He helped “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.”
Those were the words of former U.S. president, Barack Obama when he honoured Berry Gordy, among other cultural icons with a National Medal of Arts.
Gordy, who turns 89 today, is highly celebrated for founding Motown and making it one of the most successful record labels of all time. Nurturing the artistic talents of singers and producers like Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, the Marvelettes, Lionel Richie & the Commodores, among others, Gordy’s music label “brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people of all ages and races.”
After co-writing hits for local singer Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, Gordy, with an $800 loan from his family, purchased a two small two-storey house in a run-down area of Detroit in 1959, where he began building the Motown empire. He was then 30, a former boxer, failed businessman and former auto-worker who would later have dreams of running his own record company.
Being an amateur boxer, he dropped out of school at 16 and entered into professional boxing which he later quit. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea and later opened a record shop specializing in jazz but this move failed after two years.
While trying his hand at songwriting, Gordy became a car-factory worker. However, after failing to receive enough revenue from the hit singles he made for local singers like Wilson, he realized that he needed to produce his own records for his own label. He then founded Tamla Records which later became Motown – a cannibalisation of ‘Motor Town’, a nickname for Detroit.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Motown Records rose to be the most successful independent record label in America, producing some of the greatest hits over time including “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations, “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5, “Please Mr. Postman” by Marvelettes, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, among others.
Gordy’s music, which is a mix of gospel, R&B and pop that combined to form memorable melodies, was then created to cross the racial divide.
“White people want to be loved too. White people want money. I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles, the cops and the robbers. I wanted everybody to enjoy my music,” the greatest record man in American music history was quoted by The Telegraph.
It is important to note that at the time Motown was founded, only two black-owned labels were in existence in America – Duke in Houston and Vee-Jay in Chicago. Sales, distribution, radio play and other significant parts of the record business were handled by whites.
To be a major influence in the market, The Telegraph reports that Gordy had to debunk the perception of his label as being black, thus, he deliberately omitted the faces of the performers in his early album covers. For instance, the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine, featured a photograph of two white lovers at the beach.
In 1972, Motown moved its offices to Los Angeles, California where it rubbed shoulders with larger record labels that dominated the industry, producing hit records with artists such as The Jackson 5 and Lionel Richie.
The company would later have difficulties in maintaining its independence following the rise in the corporatization of the record industry and although many were against his decision, Gordy was compelled to sell Motown for $61 million to MCA and an investment company, Boston Ventures. It was later sold on to Universal.
Gordy explained: “Number one, it was no fun any more. And two, I wanted to take the legacy and put it in stronger hands. It was Smokey who told me that it doesn’t matter who owns Motown, what’s important is the legacy – and I wanted to protect that.”
That same year, Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was given the following tribute:
“Gordy endeavoured to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people, regardless of the colour of their skin. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression and a repository for some of the greatest talent ever assembled at one company… Motown’s stable of singers, songwriters, producers and musicians took the concept of simple, catchy pop songs to a whole new level of sophistication and, thanks to the music’s roots in gospel and blues, visceral intensity… After Motown, Black popular music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste… Aesthetically no less than commercially, Motown’s achievements will likely remain unrivalled and unstoppable.”
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.
Today, the label is part of the Universal Music Group, with its classic recorded music catalogue managed by Universal Music Enterprises (UMe). With Motown, Gordy captured national audiences – white and black, old and young, and the records from the label continue to hit to this day.