Born in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929, the rise of one of America’s preeminent music mavens was anything but expected.
Berry Gordy Jr. (who founded Motown records) had been trying to find his way in the world when a series of happenstances had led Gordy to connect with musician Jackie Wilson in 1957. Ultimately, Gordy and his sister Gwen Gordy ended up co-writing Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” with female writer-producer Billy Davis. Although the song saw only nominal success in the US (and greater success in the UK) the experience seems to have made its mark on Gordy.
By 1957, Gordy had founded what would eventually become “Motown Records” with $800 he had borrowed from his family. By 1959, the fledgling music producer had discovered The Miracles and formed a strong relationship with the band’s leader, Smokey Robinson. While The Miracles went on to win the label its first hits, Gordy also began having Smokey pen songs for another talented artist, Mary Wells. In 1962 Motown’s rising status became undeniable when two of Wells’ songs “The One Who Really Loves You” and “Two Lovers,” topped the charts.
By the early half of the 1960s Motown had achieved mass appeal, ushering in a new age of music now synonymous with the word “Motown.” The Supremes, the all-female trio who had formerly flopped with their first six singles, and had acquired the nickname “the no-hitters” at Motown. They eventually became chart toppers in 1964-66 with three number one hits, all from the same album—a first in history. Where Did Our Love Go went on to sell more than 3,000,000 copies.
Gordy’s knack for finding and bringing together musical talent and his careful management of the artists’ public image, made Motown an international success. Over the next decade, Motown signed artists who would go on to be major talents including: Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5.
During the early 70’s Gordy set his sights on producing movies, namely, the commercially successful Billie Holiday bio-pic Lady Sings the Blues, which starred Diana Ross, and Mahogany, starring Ross and Billy Dee Williams, which Gordy also directed. In 1985, Gordy produced The Last Dragon.
Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records to MCA for $61 million in 1988, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Berry Gordy Jr. is regarded as one of the greatest music makers in history. In Detroit, Motown’s first headquarters nicknamed “Hitsville U.S.A.” is now a museum which pays homage to the label’s indelible mark on popular music. In September 2016, President Barack Obama honored Berry Gordy Jr. with the National Medal of Arts, saying he helped “to create a trailblazing new sound in American music…launching the music careers of countless legendary artists. His unique sound helped shape our nation’s story.”