Imagine a world without Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie & the Commodores, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and you’ve just imagined a world without Berry Gordy, founder of Motown.
A man of vision, drive, talent and determination, Berry Gordy was also a songwriter, boxer, producer, director, innovative entrepreneur and teacher. The phenomenal success of Motown Records is tribute to all that he embodies and all that he brought out in others. Under his leadership, Motown created a sound that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20thcentury. The music communicated across a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people, regardless of skin color.
Dropping out of high school to pursue a boxing career, he had a successful series of fights as a featherweight, even appearing on the same card in 1948 with Joe Louis, his childhood hero. But he gave up boxing to pursue his real love, songwriting.
Some of his early hit songs were “To Be Loved” and “Lonely Teardrops” recorded by Jackie Wilson. After receiving a producer’s royalty check for only $3.19, he knew it was time to start his own label. On January 12, 1959, his family loaned him eight hundred dollars at six percent interest, and he founded the publishing company, Jobete Music and the Tamla record label.
He always tried to make a positive out of everything. He put the tedious time he spent working on the assembly line at Detroit’s Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant to good use: “Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. What a great idea! Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.”
In fact, Berry Gordy created a twenty-four hour hit-making and artist development factory, nurturing the artistic talent of the singers, writers, producers, as well as, corporate executives.
Starting out in a house that came to be known as Hitsville, USA, he built Motown into a record company with the most impressive roster of artists in the history of pop music. It’s been said that if you turn on the radio at any hour, on any given day, somewhere in the world, you’ll hear the sound of Motown. He made the whole world dance to this new sound that literally reached out across a politically and socially charged country, transforming popular music.
In the racially divided ‘60s, Gordy moved his artists into television, on shows like American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show and clubs like the Copacabana in New York starting with the Supremes, who were the first R&B act to play the club. They paved the way for other Motown artists and R&B acts to appear there and the top cabaret circuits around the world. He also released the recorded speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as part of his active involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
He relocated his company to Los Angeles in 1972 and filmed his first movie, “Lady Sings the Blues” which garnered 5 Academy Award nominations including one for Diana Ross’ unforgettable portrayal as Billie Holiday. His next movie was “Mahogany,” which also starred Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, which he directed himself.
Motown’s music spans generations, and its global impact, its influence–socially, culturally and economically–are forever cemented in the annals of American and world history.
In 1988, Gordy sold Motown to MCA and in 2004 sold Jobete to EMI. A groundbreaking business leader, his business model for Motown has been an icon for industry professionals, and has defined entrepreneurship for the many independent record labels that have aspired to duplicate its unrivalled excellence and unparalleled success. But the man from humble beginnings in a Detroit row house on West Grand Boulevard will tell you, “My success came through the hard work, talent and determination of ALL the people who helped to make Motown.”
He has received four honorary doctorates: in Philosophy from Occidental College, in Humanities from Morehouse College and from Michigan State University, and in Music from Eastern Michigan University.
Among the awards that have recognized Gordy’s accomplishments are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, the Gordon Grand Fellow from Yale University, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the Rainbow Coalition’s Man of the Millennium Award, presented by Rev. Jesse Jackson and former president, Bill Clinton, the Black Movie Award for “Lady Sings the Blues,” the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the T.J. Martell Foundation’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award, and the Grammy Salute To Industry Icons President’s Merit Award .
Berry Gordy’s unparalleled contribution to the world of music and popular culture is chronicled in his inspirational autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. The Heart Foundation is honored to have recognized Mr. Gordy with the Steven S. Cohen Humanitarian Award.