• Exploring American History

Motown Records was the brainchild of Berry Gordy, Jr.

Debuting in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929, Berry Gordy, Jr. is the seventh of eight children born to Berry Gordy Sr. and Bertha Fuller. His father had been lured to Detroit by the booming automotive business which offered a large number of employment opportunities to blacks seeking work.

While his older siblings made a name for themselves as prominent citizens of Detroit, Berry chose to drop out of high school in an effort to secure fame and fortune as a professional boxer. He continued along this road until 1950 when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict.

In 1953, Gordy was back in Detroit. He had developed an interest in music, specifically jazz, and began to write a number of songs. He also opened a store, 3-D Record Mart, where he featured jazz music. His efforts as a business owner proved unsuccessful and the store later closed. Now with a family to support, Gordy applied for work at Detroit’s Lincoln-Mercury plant.

Knowing Gordy’s love for music, family members put him in touch with the owner of the Flame Show Bar, which operated as a talent club. While there one night, Gordy was introduced to singer Jackie Wilson. Gordy and his sister Gwen had written a song Wilson recorded in 1957 entitled Reet Petite. Though the song’s U.S. success was modest at best, it was a different story in England where it reached the Top 10. Over the next two years, Wilson recorded six more songs written by Gordy, one of which was Lonely Teardrops. This recording topped the R&B charts in the United States and reached #7 on the pop charts.

As royalties from his songs rolled in, Gordy invested them back into the music production business. In 1957, he was introduced to a group then known as the “Matadors”, who later changed their name to the “Miracles”. They became the first entry into a portfolio of successful artists Gordy began to assemble.

In 1959, Gordy was encouraged by Smokey Robinson, lead singer for the Miracles, to create his own R&B label. Gordy was able to borrow $800 from his family and Tamla Records began on January 12, 1959. On April 14, 1960, the company was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation. (Motown was a blend of the words motor and town, reflecting Detroit’s nickname.)

Marv Johnson’s Come to Me was the first song released by Tamla and was soon picked up by United Artists Records for national release. The second Tamla release did not do well, but the third, Bad Girl by the Miracles was a solid hit. In late 1960, Shop Around by the Miracles hit #1 on the R&B charts and on January 16, 1961, was #2 on Billboard’s pop chart. Motown was now a company worthy of recognition.

Gordy displayed a true knack for being able to identify musical talent. This ability, combined with careful management of the public images of the artists he signed, resulted in Motown become a major national success, which later went international as well. Though he signed a few white acts to the Motown label, the vast majority of those he promoted were black individuals and groups; a good many of which became highly famous – among them the Supremes, Marvin Gay, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. He strictly controlled the public image of these individuals and groups with respect to their manner of dress and public image, as well as their choreography in an effort to achieve across-the-board appeal.

In 1972, Gordy moved to Los Angeles, California. He sold Motown Records to MCA on June 28, 1988, for $61 million. A few years later, MCA sold the label and Motown catalog to Polygram for $330 million. Though the Motown label of today is basically a shadow of its former self, the music produced by the label became a genre all its own.

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