Although he began his musical career as a songwriter and producer, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. made his fortune, and his mark on popular culture, through his ability to recognize and nurture the musical talents of others. At a time when black-owned record labels were largely restricted to a relatively small piece of the Pop marketplace, Gordy created a radio-friendly Pop-R&B hybrid that appealed equally to black and white listeners, and built a musical empire that rivaled the bands of the British Invasion for chart dominance through the 1960s.
The Detroit native was a former boxer and all-around hustler who achieved some success writing for R&B star Jackie Wilson, including the hits "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops," as well as writing "All I Could Do Was Cry" for Etta James. Despite those successes, Gordy grew frustrated with the difficulty he had collecting royalties, and figured that he couldn't do any worse putting out his own records.
In 1959, with $800 borrowed from family members, Gordy launched the Tamla and Motown imprints. After achieving some early success with singer Marv Johnson, Gordy struck paydirt with the local vocal group the Miracles, whose 1960 single "Shop Around" became Motown's first No. 1 R&B hit, and whose leader Bill "Smokey" Robinson would prove to be a key participant in the new venture, as artist, songwriter, producer, and talent scout.
Inspired by Detroit's auto assembly lines, Gordy structured Motown as an efficient hit factory. More hits followed with a growing roster of mostly local young talent including Barrett Strong, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Jackson Five. Gordy and his staff's ability to find and develop unknown talent was matched by their ability to build a roster of gifted producers and songwriters, including Norman Whitfield and the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, as well as Robinson.
Despite the company's massive success, many of its artists complained about Gordy's indentured-servitude contracts and allegedly shadowy accounting procedures. Many also bristled at the paternalistic control Berry exerted over his artists, whose wholesome public images were carefully cultivated and tended for maximum crossover appeal. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, in particular, pushed for more equitable payment and creative autonomy, which Gordy reluctantly granted. Despite their boss' objections, Gaye and Wonder embraced their hard-won musical freedom and emerged as major artists with such classic albums as Gaye's 1971 What's Going On and Wonder's 1972 Talking Book.
Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972, expanding into film with the successful Diana Ross vehicles Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. Meanwhile the company continued to score hits with such acts as Rick James, Michael Jackson and the Commodores. Motown also took some high-profile victory laps in the 80s, celebrating its history with a star-studded 25th-anniversary network TV special and releasing numerous CD and box-set reissues of the company's vintage classics. But by that time the classic Motown sound and sensibility had given way to modern R&B, and the label was losing money. In 1988, Gordy sold his interests in the company to MCA Records for $61 million, essentially marking his retirement from the record business.