By Jueseppi B.
Berry Gordy, Jr. (born November 28, 1929) is an American record producer, and songwriter. He remains best known however as the founder of the legendary Motown record label, as well as its many subsidiaries.
|Born||November 28, 1929 (age 83)|
|Origin||Detroit, Michigan, U.S.|
|Genres||R&B, soul, pop|
|Occupations||Record executive, songwriter, record producer,|
|Associated acts||The Jackson 5, The Corporation,The Supremes,|
Berry Gordy, Jr. (born in Detroit, Michigan) was the seventh of eight children (Fuller, Esther,Anna, Loucye, George, Gwen, Berry and Robert), born to the middle-class family of Berry Gordy II (a.k.a. Berry Gordy, Sr.) and Bertha Fuller Gordy (1899–1975), who had relocated to Detroit from Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1922. Gordy was brought up in a tight-knit family with strong morals. Berry Gordy II (1888–1978) was the son of Berry Gordy I and a woman named Lucy Hellum. Berry Gordy I was the son of James Thomas Gordy, a white plantation owner in Georgia, and his female slave Esther Johnson. Berry Gordy, Jr. is distantly related to former president Jimmy Carter through Carter’s mother, Bessie Lillian Gordy.
Berry Gordy, Jr’s older siblings were all prominent black citizens of Detroit. Berry, however, dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to become a professional boxer in hopes of becoming rich quick, a career he followed until 1950 when he was drafted by the United States Army for the Korean War.
After his return from Korea in 1953, he married Thelma Coleman. 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 connections put him in touch with Al Green (not the singer), owner of the Flame Show Bar talent club, where he met 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 also 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 discovered The Miracles (originally known as The Matadors) and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In 1959, at Miracles leader Smokey Robinson‘s encouragement, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create R&B label Tamla Records. 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 (such as “You Got What It Takes“, co-produced and co-written by Gordy). Berry’s next release was the only 45 ever issued on his Rayber label, and it featured Wade Jones with an unnamed female back-up group. The record did not sell well and is now one of the rarest issues from the Motown stable. Berry’s third release was “Bad Girl” by The Miracles, and was the first-ever release for 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 appearing on Tamla and then charted on Gordy’s sister’s label, Anna Records, in February 1960. 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 (#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.
In 1960, Gordy signed an unknown named 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 Tamla and Motown labels were then merged into a new company Motown Record Corporation, which was incorporated on April 14, 1959.
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.
Gordy was not known for cultivating white artists, although some were signed, such as Nick and the Jaguars, Mike and the Modifiers, Chris Clark, Rare Earth, the Valadiers, Debbie Dean and Connie Haines.
Berry produced a record on the Penny Label (part of early Tamla Records) in the spring of 1959 show casing a white doo-wop group known as “Bryan Brent and The Cutouts”. Berry had hoped that “Vacation Time”, written by himself and Billy Davis, would be the hit side. However, “For Eternity”, written by the Cutouts, became the summer hit and enjoyed an unprecedented #1 spot in the greater Detroit area for 8 weeks. Bryan Brent and The Cutouts performed on Soupy Sales late-night TV show and on Mickey Schorr’s Detroit Bandstand TV show, as well as many radio station-sponsored dance parties, such as Tommy Clay’s Sock Hop at the Light Guard Armory on 8 Mile Rd.
Not restricted to white venues, the group also performed for Martha Jean “The Queen” from WJLB at many of her popular weekend dances. While Bryan Brent and The Cutouts never enjoyed the security of a contract, they did enjoy the summer of 1959. In spite of missing notations in the history books, “For Eternity” is recognized as a doo-wop classic in the US and in Europe, it went viral.
Berry produced a record for white artist Tom Clay some time in 1959. The record was released on a tiny Detroit label called Chant. It is not currently known if Berry owned Chant records, but the 45 is recognized by many collectors to be one of the rarest of all Gordy singles. Tom Clay became a DJ in LA, and recorded again for Gordy on his MoWest label in the 1970′s. Kiki Dee became the first white female British singer to be signed to the Motown label. Gordy also employed many white workers and managers at the company’s headquarters, named Hitsville U.S.A., on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. He largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal.
Motown produced so many hits with over 100 titles hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that the Motown Sound has practically become its own genre of music. It is not unusual to hear descriptions of a given record to have that Motown sound.
Relocation to Los Angeles
In 1972, Gordy attended FIDM in 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. However, 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, also 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 1970′s and 1980′s 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 previously. 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 has written or co-written 240 songs for Motown’s Jobete music catalogue, consisting of approximately 15,000 songs. However, 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 would not be the Motown it is today.”
He gave a speech during the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles on July 7, 2009. Gordy suggested that “The King of Pop” was perhaps not the best description for Jackson in light of his achievements, and chose instead “the greatest entertainer that has ever lived.”
On May 15, 2011, it was announced that Gordy was developing a Broadway musical about the Motown music label. The show is said to be an account of events of the 1960s and how they shaped the creation of the label. Gordy hopes to use the musical to clear the sullied name of Motown Records and clear up any misconceptions regarding the label’s demise. Motown: The Musical is scheduled to open in previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 13, 2013.
Gordy, who married and divorced three times, has eight children: Hazel Joy, Berry Gordy 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.
With first wife Thelma Coleman, whom he married in 1953 (divorced in 1959), he has three children:
- Hazel Joy (born August 24, 1954)
- Berry Gordy IV (born October 1955)
- Terry James (born August 1956)
In the spring of 1960 he married second wife Raynoma Mayberry Liles (divorced in 1964). Raynoma was born Raynoma Mayberry. She was a teen mom and wife. She married her first husband, musician Charles Liles, in 1955, and their son Cliff was born soon after Together, they have one child who was born that previous year:
- Kerry Ashby (born June 25, 1959)
With Jeana Jackson, Gordy has one daughter:
With his then-mistress/girlfriend Margaret Norton, Gordy has a son who would later become more popularly known as Motown musician Rockwell:
- Kennedy William (born March 15, 1964)
Gordy has a daughter with successful Motown female 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 he has with Nancy Leiviska. He is known by his stage name as Redfoo of the duo LMFAO (the other member of the duo is Skyler Gordy, born August 23, 1986, and known professionally as SkyBlu; he is the grandson of Gordy and Thelma Coleman through their son Berry Gordy IV, and his wife, Valerie Robeson):
- Stefan Kendal (born September 3, 1975)
After dating for eight years, Berry married Grace Eaton on July 17, 1990; they divorced in 1993.
- 1971: Diana! (TV special)
- 1972: Lady Sings the Blues
- 1975: Mahogany
- 1976: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
- 1978: The Wiz
- 1985: The Last Dragon
In popular culture
- In the third episode of The Kids in the Hall Fran dreams about being taken to the Grammys by Berry Gordy.
- 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 was also 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 connection to Gordy and Motown much more explicit than the musical did, by, among other things, moving the setting of the story from Chicago to Detroit. Taylor appears in the film as unethical and insensitive to his artists, which caused Gordy and others to criticize 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.
- In the 2007 film Talk to Me, Washington D.C. DJ Petey Greene accuses Gordy of being a pimp and hustler while on the radio, causing a negative reaction from both Motown’s lawyers and Greene’s bosses. When Greene is forced to apologize on air, he states that Gordy is no pimp, despite the fact that he takes young black musicians and then sends them out to earn Gordy more money through their performance skills — thus sarcastically praising Gordy as a good businessman despite his pimplike actions. While Greene’s bosses remain angry, the predominantly black audience agrees with Greene and the radio station’s ratings increase.
- In a 2011 episode of British television show, The X-Factor, judge Louis Walsh caused some controversy when he responded to a contestant’s performance of “Dancing in the Street” with, “If Berry Gordy was alive, he’d sign you,” unaware that Gordy was still alive.
- Gordy makes an appearance in a commercial for the 2013 Chrysler 300 Motown Edition. Berry Gordy Jr.’s website is http://www.berrygordy.com.
Filed under: Art, Black History, Causes, Celebrity, Celebs & Fame, Dance, Education, History, Music, News, Photographs, Race, Racism, Stories, World News Tagged: | Berry Gordy, Black History Moment, Black History Month, Detroit, Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Ray Singleton, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Supremes