Berry Gordy Jr. is the founder of Motown Records, the first black owned music label in the U.S. He was born on November 28, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan to Berry Gordy, Sr. and Bertha Fuller Gordy. He had seven other siblings and was the seventh of his eight siblings. He is a descendent of a white farm owner from Georgia and his slave Esther Johnson. He is also related to the former U.S. president Jimmy Carter on his mother’s side. Berry’s siblings were all successfully established but he chose to drop out of high school in 11th grade in order to train as a professional boxer. In 1950, he was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War.
He returned from the war in 1953 and got married to Thelma Coleman the same year. His interest in music piqued around this time, and he opened up a record store by the name of 3-D Record Mart. He also started writing songs with his sister Gwen. The store did not take off so Gordy sought a job at an automotive plant. He then got in touch with the owner of a talent club known as the Flame Show Bar, which is where he chanced to meet the singer Jackie Wilson. In 1957, Wilson sang a track co-written by Gordy and his sister. It was called “Reet Petite” and was successful in the U.S. as well as the U.K. Over the next two years, Gordy continued to write hit songs for Wilson and others, including “Lonely Teardrops” and “All I Could Do Was Cry”.
He established his first record company, known as Tamla Records, along with another label called Motown. He discovered a fledgling young band called “The Miracles” who became hugely successful recording artists under the Motown umbrella. As songs under the label started getting more and more success, Berry Gordy’s reputation in the industry began to grow. The Miracles, for instance, recorded back to back hits such as “Bad Girl” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”. He then signed on an unknown singer by the name of Mary Wells, whom he helped to develop into a star. Gordy also signed on the acclaimed songwriter “Smokey Robinson” and a wide repertoire of successful artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Jackson 5, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and many more.
He actively promoted African Americans, although he also signed on white artists. He managed the image of his artists very carefully, and promoted them in a polished and sophisticated way. Gordy also produced successful films such as Lady Sings the Blues, a biography of Billie Holiday starring Diana Ross. Ross was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Other works in TV and film include a TV special titled “Diana!”, “Mahogany”, “The Wiz” and “The Last Dragon”. By the 1980s, Gordy decided to sell off his interest in the Motown Record Corporation to Polygram for $330 million. He has also been active in theatre, and has produced a Broadway musical about Motown called “Motown: The Musical”.
Berry Gordy has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He has also received honorary degrees from Michigan State University and Occidental College, where he was also invited to deliver the commencement addresses. He has been married and divorced three times, and has eight children, including one with Diana Ross, who was then his girlfriend. He is currently in his eighties but still works actively in music, theatre and film.