Berry Gordy

motown

berry gordy

Berry Gordy, Jr. (b. 1929) is an American record producer, and the founder of the Motown record label, which played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. Motown achieved a crossover success. In the 1960s, Motown and its soul-based subsidiaries were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, a style of soul music with a distinct pop influence.

The Motown Sound typically used tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent and often melodic electric bass-guitar lines, distinctive melodic and chord structures, and a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music. Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used. Complex arrangements and elaborate, melismatic vocal riffs were avoided. Motown producers believed steadfastly in the ‘KISS principle’ (keep it simple, stupid).

Born in Detroit, he was the seventh of eight children born to a tight-knit, middle class family with strong morals. His father, Berry Gordy II (1888–1978), was the son of Berry Gordy I, who was the son of James Thomas Gordy, a white farmer, and a female slave in Georgia. Berry Gordy 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 a jazz record store. 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 four 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. Gordy reinvested 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 an R&B label, Tamla Records. Berry’s third release, ‘Bad Girl’ by The Miracles, and first release for the Motown record label, was a hit in 1959 after Chess Records picked it up. The Miracles’ hit ‘Shop Around’ peaked at #1 on the national R&B charts in late 1960 and at #2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1961, 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 in April of 1960. Gordy’s company headquarters, named Hitsville U.S.A., on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, promoted his artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal. 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, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5. The Motown production process has been described as factory-like. The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day, and artists would often go on tour for weeks, come back to Detroit to record as many songs as possible, and then promptly go on tour again. Berry Gordy held quality control meetings every Friday morning, and used veto power to ensure that only the very best material and performances would be released. The test was that every new release needed to fit into a sequence of the top five selling pop singles of the week.

Several tracks which later became critical and commercial favorites were initially rejected by Gordy; the two most notable being the Marvin Gaye songs, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ and ‘What’s Going On.’ In several cases, producers would re-work tracks in hopes of eventually getting them approved at a later Friday morning meeting, as producer Norman Whitfield did with The Temptations’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.’ In 1972, Gordy attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, where he produced the Billie Holiday biography ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Billie D. Williams. 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 star. Williams would also go on to portray Gordy in the 1992 miniseries ‘The Jacksons: An American Dream.’ 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 like 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 in the summer of 1988 for $61 million. 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 of the same name, 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.

In the 2007 film ‘Talk to Me,’ Washington D.C. DJ Petey Greene calls Gordy a pimp and hustler on the radio, who ‘takes young black musicians and then sends them out to earn Gordy more money through their performance skills.’ Gordy was married and divorced three times, and has eight children, including Rhonda Ross Kendrick born in 1971 to Diana Ross, whom Gordy dated for a number of years, but never married.

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