Berry Gordy, Jr. was born to the middle-class family of Berry Gordy II (also known as Berry Gordy, Sr.), who had relocated to Detroit from Oconee in Washington County, Georgia, in 1922. The first Berry Gordy was the son of a white plantation owner in Georgia and his female slave. Berry Gordy, Sr. was lured to Detroit by the job opportunities for black people offered by the booming automotive businesses. He developed his interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record store featuring jazz music. The store was unsuccessful, and Gordy sought work at the Lincoln-Mercury plant, but his family connexions put him in touch with Al Green (no relation to the singer Al Green), owner of the Flame Show Bar Talent Club, where he met the singer Jackie Wilson.
In 1957 Wilson recorded "Reet Petite", a song Gordy had co-written with his sister Gwen and writer-producer Billy Davis. It became a modest hit, but had more success internationally, especially in the UK, where it reached the Top 10 and even later topped the chart on re-issue in 1986. Wilson recorded six more songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years, including "Lonely Teardrops", which topped the R&B charts and got to number 7 in the pop chart. Berry and Gwen Gordy additionally wrote "All I Could Do Was Cry" for Etta James at Chess Records.
Motown Record Corporation
Gordy reinvested the profits from his songwriting success into producing. In 1957, he detected the Miracles (originally known as the Matadors) and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In 1959, with the encouragement of Miracles leader Smokey Robinson, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create an R&B record company. Originally, Gordy wanted to name the new label Tammy Records, after the song recorded by Debbie Reynolds. Notwithstanding that name was taken, and he chose the name Tamla Records. The company began operating on January 21, 1959. "Come to Me" by Marv Johnson was issued as Tamla 101. United Artists Records picked up "Come to Me" for national distribution, as well as Johnson's more successful follow-up records like "You Got What It Takes", co-produced and co-written by Gordy. His next release was the only 45 ever issued on his Rayber label, featuring Wade Jones with an unnamed female backup group. The record didn't sell well and is now one of the rarest issues from the Motown stable. Berry's third release was "Bad Girl" by the Miracles, the first release on the Motown record label. "Bad Girl" was a solid hit in 1959 after Chess Records picked it up. Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" initially appeared on Tamla and then charted on Gordy's sister's label, Anna Records, in February 1960.
The Tamla and Motown labels were then merged into a new company, Motown Record Corporation, incorporated on April 14, 1960. In 1960, Gordy signed an unknown singer, Mary Wells, who became the fledgling label's first star, with Smokey Robinson penning her hits "You Beat Me to the Punch", "Two Lovers", and "My Guy". The Miracles' hit "Shop Around" peaked at No. 1 on the national R&B charts in late 1960 and at No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts on January 16, 1961 (No. 1 pop, Cash Box), which established Motown as an independent company worthy of notice. Later in 1961, the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" made it to the top of both charts.
Gordy's gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent, along with the careful management of his artists' public image, made Motown initially a major national and then international success. Over the next decade, he signed such artists as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, the Contours, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. Though he additionally signed numerous white acts on the label, he largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal.
Relocation to Los Angeles
In 1972, Gordy relocated to Los Angeles, where he produced the commercially successful Billie Holiday biography Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross (who was nominated for an Academy Award) and Richard Pryor, and introducing Billy Dee Williams (cast in a role originally for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops). Initially the studio, over Gordy's objections, rejected Williams after several screen tests. Notwithstanding Gordy, known for his tenacity, eventually prevailed, and the film established Williams as a major movie star. Berry Gordy soon after produced and directed Mahogany, additionally starring Ross and Williams. In 1985, he produced the cult martial arts film The Last Dragon, which starred martial artist Taimak and one of Prince's proteges, Vanity.
Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s by artists including the Jacksons, Rick James, Lionel Richie and long-term signings, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the record company was no longer the major force it had been. Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures on June 28, 1988, for $61 million. He later sold most of his interests in Jobete publishing to EMI Publishing. Gordy wrote or co-wrote 240 songs for Motown's Jobete music catalogue, consisting of approximately 15,000 songs. Notwithstanding the true test of the label's worth would come a few years later, when Polygram paid over $330 million (Diana Ross was given shares in this version of the label) for the Motown catalog. (Though the current label bearing its name is a shell of its former self, the Motown sound is now practically a genre of its own).
Gordy published an autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994.
Awards and accolades
Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Gordy was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1998.
Statements about Motown artists
On March 20, 2009, Gordy was in Hollywood to pay tribute to his first group and first million-selling act, the Miracles, when the members received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Speaking in tribute to the group, Gordy said: "Without the Miracles, Motown wouldn't be the Motown it is today."
At the age of 79, Gordy spoke at the memorial service for Michael Jackson in Los Angeles, on July 7, 2009. He suggested that "The King of Pop" was perhaps not the best description for Jackson in light of his achievements, referring to him instead as "the greatest entertainer that ever lived."
Motown: The Musical
On May 15, 2011, it was announced that Gordy was developing a Broadway musical about Motown. The show is said to be an account of events of the 1960s and how they shaped the creation of the label. Gordy hoped that the musical would improve the reputation of Motown Records and clear up any misconceptions regarding the label's demise.
Motown: The Musical began previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 11, 2013, and began regular performances there on April 14. The musical closed in January 2015, with the possibility of returning in the summer of 2016.
Gordy, who was married and divorced three times, has eight children: Hazel Joy, Berry IV, Terry James, Kerry Ashby, Sherry, Kennedy William, Rhonda Suzanne, and Stefan Kendal. His publishing company, Jobete, was named after his three eldest children, Joy, Berry and Terry.
He had three children with his first wife, Thelma Coleman, whom he married in 1953 (they were divorced in 1959):
- Hazel Joy (born August 24, 1954)
- Berry IV (born October 1955)
- Terry James (born August 1956)
- Kerry Ashby (born June 25, 1959)
With Jeana Jackson, Gordy had one daughter:
- Sherry (born May 23 [1960?])
With his then-mistress Margaret Norton, Gordy had a son who would later become more popularly known as Motown musician Rockwell:
- Kennedy William (born March 15, 1964)
Gordy had a daughter with Motown artist Diana Ross, with whom he had an intimate relationship from 1965 through the 1970s:
- Rhonda Suzanne (born August 14, 1971)
Gordy's eighth and youngest child is a son born to Nancy Leiviska. He is known by his stage name, Redfoo, as one member of the duo LMFAO (the additional member is Skyler Gordy, born August 23, 1986, and known professionally as SkyBlu; he's the grandson of Gordy and Thelma Coleman through their son Berry IV and his wife, Valerie Robeson):
- Stefan Kendal (born September 3, 1975)
Berry married Grace Eaton on July 17, 1990; they divorced in 1993.
|1985||The Last Dragon|
|1982||Rock 'N Roll! The First 5,000 Years||Writer: "I'll Be There"|
|2005||Lennon||Writer: "Money (That's What I Want)"|
|2013||Motown: The Musical||Producer and writer, composer and lyricist|
In popular culture
- Gordy was portrayed by Billy Dee Williams (whose career Gordy had helped to jump-start in the 1970s) in the 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. He had been additionally portrayed by Obba Babatunde in the 1998 miniseries The Temptations.
- The character Gordy Berry in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a reference to Berry Gordy.
- The character of Curtis Taylor, Jr., a music executive, in the 2006 musical film Dreamgirls has been called "a thinly veiled portrayal" of Gordy. The film was based on the 1981 musical Dreamgirls, but the film made the connexion to Gordy and Motown much more explicit than the musical did, by, amongst additional things, moving the setting of the storey from Chicago to Detroit. Taylor appears in the film as unethical and insensitive to his artists, which caused Gordy and others to criticise the film after its release. Gordy called the portrayal "100% wrong," while Smokey Robinson said it "blatantly painted a negative picture of Motown and Berry Gordy and of the Supremes." In 2007, the producers of the film, DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures, issued a public apology to Gordy, saying they were sorry "for any confusion that has resulted from our fictional work." Gordy accepted the apology.