Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Gordy, Berry Jr.

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929. Dropping out of high school in the 11th grade, he tried professional boxing, then in 1951 enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in Korea until he was discharged in 1953.

Returning to Detroit, Gordy followed his love of music and opened the 3-D Record Mart-House of Jazz, with help from his father and brother George. When the store went bankrupt in 1955, Gordy was forced to find steady work to support his wife and son. He got a job at Ford Motor Company, first in the foundry, then on the assembly line at the Lincoln-Mercury plant.

Unenamored of factory work, Gordy quit in 1957 to become a professional songwriter. In 1959, again borrowing money from his father, he founded a music publishing company, Jobete, then two record labels, Tamla Record Company and later in the year Motown. Also in 1959 Gordy purchased the house on Detroit’s Grand Boulevard that would become known as Hitsville USA. He converted a photography studio near the back of the property into a recording studio, set up administrative offices on the first floor, and moved his family to the second floor of the two-family flat.

In 1960, Gordy officially incorporated his company, Motown Records including Tamla Records under the Motown Record Corporation name. The company enjoyed quick success, with its first release “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong in 1960. That same year “Shop Around” by The Miracles was Motown’s first record to sell more than one million copies.

From 1961 to 1971, Motown Record Corporation enjoyed over one hundred Top Ten hits, from artists that included Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, and The Four Tops. By 1966 the company was taking in $20 million and added four more properties to its Grand Boulevard headquarters. By 1967 there were five labels under the Motown umbrella. In 1972, Gordy moved Motown Records to Los Angeles.

Although Gordy continued his songwriting, credited with co-authoring such hits as “Lonely Teardrops,” “I’ll be There,” and “Reet Petite,” among others, his talent lay in mainstreaming black popular music by finding talent and matching them with the right musical vehicle. He created an empire that encouraged creativity and polished its performers.

After establishing his record firm that churned out hit after hit in production line fashion, he turned to the movie business, with successes like Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz. Gordy was quick to include his family in the business, hiring his father, who he calls his “biggest hero,” and mother for office of the president. His sister Esther had many key roles throughout the company, including founding the Motown Museum.

In the late 1960s, Gordy lived in a 1917 Italianate mansion with pool house and five-car garage in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district, which he sold in 2002. He was married and divorced three times and fathered eight children through a number of relationships, including one with Motown Records’ most successful female artist, Diana Ross.

Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the same year he sold his company to MCA for $61 million. In 1994 he published his autobiography, To Be Loved.



Berry Gordy Jr. featured on the cover of Jet Magazine, 1994

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