Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Amazing Life of Berry Gordy

By Christina Pomoni

Motown is a symbol of African-American pride; an example of how a self-assured young man with an aspiration to bridge the gap of racial discrimination and social divide managed to bring together black and white audiences by assembling an abundance of talented black artists and producing distinctive sound. With a dream to make Motown synonymous to excellence and a family loan of $800, Berry Gordy established the most successful independent record label of the 1960s.

Born in Detroit in 1929, Gordy grew up in a supportive family environment with strong morals. Being a high-school dropout in the eleventh grade, he used to divide his time between composing songs on the piano and training for professional boxing under champion trainer Eddie Futch at a local Detroit gym until he became 19 years old.

In 1950, he was drafted by the US Army for the Korean War from where he returned in 1953 and got married to Thelma Coleman. Gordy made an effort to open his own record store, 3-D Record Mart, featuring jazz music, but his endeavors were quite unsuccessful. With the help of his family, Gordy met the singer Jackie Wilson at the Flame Show Bar, with whom he co-wrote some smash hits including 'Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet)' (1957), 'To Be Loved' (1958) and 'Lonely Teardrops' (1958), which all ranked in the top-ten of the R&B charts.

In 1957, Berry Gordy discovered The Miracles (at that time known as The Matadors) and under the urging of their leader and songwriter, Smokey Robinson, he began building a portfolio of talented artists. On January 12, 1959, with a family loan of $800, Gordy founded Tamla Records, an R&B label and produced 'Come To Me' by Mary Johnson that ranked #6 on the R&B charts.

In the same year, he purchased a modest two-floor building that used to be a photographer's studio at 2648 West Grand Blvd, which he converted into Motown's administrative building and mixing, mastering, recording and rehearsal studio to become the famous Hitsville U.S.A. studio. On April 14, 1960, Motown Records was incorporated with Tamla Records into Motown Record Corporation.

'Shop Around' by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (1960) topped nationally at #1 on the R&B charts and at #2 on the Billboard pop charts; 'Please Mr. Postman' by The Marvelettes ranked #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and on the R&B charts. Soon Motown and Tamla Records were joined by various subsidiaries such as Workshop Jazz for jazz, Mel-o-dy for country, Rare Earth for rock, Gordy, Soul, and V.I.P., all together gave birth to the 'Sound of Young America' that thoroughly took the nation by storm.

From 1961 to 1971, Hitsville became one of the hottest hot-factories in the United States. A remarkable roster of artists, musicians, composers and songwriters appeared under the Motown label including huge names such as Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Commodores, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many more.

Keeping the studio open 24/7 at its zenith, Berry Gordy and his artists were practically living there, working passionately and enthusiastically, feeling like home, recording new songs, experimenting with new sounds and making history. One of the most impressive statistics demonstrating the huge success of Motown was the hit singles to single releases ratio that reached 75 percent throughout 1960s. In a way, because of one determined young man, black music would never be ignored again as a minority taste and black communities would find their vehicle to financial and artistic freedom.

In 1972, Gordy decided to move Motown to Los Angeles, and although the label continued to flourish, the move marked the end of an incredible era. Today, the Motown Sound still sounds fresh and vital and many of Motown's artists of that era such as Diana Ross or Stevie Wonder are still selling millions of records worldwide. After all these years of wonderful music, there is no doubt that, if it hadn't been for Berry Gordy, the world would have never had the chance to enjoy such an innovative sound. What started as a modest two-floor building has grown to become a global influence because of the extraordinary vision of a determined young man.

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