From the Miracles, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, and the shaping of the original Little Steven, to being the genius behind the launch of the man that would become known as ‘the King of Pop,’ Berry Gordy long ago indelibly cemented his place as one of the true legends of popular music.
Known as ‘The Chairman,’ Gordy is the founder and original architect of Motown Records (an American original that arguably featured the most exceptional assembly of talent in music history) has retired.
He announced his retirement during the 60th-anniversary celebration of Motown that took place in Detroit last month. “I have come full circle, and it’s only appropriate [to make the announcement] while here in Detroit, the city where my fairy tale happened with all of you,” Gordy said.
Sixty years ago, long before the lottery’s slogan of ‘A Dollar and a Dream,’ was appropriated to describe “rags to riches” success, Gordy put up what little cash he had and launched Motown Records, forever and better known by its simpler singular moniker: ‘Motown,’ out of his small Motor City home.
The determined businessman demanded the best from everyone passing through the illustrious halls of Motown.
Among his initial signings was The Miracles featuring Smokey Robinson. Smokey would go on to become a recording legend, but he is also the songwriting genius who penned tunes for artists like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye.
In 2001, Gordy told this reporter that the secret to success was, in part, understanding whom to trust. Gordy made no bones that the foremost person he believed in is himself. However, he also knew when to comply.
“Her recollection is absolutely correct,” Gordy said with a respectful laugh when relayed a story told by Lula Mae Hardaway. Hardaway, who died in 2006, said she was probably the most hardened person Gordy had ever negotiated with. The negotiation involved her young son who would soon become known to the entire world as Stevie Wonder.
“For a year, I refused to sign a contract to let Steve work for Motown because I wasn’t sure if they’d provide a proper tutor for him to get a good education,” said Hardaway, who penned her life story in the 2002 book, Blind Faith: The Miraculous Journey of Lula Hardaway, Stevie Wonder’s Mother.
“We were poor, but I wasn’t stupid, and I wouldn’t be taken advantage of,” Hardaway told this reporter.
“We could certainly use the money Berry was offering, which really wasn’t much, but it wasn’t about the money, even though when we did finally agree to sign, it was a whole lot more than what he originally offered.”
Gordy said he knew he was getting a genius in the young Stevie Wonder, and a decade after his initial signing, Gordy and Wonder would ink what at the time was the largest contract in Motown history.
Along with Robinson and Wonder, Motown would produce an extensive roster of hit makers.
From Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking ‘What’s Going On?’ to the Diana Ross and the Supremes ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ the hits came nearly every day.
Perhaps Gordy’s most shrewd signing was that of the Jackson Five.
While the group never won a Grammy Award and enjoyed a handful of No. 1 hits, it was its lead singer that Gordy took a particular interest in.
“When people ask, ‘Did I know that Michael Jackson would become as big as he did?’ I tell them, ‘Why of course,’” Gordy said. “Why wouldn’t I believe he’d break records and set new standards? No one worked harder, and no one worked as often as Michael Jackson.”
Even though his solo success came under a different record label, Jackson would rock the world with the ultra-successful Off The Wall album. The singer would then cement himself as perhaps the greatest pop music star in history with the release of his 1982 album, Thriller.
Two years after Thriller, Lionel Richie [former lead singer of the Commodores] released Can’t Slow Down.
The recording became the biggest selling album in Motown history.
It was the last major record under Gordy’s leadership.
He sold the label in 1988, and until this year, Gordy remained in the entertainment industry producing Broadway musicals and feature films.
“Motown records is one of the most successful Black-owned record labels of all time,” said Aaron Douglas of R.E.A.L. Music Entertainment.
“Its history is in concrete because of the mega artists and because Berry Gordy had an eye for up-and-coming talent—a Black owner giving a Black up-and-coming talented artists a chance to show their talent to the world and to be a proven success over and over again. This would be a blueprint for other young aspiring Black people. Seeing is believing.”
Gordy made a difference not just in the music industry, but also in the world, said music producer Linnette A. Harrigan.
“The Motown Sound has impacted millions worldwide, and it has influenced the popular music we hear even to this day.
“Berry Gordy paved the way for minorities in a way that had never been seen before. His Motown sound is now known as the sound that changed America, helping to bring together the nation then divided by race and segregation.
“As an African American leader, businessman, entrepreneur, and important and historical agent of change, Berry Gordy is an inspiration and role model especially for African-Americans like myself,” Harrigan said. “His legacy should and could never be forgotten.”