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Artist of the month

Berry Gordy Jr.

Meet the Chairman. The world knows Motown through the music of its stars, but in recent years, the world has learned more about Berry Gordy Jr., the man who built the business behind the music. Part of that is due to Motown The Musical, a theatrical smash at home and abroad, which tells how Gordy’s dreams and determination (plus a song or two) created what may be the most celebrated record company in history. It’s some story.

BerryGordy_1967

FAST FACTS:

  • First hit: “Reet Petite,” Jackie Wilson
  • Biggest hit: choose from the dozens of Motown singles which topped the Billboard Hot 100 during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s
  • Top album: again, it’s your call. What’s Going OnSongs In The Key of LifeDianaWith A Lot O’ SoulCan’t Slow Down? Check that list
  • Career highlight: receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama at the White House in 2016

KEY INFORMATION:

  • “America’s Most Amazing Family” is the subject of a 1949 article in Color magazine, highlighting the social and business success of the Gordy family from Detroit. Berry Gordy Sr. and wife Bertha are photographed with their children: four boys, four girls. One of them, Berry Jr., was born November 28, 1929, in the Motor City. Pictured in Color at the piano, he is said to provide “the music for frequent family song sessions in the Gordy home.” The magazine adds that “he won the semi-final competition in Frankie Carle’s Boogie Woogie contest at the Michigan Theater in Detroit.” At this point, Motown Records isn’t even a dream.
  • Berry Gordy starts writing songs, including one (“You Are You”) he mails to movie star/singer Doris Day. Then he is drafted. After serving in Korea, he tries his hand at professional boxing. As a featherweight, he is moderately successful, but chooses to hang up the gloves after seeing two posters at his local gym. One advertises an upcoming boxing match, the other promotes a battle of the bands. “I then noticed the fighters were about twenty-three and looked fifty,” Gordy later explains in his autobiography, To Be Loved. “The band leaders about fifty and looked twenty-three.” He changes career paths.
  • An early venture into record retailing leads to bankruptcy, after Gordy misreads the music-buying tastes of his neighbourhood. To support his family, he takes a job at one of Detroit’s auto factories, and resumes songwriting in his mind while working on the production line. This love of music leads Gordy to the Flame Show Bar, where meeting a top talent manager, Al Green, connects him to another songwriter, Billy Davis. The two begin collaborating, and one of their efforts, “Reet Petite,” is the first solo success for Jackie Wilson in 1957. They follow up with more hits for Wilson, including “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved.”
  • At Al Green’s offices, Gordy observes an audition by a young vocal group. They are turned down, but he discerns the songwriting ability of its leader, a teenage William “Smokey” Robinson. He takes on management of the singers – yes, they are the Miracles – and produces their early recordings, leased to companies in Chicago and New York. The paltry income leads Gordy to open his own label in Detroit, with a Gordy family loan of $800. “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson is the first release on Tamla Records in January 1959.
  • Further Marv Johnson hits co-written and produced by Gordy help to finance the young business. He and music-savvy wife Raynoma buy a two-storey house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, convert the basement into a recording studio and call the building “Hitsville U.S.A.” Becoming self-sufficient with the help of in-house musicians, Gordy assembles more hits, such as Barrett Strong’s“Money (That’s What I Want)” and the Miracles’ first major pop chart success, “Shop Around.” In 1961, the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” is the company’s first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
  • In 1962, “Do You Love Me” by the Contours is the first hit on a new Motown label named after Gordy himself, who writes and produces the song. His early creative recruits like Mickey Stevenson, Eddie and Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Norman Whitfield further develop their writing and producing skills, while Smokey Robinson’s songs shape the company’s first female solo star, Mary Wells. Gordy introduces a “quality control” system, complete with voting procedure, to pick the recordings with the best chance of success, and to foster a competitive spirit in his creative team.

  • Berry Gordy has to spend less time songwriting and producing, more time running the business. Now calling itself “the Sound of Young America,” Motown Records thrives on the charts, in club and concert venues at home and abroad, and in developing a presence in Los Angeles. With the Supremes as its flagship act, the company in 1965-66 achieves no fewer than 55 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Motown moves its headquarters to larger premises in downtown Detroit, while keeping the studio facilities on West Grand Boulevard. The company closes 1968 with half the Top 10 of the pop charts, as Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” becomes its biggest-selling single to date.
  • Berry Gordy gives a rare press interview in March 1969 – the same month that the Jackson 5 are signed – and acknowledges that he’s drawn to California. “I like it and I have a chance to move Motown into other areas,” he says. Later that year, the Jackson 5 explode onto the charts, signposting their future as ’70s superstars. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder strive to take more control of their own work. In 1972, Motown officially relocates to Los Angeles, and Diana Ross makes her movie debut in Lady Sings The Blues. It is a boxoffice hit, earning its star an Oscar nomination; Diana’s second film, Mahogany, marks Gordy’s debut as a director.
  • The company grows into Motown Industries, with music, film, television and other interests. Black Enterprise magazine starts its annual ranking of America’s largest black-owned business: Motown is No. 1. The record division continues to sign and develop new talent, including the Commodores and Rick James. When Lionel breaks out of the Commodores, he becomes one of the biggest-selling music stars of the 1980s. And another Gordy generation makes its mark: “Somebody’s Watching Me” is a Top 3 hit in ’84 for Rockwell, otherwise known as Kennedy Gordy, son of the Chairman.

  • Motown 25 is a ratings smash, but the company which brought America together in the 1960s with its music is increasingly competing with multinational corporations which are larger and better-capitalized than Berry Gordy’s enterprise. In June 1988, he sells Motown Records to MCA. In 1994, he publishes his autobiography, To Be Loved – later the foundation for Motown The Musical, the Broadway boxoffice smash which also conquers London’s West End. In 2007, the city of Detroit honors its native son by giving West Grand Boulevard, the street which now houses the Motown Museum, a secondary name: Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard. In September 2016 at the White House, President Barack Obama presents Gordy with the National Medal of the Arts, for helping to create “a trailblazing new sound in American music.” The citation adds, “His unique sound helped shape our Nation’s story.”
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