A gifted songwriter, Berry penned or co-wrote hits for Jackie Wilson, including “Reet Petite”, “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved”. Despite this success, Berry was not content to write songs: He burned with the entrepreneurial spirit, as was only natural for one of Berry, Sr. and Bertha’s children. With an $800 loan in hand from the Gordy Family’s Ber-Berry Co-op, Berry set out in 1959 to apply some of the principles he learned in the auto plant to the production of records and the creation of music groups and solo artists. He envisioned a process by which a “kid could walk in one door an unknown off the street and come out the other a polished performer”.
MOTOWN RECORDS FOUNDER
With a tenacity that reflected his training as a boxer, a drive to succeed that matched the lessons he learned from his parents, and an attention to detail that is evident in the quality and uniqueness of every element of the Motown experience, Berry built the Empire on West Grand Boulevard, known as Motown Records.
Motown Record Corporation was incorporated in April 1960, a year that produced Barrett Strong’s biggest hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” for which Berry shared writing credits with Janie Bradford. The Miracles’ “Shop Around,” written by lead singer Smokey Robinson, was also released that year and reached #1 and #2, respectively, on the R&B national and Billboard pop charts.
When Berry purchased the two-family flat at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, he moved his wife and young son into the upper unit and began to build his record company on the first floor. His energy and drive to reach his goal infected the growing Motown Records family as hit after hit emerged from Studio A, housed in a converted photography studio at the back of the house he soon dubbed Hitsville U.S.A.
Berry had a keen eye for talent as well. The list of his earliest discoveries reads like a who’s who of the golden age of rhythm-and-blues, starting with the Matadors (soon to become the Miracles), Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, and the Primes and Primettes, later to be known as the Temptations and the Supremes, respectively, to name only a few.
True to his vision, Berry invested considerable time and thought into polishing Motown performers. The Artist Development Department taught them how to sit, stand and speak with elegance, and act with refinement—no matter the setting. Their performance “uniforms” and choreography were the envy of street-corner singers and competing vocal groups everywhere. No one could out-Motown a member of the Motown clan!
The same vision that conceived of Motown Records led Berry Gordy, Jr., into the movie industry in the 1970s. Although he had moved into a different medium, Berry’s eye for talent was evident in the casting of Billy Dee Williams opposite Diana Ross in two films, Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. Hit movies followed his move to Los Angeles, with Motown artists, like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson starring in films Gordy produced, including the film adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Wiz.
After years at the helm of Motown Records, Berry took the role of board chairman, allowing the younger generation an opportunity to lead the company into a new era. He sold the company in 1988, but his connection to the “Sound of Young America” is unbreakable and eternal.