WBW Honors: Berry Gordy

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American music has always been, at base, African-American music. Gospel, minstrelsy, vaudeville, jazz, blues, rhythm & blues and rock n’ roll — it’s all basically Black, no matter the color of the artist who performs it. But until the 1960s, Black people did not much control their culture, much less profit from it. That all changed with the emergence of Detroit’s Motown Records in 1960, and its legendary founder, Berry Gordy. Gordy’s Motown remained the largest Black-owned business in America for decades, until Reginald Lewis bought Beatrice Foods in 1987.

But Gordy did something even more significant. He was the first Black entertainment entrepreneur to cross his roster into the American mainstream, making Motown the sound of all young America. In creating this powerful crossover, in which both white and Black youth felt comfortable, Gordy set the cultural stage for the emergence of the multiracial society that elected a Black man, Barack Obama, as the 44th President of the United States.

Berry Gordy, Jr. was born November 29, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan. The seventh of eight children, Gordy became a high-school dropout with dreams of becoming a professional boxer. After serving in the Korean War, Gordy returned to Detroit to open a record shop, which failed. After working in the local Lincoln-Mercury auto plant, Gordy fell in with a local singer named Jackie Wilson. Gordy began writing songs for Wilson, and their partnership ultimately resulted in a Top 1-0 R&B single, “Lonely Teardrops.”

After discovering Smokey Robinson and The Miracles in the late 1950s, Gordy borrowed some money from his family and started his own record label, Tamla, in 1959. The next year, he incorporated it as Motown. The 1960s had begun.

With an acute ear for catchy tunes, and a spit-and-polish work ethic, Gordy transformed a small recording studio into “Hitsville U.S.A.,” and launched the careers of Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and the Jackson 5, among many others. Gordy’s glossy production sound stood in stark counterpoint to the “gut-bucket” southern soul of Stax and Atlantic Records. But Gordy’s insistence on punctuality, rigorous stage training and even charm school for his performers created an aura around Motown artists of impeccable, Black royalty — a roster that inspired young Black Americans and seduced a generation of young white Americans. The artists and producers of Detroit’s Motown Records provided much of the soundtrack to the 1960s and beyond.

Motown’s influence waned somewhat in the 1970s, and dissipated altogether by the mid 1980s, with the aging of its roster and the emergence of the new sound of young America, hip-hop. But Motown’s influence is felt to this day in the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. When one looks back at how America’s racial attitudes changed in the 1960s, when one looks back at the birth of the modern Black business — both changes bringing us to this powerful climax in 2009 — one must see, and salute, Mr. Berry Gordy.

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