Berry Gordy: Father of the Motown Sound
Essay written by Haronamas Walton
Berry Gordy Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929. He was the seventh born out of eight siblings. His parents migrated to Detroit from Georgia during 1922. They were part of a mass exodus of African Americans who left the South in the 20’s and traveled to northern cities in search of better economic futures. During that time jobs were plentiful in the factories, mainly the big four automotive plants that like, Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet, and General Motors.
Berry and Bertha Gordy would instill in Berry Jr. and his brothers and sisters a strong work ethic and a belief that anything could be achieved through persistence. His family also had deep roots in business. Berry Sr. owned a plastering and carpentry service, a general store, and a printing business. Gordy’s family believed in the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which stressed economic independence for blacks. Gordy Sr. named his store after him. Berry Gordy Jr. was heavily influenced by the ambition of his father.
Like his father, he was also very determined and he tried many new ventures. Berry was an average student who earned decent grades. Despite this he decided to drop out of Northeastern High School to peruse a featherweight boxing career. He once even fought on the same card as the great Joe Louis. He had a brief but successful series of fights but decided to give up boxing in 1951. That same year he would then decide to try out the Army. He served for two years during the Korean War; there he earned his high school equivalency diploma.
After his short stint in the army, he decided to open a record store, which only sold jazz records. Berry always enjoyed listening to records in his basement and he had a great love of music. Berry always hung around Detroit’s popular nightspots to hear the bebop jazz sounds. He was able to see the performances of famous artists like pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Unfortunately, Berry’s store eventually closed due to financial difficulties.
Gordy soon found himself working at Ford’s Mercury plant, earning $85 a week. Bored with his assembly line job, he spent all of his free time writing songs. Berry would hum melodies and make up song lyrics in his head to break the monotony of everyday work. Berry soon began to get serious about song writing and he got his big break when he won a talent contest. He wrote a song for Jackie Wilson called “Reet Petite.” It became a major R;B hit in late 1957. Gordy continued to dabble in freelance songwriting and he found success with “Lonely Teardrops,” and “To Be Loved,” which were two other hits that he wrote for Jackie Wilson. He also wrote a hit song for Barret Strong called “Money (That’s What I Want).” This gave Berry a strong reputation as an accomplished songwriter in the music world. Berry was an outstanding writer despite the fact that he was unable to read music. Gordy had no musical talent at all, as far as singing or playing music was concerned. He did however have an ability to gauge whether a song had the elements of popular appeal. He had the power to detect star quality and potential in songs and performers.
The first star that Gordy would discover would be William Smokey Robinson, a Detroit high schooler with a soothing falsetto voice and an ear for sweet lyrics. In 1957 Smokey Robinson was the lead singer of a group called the Matadors. They auditioned unsuccessfully for Jackie Wilson’s manager, but Gordy who was instrumental in Wilson’s earlier success happened to be present at the audition. His talent for recognizing star power came in handy because he saw something that everyone at that audition seemed to miss.
Berry persuaded Smokey and the Matadors to change their names to the Miracles and work with him. Berry Gordy began recording Robinson’s group, The Miracles, for New York based End Records. They had early success with their record “Got a Job/My Momma Done Told Me.” Gordy then established Jobete Publishing company and began Motown Records. The name was derived from the city of Detroit’s nickname “The Motor City.” Smokey Robinson convinced Gordy to start his own recording company because although Gordy was very successful as an independent songwriter he remained on the fringes of the popular music business, making very little money. He was writing great songs, but he most of the profits were ending up in the pockets of record labels or distributors.
He rented an eight-room house on 2648 W. Grand Blvd with an $ 800 loan from his family. This two-story house would serve as both the recording studio and the administrative headquarters for Motown Records. This famous house would later be known as Hitsville USA and become a major tourist attraction in Detroit. Gordy was the CEO and president for Motown and he named Robinson as it’s Vice President. In 1960 Motown would release its first hit single, “Shop Around,” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. It sold over one million copies. It was number 1 one R&B hit and it reached number 2 on the pop chart in early 1961. This was the song that introduced Motown records to the world.
Motown enjoyed its greatest success between 1965 and 1968, when it dominated the Billboard charts. By 1966, three out of every four Motown releases made the charts. Motown was responsible for launching the careers of some of pop music and R&B’s all time greatest performers. Motown had several young singing groups, including The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Marvelletts. There were great performers like Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, the Contours, Junior walker and the All-Stars, The Isley Brothers, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Yet, despite the success of these great artists, many of whom, are household names even today, no Motown act of the 1960’s matched the success of Diana Ross and the Supremes. They scored many number one hits like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me” in 1964. In 1965 they topped the charts again with hits like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again,” and” I Hear a Symphony”. In 1966 they had a famous hit called “You Can’t Hurry Love.” They were the second most successful singing group of the decade-surpassed only by the Beatles-but they remain the most successful female singing group of all time. Diana Ross, the groups lead singer went on to have an impressive solo career and she even did a little bit of acting. She was most famous for her role in the movie “Lady sings the Blues.”
There were a lot of factors that contributed to Motown Records early success. One thing was the death of big-band swing after World War II. It was the dominant form of popular music in America during the Great Depression. Eventually Big musical units became huge economic burdens on bandleaders and many musicians felt it impractical to carry on this tradition. Big band would take a back seat to what is known as bebop jazz, which was made more for listening than for dancing.
With the emergence of rhythm and blues from the inner-city ghettos bebop began to fade just as big band had. R&B was being promoted many famous bandleaders like Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton. The creation or rhythm and blues was what eventually brought about many small independent labels. Companies like Columbia, Decca, Peacock Records, and Vee Jay Records helped pioneer the R&B movement by supporting great up and coming artists. They seized the opportunity to make profits off of music that was then considered radical and unconventional.
The main reason why the larger companies did not record many of these artists was because they were African American. The records produced by these smaller independent companies were known as “race records.” The underground sound of race records was penetrating the mainstream of society with the help of black radio, which became prominent after World War II. It gave black listeners great clout as consumers and made it possible for black record company owners to market their songs directly to its growing audience. All of these numerous changes in American society paved the way for someone like Berry Gordy to form a company like Motown.
Changes in society continued to take place in 1954 and with the Brown V. the Board of Education case. It abolished the segregation of American schools and helped to upgrade the conditions of many inner-city schools. This played a major role in the success of Motown Records because the majority of Berry Gordy’s acts came out of the Detroit Public School system, which had one of the nations top musical programs at the time.
The death of Tin Pan Alley was also a major factor in Motown’s success because it allowed artists or labels to write their own music. The foundation of Motown rested on the fact that they were able to write their own music, thus staying independent and black owned. A Company like Motown would be able to thrive because it would be able to keep all of the money it earned and put it back into the company so that it could cultivate more talent. Therefore it would have the potential to have a long live and be very successful.
One of the most critical ingredients to the success of Motown was unquestionably the song writing. Motown records had some of the best songwriters in the business, besides Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy there was the famous team of Holland and Dozier. They consisted of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland who wrote and produced the Supremes’ mid-1960’s hits. There were also famous songwriters Sylvia Moy, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, and Ivy Joe Hunter. All of his songwriters were also producers. Gordy and his huge songwriting staff created what is known as the “Motown sound,” a ballad based blend of traditional black harmony and gospel music with the lively beat of rhythm and blues.
Since Gordy’s business was small he had to run it different from other companies. The studio on West Grand Blvd. also served the purpose of a finishing school and an academy of popular arts. Gordy found a lot of his talent out of high school and most of them had little or no experience in actually performing for large crowds or being on television. His staff of coaches was known as the “Motown U Pros,” Cholly Atkins headed them. These coaches taught the artists etiquette, choreography, and how to handle fame. With the combination of opportunity, raw talent, and world-renowned song writing Motown easily took it’s place as the top record company of the 60’s.
Times and tastes changed as the 60’s became the 70’s and Motown eventually decided to move its operation from Detroit to Los Angeles, following the trend of many musicians who migrated West. Although the company didn’t have as strong of an impact in the 70’s it was still a formidable enterprise. Motown still had heavy weight acts like The Jackson 5, Rick James, The Commodores, Lionel Richie, and Marvin Gaye. Gordy also made the move into the filmmaking industry with popular movies like, “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross.
In 1988 Berry Gordy decided to sell Motown to MCA for $61 million dollars because he found it difficult to compete with multinational conglomerates that began to dominate the industry. Later Motown was sold to PolyGram 1993. Although Gordy is no longer making records, he still has a hand in Motown-related projects as well, including a television miniseries and a Broadway musical. As for Motown records today, the label boasts a less substantial roster than in its glory years, but it still includes some very impressive acts such as Stevie Wonder, Johnny Gill, Queen Latifah, Jason Weaver, and Boyz II Men. Boyz II Men’s single “End of the Road” set records in 1992 by remaining at number one on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks, longer than any other song since the pop charts began.
Berry Gordy headed one of the most successful black-owned companies in the United States. By 1972 Berry Gordy was the richest black man in America with an annual income in excess of $ 10 million dollars. By 1982, the company boasted revenues of $ 104 million, and Motown acts had recorded 110 number one hits on the American pop charts. Gordy was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the American Music Awards in 1975 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Gordy was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1996 and people even wanted to name the section of West Grand Boulevard in front of the Motown Museum (Hitsville USA) after Berry Gordy.
Motown records helped bring black performers and black music to the mainstream popular music charts. Motown started at a time when the country as a whole was optimistic about the future. The election of JFK, and the growing popularity of MLK Jr. and his message, fostered a sense that blacks were soon to enter a world of equality through the front door. This feeling was particularly felt in Detroit, as Motown became a success and crossed over into white audiences as well. To this day the “Motown sound” still continues to influence pop music.
“Motown Record Company, L.P.,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Gordy, Berry, Jr. “Encyclopedia Online. http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=2973;sctn=1 Accessed 25 March 2000
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