By Molly McGuire, Intern, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Motown began in 1959 with an $800 loan. Berry Gordy Jr. took his idea of starting a record company to his family’s savings fund. With a loan from the fund (to be paid back at six percent interest) and his flair for recognizing a hit, Gordy cultivated an array of Detroit stars, forming the most successful record label of his time.
Gordy was born in Detroit on November 28, 1929. After dropping out of school in the eleventh grade, he spent time as a boxer but also harbored a passion for music. He quit fighting and began writing songs until he was drafted to serve in the Korean War in 1951.
Upon his return from military service, he opened up a jazz record store, which failed after two years. He took a job in a Lincoln-Mercury assembly plant, composing songs while he was fastening upholstery to car frames. The monotonous job was not enough for Gordy, and he quit to follow his dream of making a full-time career in music, eventually leading him to create his own record label.
He called it “Motown” to capture the essence of Detroit, the Motor City. “In tribute to what I had always felt was the down-home quality of warm, soulful country-hearted people I grew up around, I used ‘town’ in place of ‘city,’” Gordy wrote in his autobiography. The home of Motown was 2648 West Grand Boulevard, a place Gordy used as his center of operations and his own residence. He called it “Hitsville, USA.”
Gordy cultivated a family at Hitsville. A perfectionist and shrewd businessman, Gordy once called The Miracles back to the studio at 3:00 a.m. to recut “Shop Around.” He nurtured the talent of Motown superstars, changing the names of the Primettes, Diane Ross, and eleven-year-old Stevland Hardaway Morris to, respectively, the Supremes, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder.
With his instinct for tracking down exceptional artists, Gordy brought a multitude of names into the national spotlight, including the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Gordy always had an innate aptitude for recognizing a hit, but he sought input from his team, often asking, “If you were hungry and had only one dollar would you buy this record or a hot dog?”
By the late 1960s, Gordy became interested in Los Angeles and the film and TV industries. In 1972 he brought Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles for good. Motown would never be the same after this move. Wild rumors plagued the company—that the Mafia infiltrated it, that Gordy was cheating his artists. Some artists began to leave the company, including the Jackson 5 and the Temptations. “When Motown left Detroit, there was a great void,” said the Four Tops’ Larry Payton.
In Los Angeles, Motown Industries began losing money by the mid-1980s. Gordy sold the company to MCA in 1988, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The golden age of Motown changed the face of popular music, creating timeless songs and a distinctive sound that defined an era.
Berry Gordy / Peter Strongwater / Gelatin silver print, 1982 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Christopher Murray; © Peter Strongwater/Govinda Gallery
"Berry Gordy." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 17 Sep. 2012.
George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go?: the Rise & Fall of the Motown Sound. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Gill, Jonathan. "Berry Gordy." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Gale, 2006. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 17 Sep. 2012.
"Gordy, Berry, Jr. (1929-)." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 17 Sep. 2012.
Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown : an Autobiography. New York: Warner Books, 1994.
Posner, Gerald L. Motown: Music, Money, Sex, And Power. New York: Random House, 2002.