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Berry Gordy Jr. Biography, Songs, Albums, and Legacy

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Motown Records was founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr. Popular artists Gordy developed, such as the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, dominated the music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Motown’s decline was caused by changing tastes and a loss of focus, and Gordy sold the company in 1988. That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Early Life and Work

Berry Gordy Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929. In a close-knit, hardworking family, he was the seventh of eight children.

Gordy struggled in school more than his siblings. He loved music and was interested in songwriting as a child, but after being kicked out of his high school music class, he dropped out to pursue a boxing career.

By the age of 20, Gordy had won 13 of his 19 professional fights. However, Gordy decided to return to songwriting after realizing that boxing would age him much faster than music. When he was drafted into the army in 1951, his plans were thwarted.

Gordy opened a record store with a friend after serving two years in the army and earning his GED. Unfortunately, the store specialized in jazz while customers preferred R&B; Gordy realized this too late to save the business.

Music and Money

Gordy married in 1953 and, with a family to support, took a job on a Lincoln-Mercury assembly line in 1955. The monotony of putting upholstery in cars all day had one advantage: it allowed him to compose songs in his head while he worked.

At the age of 27, Gordy decided to resign from his job and return to music full-time. (His wife did not approve, and they eventually divorced.) Gordy met singer Jackie Wilson’s manager through family connections, and he ended up co-writing the Wilson hit “Reet Petite,” which was released in 1957. Gordy also contributed to Wilson’s songs “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved.”

Gordy quickly established his own music publishing company, Jobete, a combination of letters from his three children’s names. The business wasn’t as profitable as he’d hoped, so he decided to start his own record label.

Beginnings of Motown

On January 12, 1959, Gordy founded Tamla Records with $800 borrowed from his family. Gordy chose the aspirational name Hitsville for his headquarters when he set up shop in a house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. Tamla’s label was called Motown, and the name came to represent the company; the Motown Record Corporation was formed in 1960.

Barrett Strong’s song “Money (That’s What I Want)” became a hit in 1960, with Gordy serving as a co-writer as well. However, after discovering that distributors took a significant portion of his earnings, Gordy, encouraged by his friend Smokey Robinson, decided to handle his own national distribution.

In 1960, Robinson and his Miracles sold over a million copies of “Shop Around,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 2 on the pop charts. The Marvelettes were the first Motown act to reach No. 1 on the pop charts the following year with “Please Mr. Postman.”

As the company grew, Gordy brought on talent such as Mary Wells, who sang the hit “My Guy.” The Temptations, Stevie Wonder (who joined as an 11-year-old prodigy), and Marvin Gaye were also early hires. Gordy also signed three teenage girls who would become the Supremes, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross.

Industry Success

Gordy directed his artists to create the Motown sound, which featured repeating choruses and a blend of gospel, R&B, and pop that combined to form memorable melodies. Gordy ensured that Motown’s releases were ready to impress listeners by holding regular quality control meetings. He also made arrangements for his performers to learn how to present themselves effectively both on and off the stage.

Gordy’s work was also influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Gordy believed that white audiences would now accept African-American stars after releasing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Great March to Freedom and Great March to Washington speeches. The Supremes achieved the crossover success Gordy had hoped for in the 1960s. “Baby Love” (1964), “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965), and “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966) were among their No. 1 pop hits.

Gordy’s company made $15 million in sales in 1965, more than tripling its earnings in 1963. The following year, 75% of Motown’s releases charted. In 1968, five Motown records reached the Top 10 on the pop charts. The Jackson 5, led by a young Michael Jackson, joined the label in 1969.

Motown also became the largest Black-owned company in America during the 1960s. Because of its popularity, the label was able to integrate its all-white sales force, as it now had the clout to demand that its sales force be accepted across the country.

Problems at Label

Gordy purchased a home in southern California in 1968, and Motown officially relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. Gordy also produced Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a Billie Holiday biopic starring Ross and Richard Pryor. Despite budget overruns, the film was a box office success, receiving five Academy Award nominations. Following this, Gordy directed 1975’s Mahogany, starring Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins, and produced the commercially unsuccessful musical The Wiz (1978), starring Ross, Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, and Pryor.

Gordy’s interest in movies meant he had less time to devote to the music side of Motown. Some things were going well in the 1970s: Marvin Gaye’s powerful protest album What’s Going On was released in 1971, and Stevie Wonder’s contract was renewed in 1976 (for $23 million). The label also signed new artists such as the Commodores, which included Lionel Richie, Rick James, and DeBarge. Many of Gordy’s established artists, however, were becoming restless.

“It’s a labor of love, everything I’ve done.” — Berry Gordy Jr.

Motown’s contract terms did not always favor artists. Performers could be charged for studio time, and the majority of songwriters were hired as employees, giving them no ownership of their work.

Gordy defended these terms, claiming that working with Motown provided opportunities for many people. But that didn’t stop some people from feeling cheated. Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, the songwriting team responsible for a slew of Motown hits, split up with Gordy in 1968 (resulting in lawsuits). Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops, and the Temptations all left the label in the 1970s. Four of the Jackson 5 members, including Michael, joined CBS. (Jermaine, who was married to Gordy’s daughter Hazel at the time, remained at Motown.)

“You have to know who you are, and who are the people who love you—because when you are famous, you got all the ‘friends’ in the world.” — Berry Gordy Jr.

Gordy had fallen for Ross, sticking by her during Supremes feuds and then supporting her solo career after she left the group. The couple also had a daughter, Rhonda, it was later revealed. Ross, on the other hand, left Motown in 1981. Even though the two were no longer together at the time, it was a setback for Gordy.

Selling to MCA

Many artists left, combined with a shift in musical tastes, prompted Gordy to sell Motown to MCA for $61 million in 1988. Gordy retained control of the company’s film and television production divisions, as well as his publishing company, Jobete. (Gordy received $132 million in 1997 for selling half of Jobete, which owned the rights to popular songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl,” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”)

Despite the fact that Motown had lost its position as the country’s largest Black-owned enterprise in 1984, many African Americans were outraged when the iconic label was sold. Gordy, on the other hand, believed that the sale was the best way to ensure Motown’s survival.


Despite his inability to read music or play an instrument, Gordy was able to create the Motown sound and promote an incredible roster of talent. Although Gordy dubbed his label’s output “the sound of young America,” Motown’s music is now loved by people of all ages from all over the world.

“Motown was about music for all people—white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers.” — Berry Gordy, Jr.

In 1988, Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, and the Memories of Motown, his autobiography, was published in 1994. Gordy also wrote the book for the 2013 Broadway production of Motown: The Musical. The Broadway production closed in 2015, but a national tour is still going on.

In Detroit, Hitsville now houses a Motown museum, and a section of West Grand Boulevard was renamed Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard in 2007. Gordy left behind eight children: Hazel Joy, Berry IV, Terry, Kerry, Sherry, Kennedy, Rhonda, and Stefan.

President Barack Obama awarded Gordy, along with other cultural icons, the National Medal of Arts in September 2016. President Obama spoke at the ceremony about Gordy’s contribution to American culture, saying he helped “to create a trailblazing new sound in American music.” He helped build Motown as a record producer and songwriter, launching the careers of countless legendary artists. His distinct voice aided in shaping the story of our country.”

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