Born 28 November 1929, Detroit, Michigan

Label owner, songwriter, producer, arranger.

The story of Berry Gordy is an American legend. He is the founder of the Motown Record Corporation (an umbrella for several labels), which would grow from humble beginnings in 1959 into the most successful African American enterprise in the USA. Gordy was responsible for a new sound that transformed popular music. During the 1960s, Motown achieved spectacular success for a small record company, with 79 records in the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969.

Berry Gordy was born into a middle-class family in Detroit in 1929 ; both his parents were self-employed. As a teenager, he had two passions, boxing and music, especially jazz. At the age of 16, Gordy dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a feather- weight boxer. Between 1948 and 1951 he fought 15 Golden Gloves matches, 12 of which he won. Realizing the tough life of a boxer compared to the classier life of a musician, he began to devote his energies to songwriting. After a stint in the Army, Berry opened the 3-D Record Mart in 1953, a record shop featuring jazz music. The public was more interested in R&B and blues and the shop closed two years later, but Gordy was still determined to make it in the music business. Reluctantly, he went to work at the Ford factory in Detroit to support his young family.

In 1957 Gordy formed a songwriting and business partnership with Roquel ‘Billy’ Davis, who wrote under the pseudonym Tyran Carlo. Their first success was “Reet Petite” by Jackie Wilson in late 1957. In the USA the record climbed no higher than # 62, but in the UK it got to # 6 and when it was reissued there in 1988, “Reet Petite” even went to the top of the charts. The first seven Brunswick singles by Jackie Wilson all featured a Gordy-Carlo composition on one side. Six of them entered the charts, the biggest hit being “Lonely Teardrops” (# 7 pop, # 1 R&B) in 1958-59. When Gordy compared his royalty checks to what Decca/Brunswick made from the songs, he realized that writing the hits wasn’t enough. He needed to own them. But it was a gamble. Black owners of record labels were very rare in those days.

Gordy launched Tamla Records in January 1959 with a family loan of $800, followed by Motown Records in September. The first release on Tamla was “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson, but it was prudently placed with United Artists Records for national distribution, becoming a # 30 pop hit in the spring of 1959. Billy Davis also formed a label, Anna Records, with Gordy’s sisters Anna and Gwen, and had chart success with “The Hunch” by Paul Gayten (1959) and especially “Money” by Barrett Strong (1960, co-written by Berry Gordy and also issued on Tamla). The Motown enterprise was always very much a family affair.

Not only did Gordy establish the Tamla /Motown record group, he also opened his own recording studio and his own publishing company, Jobete Music. Now he was in charge and Motown was to become the most profitable black entertainment company in the US. The first Top 10 hit on Tamla was “Shop Around” by the Miracles (# 2, late 1960/early 1961). The song was written by Gordy (who also produced the record) and Smokey Robinson, the group’s lead singer (also an outstanding songwriter) and sold more than a million copies. The Miracles would go on to have 45 entries on the pop charts until 1976, all on Tamla.

In late 1961, ”Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes was the first of 57 (!) number one hits (pop) on the Tamla-Motown-Gordy group of labels. Twelve of these 57 were by the Supremes (from 1967 on billed as Diana Ross and the Supremes), with an additional six chart toppers by Diana Ross without the Supremes. Other successful acts on Motown were Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, The Contours, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Junior Walker and the All Stars, Gladys Knight and the Pips (who recorded for Soul, also part of the Motown empire), The Jackson Five, The Commodores and Lionel Richie.

It took a while before Gordy had developed his typical “Motown sound”. The records from the early 1960s were simple formula products. From 1963 onwards, the emphasis was placed on the gospel qualities of his singers’ voices. The arrangements were also based on the accompaniments that commonly backed up gospel singing. Gordy and his producers (most notably the team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland) translated the qualities of church music into popular music terms. By 1965 the sound was fully conceived and instantly recognizable. Gordy was romantically involved with Diana Ross for several years, which resulted in the birth of Ross’s eldest child, Rhonda, in 1971.

Not everyone submitted to Gordy’s autocratic style and tight purse strings. The first to leave was Mary Wells, later followed by the production team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips and (in 1975) The Jackson Five. Defectors began to break up Gordy’s “family” of stars. Both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were allowed greater freedom to define themselves as artists with albums that were expressions of their personal philosophies.

In 1972 Gordy moved the whole Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles. The hits continued, but not as frequently as in the golden decade 1961-71. In 1988 Gordy made a distribution deal with MCA, giving up some of his independence and in 1994 the Motown catalogue was sold to Polygram. Nowadays Motown is part of the Capitol Music Group and operates out of the landmark Capitol Tower in Hollywood. Berry Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

More info :

Website “Classic Motown” :

Books :
- Berry Gordy, To be loved : the music, the magic, the memories of Motown : an auto- biography. New York : Warner Books, 1994. 432 pages.
- Nelson George, Where did our love go? The rise and and fall of the Motown sound. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1985. 250 pages. Updated edition 2007 (University of Illinois Press).

Recommended listening :
Hitsville USA : The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971. 103 tracks on 4 CD’s. With a 68-page long box book.

Acknowledgements : John Broven, Eric Olsen, Charlie Gillett.

YouTube :
Barrett Strong, Money :
The Contours, Do You Love Me :
Stevie Wonder, Fingertips, Parts 1 & 2 :
Four Tops, I Can’t Help Myself :
The Temptations, My Girl :
Supremes, You Can’t Hurry Love :
Marvin Gaye, I Heard It Through the Grapevine :
The Miracles, The Tears Of A Clown :
Jackson 5, I Want You Back :

Dik, July 2016

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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