Berry Gordy, A Businessman who created a road others could successfully travel
Independence is ideal for many humans. Even small children desire to do things independently without the assistance of an adult. Although when we become adults we learn independence involves finance, as there is a cost to live. So we trade in our school books for a budget.
In the music industry having a budget is critical. It can be the difference in having a career or not having one. For an artist, a record label is usually the best source for a budget unless they’re independent. However, for African Americans, things weren’t always quite this black and white on the spectrum.
Talented artists and record executives who are Black carried a very important torch in the 19th century. They were the clearing the path for others to come through. Berry Gordy was one of these impactful individuals. He created a great platform for African American musicians with Motown Records.
Berry Gordy III was born in Detroit, Michigan to a middle-class family in November of 1929. He is the direct descendant of a plantation owner who had children with his female slave. Coming from a hard-working family he developed an interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart. The business was unsuccessful so he began looking for work. Gordy’s family knew his true passion was music so they connected him with the owner of the Flame Show Bar Talent Club.
This is where he would meet singer Jackie Wilson who he co-wrote for in 1957. Berry co-wrote a few more songs for Jackie which increased his exposure as a writer. Being a businessman at heart, Berry reinvested the profits from his songwriting success into producing.
Create your own lane and ride it
In 1957, Gordy discovered the Miracles and began to recruit other successful artists. Two years later, he borrowed $800 from his family to create an R&B record company with encouragement from Miracles leader Smokey Robinson. This was history in the making.
Motown Records was established in 1959 (originally Tamla Records). A year later they put out their first hit with the Miracles “Shop Around”. That same year Gordy found another unknown songstress who would soon become a star on his label. By 1962 Motown had 3 separate artists to have Billboard chart success. Considering Gordy’s eye for talent and inventiveness, he was a force to reckon with. In such a short time he took a new label to national success which quickly led to international success.
Over the next ten years, Berry signed many notable African American Artists to his label. Although he provided a major platform for Blacks to shine, he was an equal opportunity employer. There were White acts signed to Motown as well. With the Black acts, however he had to have strict attention to detail with marketing their public images. They were specifically marketed to appeal to major audiences. He did this without a marketing or business degree, simply knowledge and understanding of people.
Berry Gordy added film production to his skill set in the 1970s producing and casting roles for “Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues”. He went on to produce other films. This was also an opportunity for African Americans to appear in motion pictures.
Pioneers have purpose
Even with these new roles Berry never strayed too far from music. He continued to sign and break artists producing hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s’. Although Motown held credible artists on the roster the record company was no longer in its prime. Gordy being a businessman first before anything sold his interests in Motown Records in 1988 for $61 million. He also sold some of his publishing interests as he had written or co-written almost 250 songs in the Motown catalog.
Berry is considered a cultural icon who helped many people shine and thrive. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. He is also the first person to be honored with the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Pioneer Award while living. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2016 Gordy received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. The medal honors him for helping to create a trailblazing new sound in American music. For a man of Berry’s stature, it’s safe to assume it was a huge honor to receive such recognition from the first African American President.
As a record producer and songwriter, Berry Gordy helped solidify Motown as a cultural and musical staple. With the unique sound of Motown he assisted in launching the careers of countless legendary artists. Some of these include Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and Marvin Gaye. Pioneers like Gordy create massive waves for us to ride on. We must continue to explore, conquer, and ride these waves to new heights and destinations.
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