With an $800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy Jr. began a record production company in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 that eventually became the most successful African American-owned enterprise up to that time, but also one of the most successful independent record production companies of its age. Its musical products, which came to be known collectively by the name of the company, Motown, were a major strand in the evolution of American popular music in the 1960s and represented one of the most successful and sustained crossovers of African American music into the popular mainstream.
Gordy was the seventh of eight children born to a family whose roots were in the South but who had moved to Detroit in the 1920s, part of the large-scale Northern migration of African Americans. The Gordy parents, Berry Sr. and Bertha, worked industriously to become upwardly mobile, running a grocery store and a plastering and painting business. Although most of his older siblings imbibed their parents’ work ethic, young Berry Gordy went his own way, dropping out of school to try to make his mark as a featherweight boxer. Moderately successful as a boxer, Berry nonetheless, after a brief stint in the military, decided to pursue a career in some aspect of the music business, first unsuccessfully running a jazz record store and then gravitating toward songwriting.
Supporting himself with odd jobs, including a stint on the Ford assembly line, he made contacts in the music publishing business in Detroit and finally managed to place a few songs with rhythm and blues performer Jackie Wilson. His songs for Wilson were successful but he made little money; at the same time his first marriage was deteriorating. After meeting a group of teenage singers known as the Matadors (later renamed the Miracles), whose leader, Smokey Robinson, seemed to Gordy a promising talent, he got into the production and management business, but again he struggled to make a living. Finally, in frustration with his efforts to work for others, and after he rejected an offer from one of his sisters to go into record production with her, Gordy decided to launch his own record label.
Phonograph records, originally 10-inch platters of shellac, had been a moderately successful aspect of the burgeoning entertainment industry since the 1920s. After the end of World War II, the manufacturers of record players and records (dominated by RCA Victor and Columbia Records) introduced new formats—the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing disk on vinyl, which permitted reduction of albums to one lightweight disk, and the 45 rpm single and small portable record players that became popular among teenagers—and new production techniques made possible by tape recorders provided higher fidelity sound. With more and more radio stations devoting themselves to recorded music, records had greater potential to reach larger audiences, especially the newly affluent teenage segment of the population. While the major labels dominated the market, turning out recordings of popular standards by such stars of the swing band era as Bing Crosby (one of the most prolific recording artists of all time), Frank Sinatra, and other crooners, new musical trends were also added to the mix, including a growing interest among white teenagers in music by African American musicians, the productions of independent record labels that had proliferated in the post–World War II period.
Since the 1920s, recordings by African American musicians had been marketed primarily to African Americans, under the label of “race records.” The growing popularity of jazz music led mainstream record producers to hire white musicians to “cover” the songs composed and performed by African Americans, and in keeping with the generally segregated nature of American society through World War II, white and African American musicians rarely mixed. This musical segregation began to erode in the era of the Big Bands in the 1930s and 1940s, but postwar pop records remained largely segregated for a while. In 1949, Billboard, the music industry magazine, changed its labeling of records on its best seller charts to include “rhythm and blues,” to replace the “Harlem Hit Parade” designation.
Through the mid-1950s, even as some radio disc jockeys on stations predominantly oriented to white audiences began to play music by African Americans, white singers and musicians were still covering the work of African American artists. Pat Boone’s renditions of songs written by Fats Domino or Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog,” originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, were typical (“Hound Dog,” however, was written by two white song writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, authors of numerous rhythm and blues classics, an indication that the racial lines were beginning to blur).
Gordy seems to have had the idea early on that music by black musicians could find acceptance among white audiences if the performers were presented in a manner acceptable to whites. As culture critic Gerald Early observed, “Gordy’s insistence that his performers be able to sell the company’s songs to whites and that his performers be able to play at the better paying white venues” changed American culture. At first, his success was limited; he was one of many in what had become a crowded field (there were 100 independent record companies in 1951, according to one estimate), but in 1960, the Miracles’ first release was a major hit and other groups soon began seeking him out: The Temptations (with Marvin Gaye), the Vandellas, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, among others. Gordy was nothing if not confident, hanging a sign on his small studio that proclaimed it “Hitsville”; later he added the motto “The Sound of Young America.”
In addition to producing their songs and marketing them to distributors and disc jockeys, he began to put together tours of his growing stable of musicians. To prepare his groups for performances, he hired dancers to teach them movement and he hired fashion consultants and etiquette teachers to give his performers, most of whom came out of the lower and working class Detroit neighborhoods, the polish they needed to interact with middle class and more affluent audiences. Not everything went smoothly: some of the performers were not ready for live performance; the early tour was launched with a limited budget, so the performers were forced to sleep in the tour bus; the performers faced the indignities of traveling through the segregated south and being refused accommodation at restaurants and motels; in one instance, their bus was fired on (this was in the same year as the freedom riders were traveling the southern states attempting to integrate public facilities). On the other hand, the Supremes were booked into the Copacabana nightclub in New York and were a major success in that and other luxe venues.
By the mid-1960s, the Motown brand was a dominating presence in popular music, even recognized abroad by the dominating band of the British rock scene, the Beatles. Income was rising, from $4.5 million in 1963 to $15 million in 1965, according to Gerald Posner. In 1966, Posner states, 75 percent of Motown’s releases placed on the charts of best-selling music compiled by various media outlets. Music historians Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman call Motown the “most stunning success story in the entire history of African American businesses in this country” (245). The company grew accordingly, employing 100 staff and 175 performing artists by the middle of the decade. Many in the top management were Gordy’s sisters, brothers, and in-laws, but he welcomed in others, sometimes hiring on instinct someone he met casually. The staff was well integrated, although some complained that there were not enough African Americans in the business departments. With the Jackson 5 joining the label in 1969, the company was at the peak of its productivity. In 1970, Motown songs dominated the charts: 16 songs in the Top Ten and 7 in number one position (out of 21 for the year), according to Starr and Waterman.
Gordy’s methods of running the company were a combination of top-down management (he initially oversaw everything and had absolute veto power over the product) and creative competition. He pitted his various songwriting and production teams against each other and rewarded those who turned out the hits with opportunities for prime time in the recording studio. There were elements of his organizational style that resembled the automobile production lines he briefly worked on, according to his own account in an interview in the rock magazine Rolling Stone. Writers wrote songs for various groups who came into the studio to perform them in assembly-line fashion (only a few of his performers wrote their own music initially), and the products were evaluated at weekly meetings. He managed his performers’ financial affairs (many were barely out of their teenage years when they began their careers), doling out weekly allowances, depositing their royalties into accounts against which he charged their expenses, and filling out their tax returns.
After the company became a success and the performers became celebrities, many of them began to chafe at the financial arrangements, arguing that they should have been getting more of the income. A string of defections began in the late 1960s, some with accompanying lawsuits, led initially by the departure of Mo-town’s top songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and eventually including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. According to writer Gerald Posner’s account, many of the performers succumbed to the seductions of money and fame and the fast life of pop music performers; drug use and alcoholism were prevalent. The death of the Supremes’ founder Florence Ballard, whom Gordy fired from the group because of her drinking and her competition with Diana Ross, and the murder of Marvin Gaye by his father after a drink-and-drug-fueled argument, were among some of the more notorious personal tragedies that made their way into the press. Gordy himself enjoyed the high life of a media mogul, hobnobbing with celebrities, gambling in Los Vegas, and building a palatial residence in Detroit and then one in Los Angeles where he moved the company in the 1970s as he branched into film production to make his favorite performer, Diana Ross, into a true star (Gordy and Ross had a longtime romantic relationship, according to Posner; Ross’s film career was not as successful as Gordy hoped).
The peak years of Motown were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the company continued along after that despite the defections and the dearth of fresh talent; although financially troubled in the 1980s, it was still a hot enough property in the industry to garner a price of $61 million when it was acquired by a financial conglomerate in 1988 who in turn sold it to a European company in 1993 for $230 million. Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
The growth of Motown took place in the decade of the struggle for civil rights by African Americans. Gordy’s inclination was to keep aloof from the struggle, but inevitably the company, as a major African American owned enterprise, was drawn into the civil drama unfolding around it. Its offices were in the middle of, but were unscathed by, the urban rioting that devastated Detroit in the summer of 1967, but one of its songs, “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, became an anthem of civil rebellion among some urban African Americans. Gordy issued a series of recordings of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American civil rights leaders and produced a Motown benefit for Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March, and Marvin Gaye’s early 1970s album What’s Goin’ On belatedly expressed the spirit of protest that had become so much a part of the popular music scene in the recent past. But it was as a successful and integrated African American–owned company that Motown embodied the spirit of its time, Gordy’s own reluctance to be an activist notwithstanding. As critic Gerald Early wrote in his 1995 book on Motown and American culture, Gordy succeeded in bridging the gap between the mainstream and African American cultures and “the success of Motown stands as the most shining hour of American blacks in popular culture.”
Abbott, Kingsley, ed. Calling Out around the World: A Motown Reader. London: Helter Skelter Publishing, 2001.
Early, Gerald. One Nation under a Groove: Motown and American Popular Culture. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1995.
Goldberg, Michael. “Berry Gordy: Motown’s Founder Tells the Story of Hitsville, U.S.A.” Rolling Stone, August 23, 1990; rpt. Abbott: 27–35.
McEwen, Joe and Jim Miller. “Motown.” Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1992; rpt in Abbott: 14–18.
Morton, David. Recording History. www.recordinghistory.com .
Posner, Gerald. Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House, 2002.
Starr, Larry and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3. 2nd ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.