Berry Gordy: Motown Magician

Until recently little was known of Berry Gordy Jnr’s background. Such information as was available made no sense at all except on a romantic level, and Motown’s official version of its own origins is curiously blunt.

The aggressive young car-worker is said to have started the company that revolutionized the record industry on nothing more than an 800 dollar loan from his family’s credit union. But this rags-to-riches account overlooks two factors. In the first instance, Gordy was among the hottest songwriters of the late Fifties and had several million-selling compositions to his credit. Moreover, he came – to borrow a phrase from Peter Benjaminson’s The Story Of Motown – from a family as middle-class and as upwardly mobile as it was possible to be.

Berry Gordy Jnr was born on 28 November 1929 in Detroit, where he grew up in a Lower West Side household with four sisters and three brothers. Gordy Snr, a farmer from Georgia, had moved to Detroit some seven years earlier. He and his wife, Bertha, an insurance executive, eventually came to own a plastering business, a grocery store and a print-shop. By 1948, a black magazine had named them Family of the Year. Certainly, Gordy Jnr had no lack of proper schooling in either family unity or business administration; his parents, he has said, were the greatest producers he ever knew.

After a period as a professional feather-weight in the late Forties (when he met fellow-boxer Jackie Wilson), Gordy was drafted for service in the Korean War in 1951. Discharged in 1953, he married 19-year-old Thelma Coleman, borrowed 700 dollars from his father and opened a record shop in Detroit. A self-confessed jazz buff, Gordy stocked the records of Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and Art Tatum. "People kept coming in asking for the Dominoes and Johnny Ace," he recalled. "I couldn’t understand it." Reluctantly, Berry began to stock R&B records but too late to save his 3-D Record Mart, which went bankrupt. "But I discovered that I really liked R&B, my feelings were not with jazz but with what I heard in the churches. I had to have that funky beat."

Gordy next opted for what turned out to be a dull and unsatisfying job as a chrome trimmer on Ford’s auto-assembly line. His marriage faltered and his wife filed for a divorce, which was eventually granted in 1959; despite Gordy’s denials, the judge found him guilty of extreme and repeated cruelty.

Gordy began writing songs to offset the monotony of factory work. He pitched them to performers at Detroit’s Flame Showbar – where two of his sisters had obtained the concession to sell cigarettes – and to R&B label-owners including the Bihari brothers, who ran Modern Records, and Don Robey of Duke and Peacock. "I enjoyed writing blues. They had quite a few blues artists there and when I wrote a blues I’d send it to them."

These companies, which often reaped extra royalties by adding fictitious names to the songwriting credits, did little to increase Gordy’s fortunes. Nonetheless, in 1957 Berry left Ford and began collaborating with his sister, Gwendolyn Gordy, and Billy Davis, a distant relation who wrote under the pseudonym of Tyran Carlo. The trio succeeded in placing their songs with a publishing company whose owners managed Jackie Wilson.

One of the greatest soul singers, Wilson had left the Dominoes for a solo career on the Brunswick label. Gordy and Davis were asked to attend his recording sessions in New York under the supervision of orchestra leader Dick Jacobs. ‘Reet Petite’, their first song for Wilson, failed to dent the US Top Fifty in 1957 but made an enormous impact in Britain, where it went to Number Six. Novelty rock ‘n’ roll, it was not so much a coherent statement as a series of exclamations about a girl who filled her clothes from head to toe. High-pitched and ecstatic, Wilson simply let rip on it.

As well as rock ‘n’ roll songs, Gordy was much taken with the kind of lushly orchestrated material that companies like Decca reserved for their stars of stage and screen. Wilson’s version of ‘To Be Loved’ (1958), covered in Britain by Malcolm Vaughan, reached Number 22 in Billboard’s Hot Hundred and paved the way for a succession of operatic ballads with strings, monologues and huge, sobbing crescendos. Although such tissue-wrapped corn – ‘Each Time’, ‘We Have Love’ and others – lacked the finesse of the best of Tin Pan Alley, it was adored by middle-class black listeners.


GORDY CLAIMED NOT TO HAVE prospered from Wilson’s successes: "You can go broke with hits if someone else is producing them," he said. His next step was obvious. Like Sam Phillips before him, Gordy bought a tape machine and began producing acetates for anyone who paid him 100 dollars. He and his wife-to-be, Raynoma Liles, rented studio time, hired professional musicians and began to recruit talented vocalists including the Miracles.


Anyone who could write ‘Reet Petite’ and ‘To Be Loved’ clearly had talent and it was to Berry Gordy that the Miracles’ lead singer, Smokey Robinson, first turned for advice. "He’d say, ‘Well, you left off this or didn’t complete your idea on that’," Robinson recalled. "It really started me to think about songs and what they were. Gordy! Man, that cat more than anyone else helped me to get my things together." Gordy leased the first Miracles tapes, including ‘Got A Job’ and ‘(I Need Some) Money’, to the New York label, End. These titles reflected the faster doo-wop styles of the era, but they didn’t sell and Gordy received no more than a one dollar ninety-eight royalty cheque.

Smokey Robinson claims to have urged Gordy to manufacture his own records and, in January 1959, Gordy inaugurated the Tamla label, setting up shop in a small clapboard villa on West Grand Boulevard. He called it Hitsville USA and hung a sign across the front of the two-storey building. Few of Detroit’s small independent companies had ever bothered with the white audience and the primitive, dusky, backroom sound of Fortune or Sensation records rarely made the pop charts. But Marv Johnson’s ‘Come To Me’ (Tamla 101) changed the fiercely black, down-at-heel ambience of Fifties R&B into something light and frothy that sounded perfect on a transistor radio. Leased to United Artists, the record notched the Top Thirty in April 1959. Eddie Holland’s ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (Tamla 102) went nowhere but Johnson, who was signed to United Artists, cranked out no fewer than nine consecutive hits.

All produced and co-written by Gordy, they represented the first rumblings of a distinctive Detroit soul sound. Girls bop-shoo-bopped in a thin, reedy fashion while a bassman hummed the kind of ‘bottom’ at which instrumentalists like Carol Kaye and James Jamerson would later excel. More importantly, someone was usually thumping a tambourine. "I’ve always liked a lot of tambourine in our records," said Gordy. "I just happen to like the sound and I felt they added a very commercial feeling." Gordy helped that tambourine-driven gospel sound – then unfamiliar to whites – to cross ethnic barriers.


‘YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES’ and ‘I Love The Way You Love’ hit the Top Ten for Marv Johnson at the turn of the decade. The former, credited to the Gordys and Billy Davis (although Detroit bluesman Bobby Parker claims to have written it) would not look out of place among a sheaf of Smokey Robinson lyrics and the melody had the unhurried, instantly hummable and seductive quality of many later Motown classics.


Johnson remained in the charts throughout 1960. ‘Ain’t Gonna Be That Way’ preceded ‘Move Two Mountains’, one of Gordy’s few entirely self-composed songs and arguably his best. Incomparably catchy, it was covered in Britain by the Mudlarks. ‘Merry-Go-Round’ was the last of Johnson’s early hits, but he resurfaced with ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ in 1968.

Gordy and his wife – the Rayber Voices who provided the vocal accompaniment to many of the first Tamla productions – expanded their roster throughout 1959. Like the Miracles, most of the performers came from street-corner groups who idolized Fortune Records’ premier attraction, Nolan Strong and the Diablos. Records by Ron and Bill (Ronald White and Smokey Robinson), Nick and the Jaguars, the Fidelitones, the Swingin’ Tigers and the Satintones made little impression, although the last-named spawned Robert Bateman, who co-wrote many of the Miracles’ hits and introduced Gordy to Mary Wells. Eventually, the Miracles’ ‘Bad Girl’ (Motown 1), which was leased to Chess, crept into the Hot Hundred in October 1959. It was the forerunner of Robinson’s many fervent and mellifluous lead vocals.

The following month, Gordy produced ‘Money’ by Barrett Strong. The record was distributed by Anna, a label owned by Gwendolyn Gordy but named, in fact, after another of the sisters. The song, written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford (though John Lee Hooker has claimed authorship), combined a pounding gospel beat with brutally frank sentiments: "Money, That’s What I Want." Berry was advised that disc jockeys wouldn’t play a record that asked for cash at the height of the payola scandal but he ignored the warning and ‘Money’ reached Number Two on the R&B chart in January 1960. Gordy’s songs continued to be successful for other artists; ‘Everyone Was There’ had reached Number 96 for Bob Kayli in 1958 and ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’ (Number 33 in 1960) launched the most fruitful phrase of Etta James’ career.

Apart from ‘Money’, Gordy had relied on established, white-owned companies to distribute his records. They paid little or nothing in advance and, as long as they did the counting, very little in the way of royalties. In 1960, after 18 months of leasing his production to larger labels, Gordy decided that Tamla should go national with the Miracles’ ‘Way Over There’. "We’re not making any money now," Smokey Robinson had told him. "We can’t make any less by going national."

Released on 9 July, ‘Way Over There’ was prompted with half-page advertisements in the US trade papers and the prophetic copy bears repeating: "From out of the Mid West comes a new label destined to take its place among the leaders of the industry; Tamla, prexied by one of the young, driving geniuses of the music business today: Berry Gordy Jnr., Mr Hitsville." Within a year or two this extravagant blurb was more than justified.

‘Way Over There’ sold 60,000 copies in three months. "Now," said Gordy in 1968, "a figure like that would put us out of business. But then it was great because we had no overheads and we got many more distributors."

Gordy Snr closed the family businesses and worked as Tamla-Motown’s maintenance man; Gordy’s sisters, Loucye and Esther, became chief administrators. Gwendolyn closed Anna Records, married Harvey Fuqua and set up the Tri-Phi and Harvey labels. Despite having huge hit with the Spinners, their distributors refused to pay up and Fuqua joined Motown’s Artist Development Department when Berry Gordy paid his debts. Apart from the Spinners and the Voice-Masters (whose line-up included such later giants as David Ruffin and Lamont Dozier) the acquisition of Tri-Phi brought Johnny Bristol, Shorty Long, Junior Walker and Ann Bogan of the Marvelettes into the Motown stable. By then, Ron White had discovered Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson had auditioned the Supremes.


MORE AND MORE ARTISTS FLOCKED to Motown in the absence of any other successful Detroit independent. The Gordys and their in-laws – Marvin Gaye married Anna – were an increasingly powerful magnet to young and inexperienced black hopefuls who felt at ease within the small, family-oriented corporation. Within three years, using only local artists, Gordy had pushed gross sales of his company’s records to more than four million dollars annually. He did so giving his performers a sound, a style, an act and, above all, pride and prosperity.


In 1979 Gordy explained his success. "We didn’t have good enough equipment to make it sound like other companies so we had a different sound – but it was more of freedom. Most of the writers and producers had no formal education but they had the choice of sitting in a studio creating something that would make them feel good and proud; or they could be robbing somebody’s house or taking dope or doing any of the things people do when they don’t feel the esteem they should feel. The people got caught up in this philosophy, this love for what they were doing and the freedom to create without going by rules and regulations. More important than the Motown sound, was the togetherness of the people."

© Bill Millar, 1982

Berry Gordy: Motown Magician Berry Gordy: Motown Magician

Article Courtesy of Berry Gordy: Motown Magician, the Online Library of Music Journalism. For schools interested in subscribing to Rock's Backpages, please click here.

To browse all of the material provided by Rock's Backpages, browse our Berry Gordy: Motown Magician partner page.