Born November 28, 1929, in Detroit, MI; son of Berry, Sr. (owner of a plastering and carpentry service, a general store, and a printing business), and Bertha Gordy; married Thelma Coleman, 1953 (divorced, 1959); married Raynoma Liles (divorced, 1962); children: (first marriage) Hazel Joy, Berry IV, Terry; (second marriage) Kerry (son); Kennedy (son; with Margaret Norton). Worked on an automobile assembly line and as a prizefighter c. early 1950s. Owned record store c. 1955. Cowrote songs, 1957--, including "Reet Petite," 1957, "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops," both 1958, "That's Why" and "I'll Be Satisfied," both 1959, "Money (That's What I Want)," 1960, "I Want You Back," "ABC," and "The Love You Save"; independent producer, 1958, and music publisher, 1958--. Founded Motown Record Corporation (later Motown Industries) in 1959; resigned as president of Motown Record Corporation, founded and assumed leadership of Motown Industries, 1973; sold Motown Records to MCA Inc. for $61 million, 1988; director of the Gordy Company (comprised of the Motown Industries publishing division--Jobete Music Co. and Stone Mountain Music--and film and television divisions), 1988--. Producer and coeditor of feature films, including Lady Sings the Blues, 1972. Director of feature films, including Mahogany, 1975, and The Last Dragon, 1985. Military service: U.S. Army c. 1951-1953. Addresses: Office-- The Gordy Company, 6255 Sunset Blvd., 18th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90028. entrepreneur.
On the night of January 20, 1988, Berry Gordy, Jr., was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His peers that evening were the Supremes, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Drifters, folk singer Woody Guthrie, blues and folk singer Leadbelly, and jazz guitarist Les Paul. Gordy was honored in the non-performing category for founding and developing Motown Industries. He originally formed the company in 1959 as the Motown Record Corporation. During the 1960s and early 1970s it grew from a Detroit-based record label specializing in rhythm and blues hits to a full-fledged entertainment corporation based in Los Angeles, active in television and motion pictures as well as records. In 1973 the magazine Black Enterprise recognized Motown Industries as the number one black owned or managed business. In 1988 Gordy sold Motown Records to entertainment giant MCA Inc. for $61 million. The sale did not include Motown's publishing division (Jobete Music Co. and Stone Mountain Music), nor its film and television divisions. Gordy would continue to run these operations as the Gordy Company.
Although Berry Gordy, Jr., the seventh of eight children of Berry, Sr., and Bertha Gordy, began the Motown Record Corporation in 1959, the entire Gordy family was called on to make their own special contributions. Indeed, Gordy did his best to foster a family feeling at Motown in the early days. Many of the performers were in their teens or early twenties; Gordy himself was barely 30. As performers were signed to the company they became new members of the "Motown family," and as in most families, there were incidents of conflict along the way. Gordy was forced to make some unpopular decisions, but throughout the years he kept the enterprise together and firmly on course, soon coming to be known as "Mr. Chairman."
Despite the fact that none of the Gordys made their names as entertainers, the family was very much a musical one. Its musicality made itself known not in performance, but in the continuing enterprise that has provided the world with numerous performers and countless popular songs. The following excerpt from a speech by the Honorable John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, to the U.S. House of Representatives on April 19, 1971, ably reflects the familial nature of the Motown enterprise, as well as Gordy's sense of social responsibility.
"Mr. Speaker, 10 years ago a Detroit assemblyline worker, who had formerly been a prizefighter, saved $800 and started his own business. Like so many before him, he had ideas of what he could do and wanted to try them in a business of his own. His name was Berry Gordy, Jr., and the company he created was the Motown Record Corp. Starting from their own home, the Gordy family has built Motown into the largest independent record firm in the world, and the only major black company in the entertainment business. Berry Gordy realizes that even in America factory workers cannot all become successful businessmen. Therefore, he believes that it is essential that each and every young person receive the maximum education possible. He knows that education is the passport to the future and that tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today. One of the many ways Gordy puts his belief to work is through the Sterling Ball, a benefit which directly provides assistance in the form of scholarships to inner city high school graduates who wish to continue their education but are financially unable to do so. This annual charitable event has, to date, helped scores of young men and women, black and white, reach an otherwise impossible goal--a college education. The benefit was originally conceived by Mr. Gordy and his sister, Mrs. Esther Edwards, vice president in the corporation, as a continuing and meaningful memorial to their late sister, Mrs. Loucye Gordy Wakefield, who had been the first vice president of Motown and a personal inspiration to all who knew her."
Gordy's family supported his efforts to establish his own business from the start, with a 1959 loan of $800. Once the company was launched various family members played key roles in its continuing operations. While Gordy's brothers--Fuller, Robert, and George--participated in the Motown enterprise, it was his sisters who provided most of the help in the company's operations. Gordy believed in women as executives. His second wife, Raynoma, was an early vice-president, as was Janie Bradford, with whom Gordy cowrote the 1960 hit "Money (That's What I Want)." Later, Suzanne De Passe would skillfully guide Motown Productions (the film, television, and video arms of the corporation). As Smokey Robinson wrote in his autobiography, "Berry was big on letting people prove themselves, based on skill, not sex or color."
In 1951 Gordy was drafted into the army, where he received his high school equivalency diploma. In 1953, no longer in the service, he married Thelma Coleman; a daughter, Hazel Joy, was born the following year. The couple would have two more children, Berry IV and Terry, before divorcing in 1959. While working on an auto assembly line, Gordy started a jazz-oriented record store--the 3-D Record Mart--around 1955, but it soon folded. Like Motown, his family financed it. At the time, Gordy was writing songs constantly, submitting them to magazines and contests. His big break came in 1957, when future soul star Jackie Wilson recorded "Reet Petite," which was written by Gordy, his sister Gwen, and Tyran Carlo. Jackie Wilson had just signed with the Brunswick label in 1956 and "Reet Petite" turned out to be his first hit. Gordy's team wrote four more hits for Wilson over the next two years: "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops" in 1958, and "That's Why" and "I'll Be Satisfied" in 1959.
In 1957 Gordy "discovered" Smokey Robinson, who would later become a rhythm and blues superstar. Gordy had just written "Lonely Teardrops" when Robinson and his group--then the Matadors--auditioned for Jackie Wilson's representatives. Present at the audition were Nat Tarnapol, owner of Brunswick Records and Wilson's manager, and Alonzo Tucker, generally described as "Jackie's music man." Gordy was also present, though he made it clear to Robinson that he did not work for Jackie Wilson. According to Robinson's oft-repeated account, Tucker rejected the Matadors for being too much like the Platters, another popular group of the time. Gordy, however, appeared very interested in the group, apparently because of their original material. He introduced himself as a songwriter, and Robinson noted in his book Smokey: Inside My Life that Gordy looked young for his age: "This boyish face hid the fact that he was 11 years older than me." Robinson also credited Gordy with having more songwriting savvy at that time than he did. He went on to report that Gordy expressed his views on songwriting after complimenting him on his rhymes, saying, "Songs are more than rhymes. Songs need a beginning, middle, and end. Like a story." It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. Gordy is often credited with a discerning eye for talent, of which his discovery of Smokey Robinson is a prime example.
By 1958 Gordy was active as an independent producer, forming the nucleus of what would become Motown Records. He recorded, and leased recordings of, the Miracles, Marv Johnson, and Eddie Holland for the nationally distributed labels Chess, United Artists, and End. The same year he established Jobete to publish his songs. Jobete was named for Gordy's first three children, Hazel Joy, Berry IV, and Terry.
Moving toward becoming a full-fledged entrepreneur, Gordy was motivated by a number of factors. Certainly, his family background contributed to and supported his ambition. By then his friend, Robinson urged him to take control of his operations, especially in light of the pitifully small royalty checks he was receiving from the national labels. As a songwriter Gordy had to split his royalties with the music publisher; his way around this was to form his own publishing company, which was valued at nearly $100 million 30 years later. Finally, it was widely known that Gordy did not particularly like the way his songs were being produced at Brunswick. To move forward, he needed to take control and form his own corporation.
According to Robinson, Motown began with six employees who had been operating in 1958 out of an apartment on Gladstone in Detroit. In addition to Gordy and Robinson, they included Liles--not yet Gordy's wife at the time--Bradford, Robert Bateman, and Brian Holland. Holland and Bateman were a songwriting-production duo that evolved a few years later into the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland team, when Brian's brother Eddie returned to Motown after his contract with United Artists expired.
In 1959 Motown released its first single on the newly formed Tamla label. The name "Tamla" is a variation on "Tammy," a popular song of the period sung by Debbie Reynolds. The Motown label was activated in 1960, and the company's third major label, Gordy, debuted in April of 1962. While the Motown sound had its roots in urban rhythm and blues, it was Gordy's plan to appeal to young people of all races with a kind of music that would retain some of its origins while adding other ingredients. Motown's early advertising slogan, "The Sound of Young America," reflected Gordy's desire for Motown's music to achieve widespread popularity. The company landed its first number one pop hit in 1961 with the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman."
As late as 1962 Motown's releases were still appealing primarily to black audiences, as evidenced by their success on the rhythm and blues charts. That year Motown placed 11 singles on the R & B Top 10. The company's strategy, as mapped out by Gordy, was to "cross over" to the white record-buying public. In fact, four singles managed to reach the Top 10 on the pop charts in 1962. The next year Motown placed six more singles on the pop Top 10, with Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips, Part 2" becoming its second number one pop hit.
1964 proved a watershed year for Motown. Four of the company's five top-10 pop hits went to Number One: "My Guy," "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," and "Come See about Me." The other song, "Dancing in the Street," went to Number Two. Most importantly, Motown had hit on a winning combination with the Supremes singing songs written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland. The next year, five Motown releases reached Number One. Reflecting the company's success, Gordy purchased the Gordy Manor in Detroit.
Gordy's strategy for producing hits was paying off. While Gordy himself was a talented songwriter and hands-on producer, these strengths alone were not enough to make Motown a success. Rather, it was Gordy's ability to surround himself with talented people that made Motown a force in the music business. Motown's greatest songwriters and producers--Smokey Robinson, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland--were complemented by a stable of other gifted writers and producers, all competing within the Motown system to produce hits. Often likened to an assembly line, Motown was indeed a music factory that was able to churn out hit after hit.
As Motown's popularity in the mid-1960s insured the company's success, Gordy began to move the company forward by pursuing other entertainment opportunities. As early as 1966 Motown established a West Coast office for expansion into movie production, to secure film roles for Motown stars, and to encourage the use of Motown songs in film soundtracks. Motown also announced its interest in becoming a "Broadway angel," a financial backer for Broadway plays. By 1968 Gordy had purchased a home in Los Angeles and moved there. During the next few years Motown established additional offices on the West Coast; the move from Detroit was finalized in 1972. For some within the company the move was an unpopular decision; for others, it opened up new opportunities. By that time Gordy had purchased comic Red Skelton's Bel Air estate and was living there.
The end of the 1960s brought a talented new group to Motown--the Jackson 5. Discovered by Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and introduced to the public by former Supreme Diana Ross, the Jackson 5 hailed from Gary, Indiana. The group, and especially youngest member Michael, enjoyed close ties to Gordy, who often let the entire family stay at his home in California. Gordy headed a songwriting and production team within Motown--called the Corporation--that wrote and produced several chart-topping hits for the Jackson 5, including "I Want You Back," "ABC," and "The Love You Save." Michael Jackson was quoted in The Motown Album as saying, "Berry was my teacher and a great one. He told me exactly what he wanted and how he wanted me to help him get it. Berry insisted on perfection and attention to detail. I'll never forget his persistence. This was his genius."
In 1973 Gordy resigned as president of Motown Records to assume leadership of the new Motown entertainment conglomerate, Motown Industries, which included record, motion picture, television, and publishing divisions. His primary star was Diana Ross, whom Gordy began grooming for television and motion pictures as early as 1968, when she was featured with the Supremes and the Temptations on Motown's first television special, "T.C.B.: Taking Care of Business." A second special with the Supremes and Temptations followed in 1969. Ross starred in her first solo television special, "Diana," in 1971. It was widely rumored that Gordy and Ross enjoyed a special personal relationship prior to Ross's 1971 marriage to Robert Silberstein.
Gordy was involved as more than producer in Ross's first film role: singer Billie Holiday in the 1972 Paramount release, Lady Sings the Blues. Motown invested heavily in the film and by most accounts Gordy spent a great deal of time personally editing it. It was a promising start for Motown's film ventures; Ross received an Academy Award nomination for her performance. Her second film, 1975's Mahogany, marked Gordy's debut as a film director. The Wiz, a 1978 Universal/Motown musical version of The Wizard of Oz that garnered largely negative reviews and did poorly at the box office, followed it. Motown would not enter the motion picture business again until Gordy's 1985 effort, The Last Dragon, an entertaining kung-fu musical that fared respectably well at the box office.
Motown scored well in television with the NBC-TV special "Motown 25--Yesterday, Today, and Forever," which aired in 1983. Edited to a two-hour television special from a four-hour live performance, the show was a tribute to the genius of Berry Gordy. Among the highlights were reunions of the Jackson 5, the Miracles, and the Supremes, and solo performances by Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. The show garnered nine Emmy nominations for Motown; but perhaps more significantly, it was the most-watched variety special in the history of television.
Motown followed its anniversary special with the 1985 broadcast "Motown Returns to the Apollo." The show coincided with the reopening of the newly restored Apollo Theater in Harlem, marking its fiftieth anniversary. The special won an Emmy for best variety, music, or comedy program. Following the formula for success that Gordy implemented as far back as 1960--to reach as wide an audience as possible--Motown has made a number of its productions available for the home video market, including specials featuring Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
Although Gordy was less successful in attracting stellar talent in the 1990s, he did score well with a few acts, including Johnny Gill, Boyz 11 Men and Queen Latifah. In 1997, Gordy sold half of his interest in Jobete music publishing to EMI.
Throughout his career Gordy has received numerous awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award (1969), the Trustee Award (1991), the Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame award for Excellence in Music (1996), and the American Legend Award (1998). He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and also into the AFIM Hall of Fame. In 1994, Warner books released Gordy's autobiography, To Be Loved. In 2001, Gordy reportedly established a relief fund for former Motown artists, musicians and writers who were in need of financial assistance.
Many books have been written by and about Motown entertainers who did not end up impoverished--stars such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Supremes, and Diana Ross. These books tell the story of Motown's evolution from several different perspectives. Through records, movies, videos, and books, the heritage of Motown will be preserved and appreciated by future generations of people who remain young at heart.
by David Bianco
Berry Gordy, Jr.'s Career
Berry Gordy, Jr.'s Awards
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988.
June 4, 2004: Berry Gordy's Motown, a 12-hour series produced by Suzanne de Passe for NBC, is in development and is scheduled to air during the 2005-2006 season. Source: Associated Press, http://customwire.ap.org, June 4, 2004.
- Benjaminson, Peter, The Story of Motown, Grove, 1979.
- Bianco, David, Heat Wave: The Motown Fact Book, Pierian, 1988.
- Fong-Torres, Ben, The Motown Album, St. Martin's, 1990.
- Hirshey, Gerri, Nowhere to Run, Times Books, 1984.
- Robinson, Smokey, with David Ritz, Smokey: Inside My Life, McGraw, 1989.
- Singleton, Raynoma Gordy, with Bryan Brown and Mim Eichler, Berry, Me, and Motown: The Untold Story, Contemporary Books, 1990.
- Taraborrelli, J. Randy, Motown: Hot Wax, City Cool & Solid Gold, Doubleday, 1986.
- Waller, Don, The Motown Story, Scribner, 1985.
- Detroit Free Press, May 15, 1983.
- Indie Awards--2001 Hall of Fame,AFIM, September 13, 2001. Available from http://www.afim.org/indies/.
- Rolling Stone, August 23, 1990.