they learned how to comport themselves both onstage and in social situations.
Gordy also instituted an internal program of "quality control," including weekly product-evaluation meetings, which he modeled after his experiences working for Ford Motor Co. At the same time, Gordy promoted a work environment that was sufficiently loose and freewheeling to foster creativity. As Gordy once explained, "Hitsville had to be an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes."
Thanks to this unique management approach, Motown generated hundreds of hit singles. In 1966 alone, Motown's "hit ratio"-the percentage of records released that made the national charts-was an unprecedented 65 percent.
Let Freedom Ring
Although Berry Gordy is best known as a music impresario, during the late 1960s he also played a role in the Civil Rights Movement. A close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Gordy was so inspired by King's "I Have a Dream" speech that he released it on album. He also formed a new record label called Black Forum, which produced recordings of other Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Elaine Brown and Stokley Carmichael.