Gordy founded Motown in 1959 and it became one of the world’s biggest music labels
Legendary Motown’s founder and boss Berry Gordy turns 89 today
The Motown founder Berry Gordy III was born on November 28, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan. The first Berry Gordy was the son of a white plantation owner, James Gordy, in Georgia and his female slave; his half-brother, James, was the grandfather of President Jimmy Carter. Gordy developed his interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record store featuring jazz music and 3-D glasses. In 1957 soul singer Jack 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 six 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 the profits from his songwriting success into producing. In 1957, he discovered the Miracles, and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In 1959, with the encouragement of Miracles leader Smokey Robinson, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create an R&B record company. Originally, Gordy wanted to name the new label Tammy Records, after the song recorded by Debbie Reynolds. However, that name was taken, and he chose the name Tamla Records. The company began operating on January 21, 1959.Berry’s third release was “Bad Girl” by the Miracles, the first release on the Motown record label. “Bad Girl” was a solid hit in 1959 after Chess Records picked it up. The Tamla and Motown labels were then merged into a new company, Motown Record Corporation, incorporated on April 14, 1960. 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, Jimmy Ruffin, the Contours, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. Though he also signed various white acts on the label, he largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal. Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s by artists including 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. However, the true test of the label’s worth would come a few years later, when Polygram paid over $330 million for the Motown catalog. Though the current label bearing its name is a shell of its former self, the Motown sound is now practically a genre of its own. Gordy turns 89 today.
Watch Berry Gordy telling how he started Motown
Listen to the compilation “Motown 50” featuring the best of Motown on Spotify
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