Berry Gordy, Jr. Biography (1929-)

Born 1929, in Detroit, MI; son of Berry Gordy (a plasterer) and his wife (aninsurance agent); married; children: Berry IV, Hazel Joy, Terry James, KerryA., Kennedy W., Stefan K. Addresses: HOME--Bel Air, CA. OFFICE--MotownRecord Corporation, 6255 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028.

Berry Gordy was the driving force in the creation of Motown Records, which became the largest black-owned business in the country at the time and changedthe course of popular music. Having launched the careers of many recording stars from Mary Wells to Diana Ross, he is a man of many talents, but some of his methods leading to success have brought great bitterness on the part of former associates. He benefited in the 1960s from changes in the music industrythat made possible the success of Motown; further changes in the industry during the 1980s influenced him to sell the company.

Many of pop music's biggest stars--Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie--first came to fame for their recordingson the Motown label, and the music itself is praised for its exuberant appeal that cuts across racial lines. As Bill Barol noted in a Newsweek article of May 23, 1983, Motown "goes on and on.... It really was the Sound ofYoung America through much of the 1960s, instantly recognizable on a car radio or hi-fi: it was sweet but soulful, polished but nakedly emotional. And always, without fail, there was the beat." Of Motown's creator the reporter concluded, "Gordy's true genius was to recognize that, above all, young America--black and white--wanted to dance."

Gordy has never been willing to rest on past achievements. Once a songwriter,then a determined entrepreneur, he has diversified his entertainment empireto include music publishing, talent scouting, and film and television production. In a September 1, 1967 Fortune profile, Stanley H. Brown suggested that with only the "most cursory" background in business, Gordy has "managed to fashion an organization whose premises, personnel, and relations with talent, tough unorthodox, have been effective and profitable."

Gordy was born and raised in Detroit. He told Fortune that he learnedbusiness techniques "through osmosis"--both his parents were self-employed,his father as a plasterer, his mother as an insurance salesperson. An unenthusiastic student, Gordy dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade, intending to pursue a boxing career. Between 1948 and 1951 he fought fifteen Golden Gloves bouts, winning twelve of them, but he was drafted and sent to Korea, where he served until 1953. After being discharged from the army, Gordy returned to Detroit and used his service pay and a loan from his father to opena record store, the Three-D Record Mart. The business failed in a short time,and Gordy was forced to seek work. He helped his father for a while, then took a job on the Ford Motor Company assembly line. He said that to keep from going crazy on his eight- hour shift, he would compose songs in his head, thenwrite them down after hours. Decca Records bought two of these compositions,"Reet Peteet" and "Way Over There." Both achieved modest success, but Gordydiscovered that his royalty payments were miniscule in comparison to what therecord companies made on his work.

On the advice of another songwriter, William Robinson, Gordy decided to produce records under his own label, thereby keeping his rights to a far bigger share of the profits. He borrowed another sum from his father and formed Motown, though the company was first known as Hitsville, U.S.A. The first song published by Motown was "Shop Around," written and sung by William Robinson, whowould soon be better known as Smokey Robinson. The record sold more than a million copies in 1960, and Motown was firmly established. Gordy kept the business in Detroit, renting a series of buildings on West Grand Boulevard, and herecruited talent from the choirs and schools in the neighborhood. The Supremes--Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson--came to Gordy right out ofhigh school; they soon became his most recognized group. Gordy also worked with Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Jackson Five, to name only a few. He brought a high degree of perfectionism to what he called "the Motown sound," beat-laden rhythm-and-blues music marketed for teenagers ofall races.

Motown was grossing $30 million by 1967 and analysts discerned several distinguishing characteristics to Gordy's operation. First, it was located in Detroit until 1970, and even after the move to Los Angeles, it was still situatedin modest office buildings and studios. Second, Gordy hired his whole family,including his parents, brothers, sisters, and in-laws. Third, Gordy took immense personal interest in his performing artists; he founded a Motown subsidiary, International Talent Management, to teach his singers everything from proper table manners and personal grooming to investment strategies and how topay taxes. A firm believer in quality at the expense of quantity, Gordy released as few as one or two singles a week--the industry average was five--but three out of four of his made the charts. According to Brown, Gordy's "somewhat isolated, tightly knit group ... created an idiom close to the mainstream and yet with a distinctive family sound of its own."

In 1972 Gordy began a corollary career. He produced Lady Sings the Blues, a film about jazz singer Billie Holiday that starred Diana Ross. The movie was an immense success, both critically and commercially. Encouraged by the reception to that work, Gordy then directed and produced Mahogany, also with Ross in the lead. Critics panned the film, although it did well at theatres. An October 27, 1975 Time article suggested that the receipts alone made Gordy "the most powerful new director in the business." Gordy bowed out of directing, however, and has since remained content to act as producer. His most recent notable work was The Wiz, a sleeper hit that found bigger audiences after one of its players, Michael Jackson, became a music superstar. Gordy told Newsweek that he plans to continue producing films, but they are not his top priority. As Barol noted, even though Motown is "a diversified entertainment conglomerate," its name means "one thing only: music with 'the funky beat and the real good feeling.'"

During the 1970s Motown's success was beginning to slow down, and Gordy wondered if his management style was suited for running an established enterprise.By late 1979 Gordy was insolvent; however, a bank loan, which he repaid within a year, tided him over until the crisis passed. Despite Diana Ross's moveto RCA in 1981, Motown still had stars like Lionel Richie, the Commodores, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder. However, because Motown was relatively small for the industry, it was in danger of being overtaken by media giants. In 1983 Gordy nearly sold Motown to MCA, but withdrew at the last moment. He didturn distribution over to MCA.

In 1988, Gordy again entered into negotiations with MCA to sell Motown. On June 28 the entertainment conglomerate purchased Motown for $61 million. Gordyretained control of Motown's movie and television interests as well as his publishing company Jobete, estimated to be worth $100 million. These propertieswere organized under the umbrella of the Gordy Company. Berry Gordy served as chairman of the board, and his son, Berry Gordy IV, as president.

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 endup 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, andbooks, the heritage of Motown will be preserved and appreciated by future generations of people who remain young at heart.

Birth Details
Detroit, Michigan, United States

Famous Works

Recent Updates

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 duringthe 2005-2006 season. Source: Associated Press,, June 4, 2004.

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