He has been called a musical genius, a dream weaver, an international pop culture icon, and a pioneering entrepreneur, all of which only begin to define Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Record Corporation, perhaps the world’s most beloved record label in history.
As the mastermind behind the Detroit-born hitmaking “Motown music machine,” Gordy launched the careers of such greats as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 and many more. From these artists came hundreds of hits, described by Gordy as “The Sound of Young America.”
On Saturday, Dec. 7, in the Grand Ballroom of Cobo Center, the Michigan Chronicle will honor Gordy, a native Detroiter, with its Lifetime Achievement Award at the Legacy in Motion event. While he has received a litany of awards and honors over the last seven decades, this one, according to Gordy, will be special.
“I could not be more excited than to be honored by the Michigan Chronicle, because the newspaper represents my roots,” said Gordy, during a phone interview from Southern California. “Selling the Michigan Chronicle was one of my very first jobs that I ever had when I was around 12 or 13. The newspaper represented hopes and dreams for me. I outsold everybody because even then I wanted to be the best. I credit some of my successful Motown marketing strategies to what I learned from selling and marketing the Michigan Chronicle to both Black and White customers.”
In addition to his early experience with the Michigan Chronicle, like many Detroiters, Gordy worked in the automobile industry in the mid-1950s. In his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved,” Gordy described how the automobile factories impacted the way that he would one day run Motown. His stint at Ford, however, was short-lived. Gordy’s experience at Lincoln Mercury Assembly Plant was much better.
“The minute I walked into the Lincoln-Mercury Assembly Plant and saw how cool it was — no furnaces, fire or hot metal — I knew this was going to be my home for a while,” Gordy wrote. “Little did I know when I started how important to my future that assembly line was going to be. All I knew was those slow-moving car frames were the loveliest sights I’d ever seen. There was a pleasing simplicity to how everyone did the same thing over and over again. I fastened upholstery and chrome strips to those frames being pulled down the line on conveyor belts. It was a snap. I learned it so fast. I could jump into each car as it arrived, do my job, get out and have time to spare. Before long that extra time was devoted to singing and writing songs.”
Gordy, however, wanted to start his own business, even though he was already an accomplished songwriter. A couple of years earlier, he had partnered with his brother, George, to open a jazz record shop in Detroit called the 3D Record Mart – House of Jazz. Not long after, Gordy closed the shop and worked as a salesman for Guardian Service Cookware. But after borrowing $800 from the family’s savings fund, Gordy, with the blessings of his parents and siblings, started Motown in 1959.
Barrett Strong charted the label’s first hit in 1960 with “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the Miracles gave the company its first No. 1 hit with “Shop Around.” From there, the rest is history as Gordy applied what he had learned while working on the assembly line: “Everyone doing the same thing over and over again.” For Gordy, that translated into Motown’s long assembly line, involving artists, musicians, songwriters, arrangers, producers and distributors, all “doing the same thing over and over,” which for Gordy and Motown meant making hit songs.
The company began churning out hit after hit at a high rate of frequency. Motown, and its various subsidiary labels, including Tamla and Gordy, produced well over 100 No. 1 hits and many Top 10 hits under Gordy’s skillful eye and ear from 1960 to 1988. Among the classic hits were “Please Mr. Postman” (the Marvelettes), “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (the Four Tops), “My Girl” (the Temptations), “Stop! In the Name of Love” (the Supremes), “For Once in My Life” (Stevie Wonder), “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” (Marvin Gaye), “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Gladys Knight and the Pips and later Marvin Gaye), “My Guy” (Mary Wells), “Dancing in the Streets” (Martha and the Vandellas), “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell), “Where Did Our Love Go?” (the Supremes); “Baby I Need Your Loving” (the Four Tops), “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (the Miracles), “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (the Temptations) and “I Want You Back” (the Jackson 5).
In addition to charting some of the best R&B and pop songs of all time, Gordy was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and recorded several speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. under contract, which was strange,” said Gordy, with a laugh. “We did three albums with him, including ‘The Great March to Freedom’ which was his June 23, 1963 speech in Detroit. It was recorded several months before the historic march in Washington, D.C.”
Gordy recalled that Dr. King came to see him because the civil rights leader was impressed by how Motown’s music was about promoting emotional and social integration before political and intellectual integration could happen.
“He told me that he was out there and heard our music and it was always positive for all people,” Gordy recalled. “He was surprised that Motown’s music did not offend anyone, and he loved it. He said that he wanted to do something with Motown, if I was interested. I responded, ‘Are you kidding? I would love to do something with you on Motown.”
While Motown was doing extremely well, reaching audiences across broad social, cultural, and ethnic lines around the world, Gordy had some difficult decisions to make pertaining to expanding his portfolio. He began to look at opportunities in Los Angeles.
In 1972, amid criticism, some of which came from family members, Gordy relocated Motown to Los Angeles.
“My mindset was that I wanted to seek my fortune,” said Gordy. “I wanted to make movies, I wanted to do television and I wanted my artists to have the opportunity to do movies and television and stage plays. I knew that the only place that I could do this was in Hollywood. My family tried to stop me because they told me in California I would be just one of many who were trying to make it in music, movies and television. In Detroit, they told me, I was king. However, I didn’t want any limits put on anything that I was doing with Motown, so I moved the company to Los Angeles.”
Gordy credits Detroit for being the strong foundation that has propelled him to high levels of achievement.
“Growing up in Detroit gave me the best foundation that I could have had,” said Gordy. “It gave me the grit, glamor, strong work ethic and the competitive spirit. The city prepared me for anything and everything that I’ve had to face in life. When I got to California, I had a huge advantage and was stronger than what competition was there because I was from Detroit. So everywhere I go, I always take Detroit with me.”
In 1988, Gordy sold Motown Records to MCA. Motown Records continues to exist with such artists KEM, India.Arie, Ne-Yo and Chrisette Michele, Gordy admits that he is still a supporter of the label. However, his energy these days is in other places, such as with the hit Broadway production, “Motown the Musical.” The play is based on the true story of Gordy and his rise from featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul and how he influenced the rise to stardom for a multiplicity of now legendary artists. Gordy wrote three new songs exclusively for the stage production.
“‘Motown the Musical’ is awesome,” said Gordy. “It’s the truth told in an entertaining way. People are loving it and I’m thrilled about that.”
Gordy is also working with a young female singer named Jadagrace. He expects to release something on her next year.
“She has a very special vocal gift and is such a talent,” he said. “I believe she’s going to be a star. People are going to love her.”