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The Self-Made Man: Berry Gordy, Jr.

The Motown sound might be nothing but music for commercials and Baby Boomer nostalgia catnip now, but in its heyday it was some of the best produced, catchiest, and most innovative music in the country. And the Motown label was the brainchild of one of America’s most successful black entrepreneurs, Berry Gordy, Jr. His pugnacious work ethic and eye for opportunity were exactly what TSB likes in an entrepreneur, and the music that came out of Motown facilitated a lot of sex-having, which is perhaps equally important to TSB’s interests.

Gordy did not plan on becoming a businessman, though. His original plan was to get rich as a boxer, and he wasn’t a bad one, but his career was cut short when he got drafted to serve in the Korean War. When he got back, he used his service pay to open a record store, but his taste in jazz didn’t suit his young, rock ‘n roll-loving demographic, so it didn’t stay open long. Damn kids.

The man Gordy

After that, Gordy took an assembly line job at the Ford plant, which was so ungodly boring that he wrote songs in his head to keep himself sane and alert. He started writing those songs down and, through contacts arranged by his family, got some local Detroit singers to record them. One of them was Jackie Wilson, and the others were a group called the Matadors, led by a then-teenaged Smokey Robinson.

As it turned out, Gordy was a pretty good songwriter for the time, and labels like Decca Records, who bought “Lonely Teardrops” for Wilson to record, were buying his songs. They were also making serious bank from them, and this did not escape Gordy, whose head nearly exploded when he compared how much he was making as a songwriter to what they were making off his work as producers and publishers who owned the rights to those songs.

So on the advice of Smokey Robinson, and with a small loan from his family, Gordy started his own record label. Originally called Tamla Records, it did modestly well, and Gordy recruited friends and family to help him get it off the ground. He started Motown Records as an imprint in 1959, and merged the two labels soon afterward when it became clear that Motown was a stronger brand.

Motown produced a #1 R&B hit, Smokey Robinson and the newly-renamed Miracles’ “Shop Around,” in 1960, and things snowballed from there. In addition to songwriting, Gordy had a knack for finding talented musicians and managing their public images. Motown developed an almost peerless reputation as a hit factory, and their facilities grew from one studio to two, along with other properties for talent management and development, publishing, and other administrative etceteras.

By 1966, Motown had 450 employees and an income of around $20 million, which was unprecedented by independent record label standards at the time. That’s still an impressive figure now, come to the think of it. Along the way, Motown introduced America to Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Marvin Gaye, just to name a few. For all you Simpsons fans out there, Berry Gordy was a lot like Mr. Burns telling Darryl Strawberry to hit a home run – the roster he’d put together was astounding.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. Gordy expanded into Los Angeles to get into the film industry and turn Diana Ross into a movie star, which worked with Lady Sings the Blues, and to a lesser extent in Mahogany. She thanked him by signing with RCA in 1981, but she and a lot of other Motown artists were tired of Gordy’s rigid control of their careers and images, so the bloom was pretty much off the rose by that point, anyway. Gordy sold his company to MCA for $61 million in 1988, keeping his music publishing operation and film division for himself.

Today, Gordy is an extremely private citizen (and still alive, despite what you may have heard on The X-Factor), but his is still a respected, if controversial, name in the music industry. It’s easy to see why. He wrote a lot of great songs.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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