Berry Gordy Jr. was born on November 28, 1929, and was raised in Detroit, Michigan. He was not the first businessperson in the family; both parents worked for themselves, his father as a plastering contractor, his mother as an insurance agent. As a child Gordy was interested in music, and his song “Berry’s Boogie” won a talent contest. However, he did not receive much formal training in music—only a little on the piano and merely a week on the clarinet. Gordy dropped out of Northeastern High School during his junior year to pursue a career as a boxer. Between 1948 and 1951 he fought fifteen matches, twelve of which he won, but his boxing career was cut short when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War (1950–53; a war between North Korea and South Korea during which the United Nations and the United States helped defend South Korea).
When Gordy’s service in the army ended in 1953, he returned to Detroit and used the money he had saved from his military pay to open a record store called the Three-D Record Mart. His love for the jazz of Stan Kenton (1912–1979), Charlie Parker (1920–1955), and Thelonius Monk (1917–1982) influenced the records he tried to sell more than his customers’ requests and his business soon failed.
Gordy worked for his father for a short period and then on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company. He did not find the work interesting, and as he worked he wrote songs in his head, some of which were recorded by local singers. The record company Decca Records bought several of his songs, including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops,” and when Gordy compared the money he made for writing the songs to what Decca made from the minor hits, he realized that writing the songs was not enough. He needed to own them.
At the suggestion of a friend, teenage singer William “Smokey” Robinson (1940–), Gordy borrowed seven hundred dollars from his father and formed his own company to make and sell records. Motown Records was headquartered in a house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, where Gordy slept on the second floor and made records on the first. In time the company grew, with nine buildings on the same street housing its various branches, such as Jobete, music publishers; Hitsville, USA, a recording studio; International Talent Management, Inc.; the Motown Artist’s Development Department (which showed Gordy’s personal interest in his performers, as this was where they were taught to eat, dress, and act like professionals); and the Motown Record Corporation.
In 1960 Motown released the song “Shop Around,” written by Smokey Robinson and performed by him and the Miracles. The song sold more than a million copies, and with that record Gordy’s company launched the most successful and influential era in the history of popular music. What came to be called the Motown Sound was a musical form that combined classic African American gospel singing with the new rock-and-roll sound that was being shaped by Elvis Presley (1935–1977) and the British band the Beatles.
Motown Records made more than 110 number-one hit songs and countless top-ten records, including “Please Mr. Postman,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “My Girl,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “For Once in My Life,” “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Your Precious Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “I Want You Back,” and “I’ll Be There.” Just as good is the list of artists Gordy brought into the spotlight: Diana Ross (1944–) and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder (1950–), Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight (1944–) and the Pips, Tammi Terrell (1945–1970) and Marvin Gaye (1939–1984), the Marvelettes, Mary Wells (1943–1992), and Martha Reeves (1941–) and the Vandellas.
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