Berry Gordy founded and presided over the musical empire known as Motown. As a young black man working in often inhospitable times, Gordy endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people, regardless of the color of their skin. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression and a repository for some of the greatest talent ever assembled at one company. The list of artists who were discovered and thrived at Motown includes the Supremes, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and Martha and the Vandellas. But the artists alone were not the whole story by any means. Motown’s staff songwriting and production teams (e.g., Holland-Dozier-Holland) and in-house musicians (including such unsung heroes as bandleader/keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and bassist James Jamerson) contributed immeasurably to the Motown sound. The idea of a self-contained operation exuding soul from its every pore was all part of Gordy’s grand design.
The rags-to-riches story began in Detroit’s inner city where Gordy, born in 1929 as the son of a plastering contractor, dreamed of making his mark on the world. Stints in the army and as a boxer and record-store manager preceded his entree into the creative and entrepreneurial side of the music business. In the mid-Fifties, Gordy began writing songs for local R&B acts and quickly acquired a local reputation as a songwriter, producer and hustler. His first break came in 1957, when Brunswick Records bought a song of his called “"Reet Petite"” for Jackie Wilson. In 1959, Gordy ventured into independent production with singer Marv Johnson, enjoying a few modest hits such as “"Come to Me."” In 1960, Gordy leased another hit single – “"Money,"” by Barrett Strong – to Anna Records, a label owned by his sister. Then he decided to launch his own company: Tammie Records, which was changed to Tamla and eventually joined by the Gordy, Soul and Motown imprints. All of these labels were overseen from a Detroit house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that Gordy dubbed “"Hitsville U.S.A."”
The first hit of any size for the fledgling company belonged to the Miracles, a vocal group led by Smokey Robinson. “"Way Over There,"” released on Tamla in 1960, sold a respectable 60,000 copies. It’s followup, “"Shop Around,"” reached Number Two on the pop charts and launched Motown into the national market. Overseeing the whole operation from its founding in 1959 to its sale in 1988 was Berry, who insured that Motown’s stable of singers, songwriters, producers and musicians took the concept of simple, catchy pop songs to a whole new level of sophistication and, thanks to the music’s roots in gospel and blues, visceral intensity. At Motown, notions of “formula” were transformed into works of art in the hands of singers like Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (of the Temptations), Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Stevie Wonder.
Gordy touted Motown as “the Sound of Young America.” It’s roots may have been in gospel and blues, but its image was one of upward mobility and good, clean fun. At Gordy’s insistence, Motown’s men and women of soul attended in-house finishing school, where they learned how to comport themselves onstage and in social situations. Gordy, by all accounts a stern taskmaster, instituted an internal program of “quality control,” including weekly product evaluation meetings that he modeled after Detroit’s auto-making plants. At the same time, the working environment was sufficiently loose and freewheeling to foster creativity. In Gordy’s words, “Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes.”
Motown generated literally hundreds of hit singles, but one statistic bears especially eloquent testimony to Motown’s success. In 1966, the company’s “hit ratio” (the percentage of records released that made the national charts) was 75 percent, an awesome figure. In its Sixties heyday, Motown’s parade of hits revolutionized American popular music. After Motown, black popular music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste. For more than a decade, Berry Gordy and his talented cohorts translated a black idiom into the Sound of Young America. Aesthetically, no less than commercially, Motown’s achievements will likely remain unrivaled and untoppable.