By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
After research on him, I realize there’s a lot I didn’t know about Berry Gordy. Everyone knows he started Motown Records, but few may know he was a songwriter of some classic Motown songs as well as a movie producer. Are you old enough to remember Jackie Wilson’s tunes, “Lonely Teardrops” and “That is Why?” Berry’s writing. And two of my all-time favorite songs: Smokey Robinson’s poetic “Shop Around,” and the first song I taught my elder daughter to sing, dance and call and respond to in preparation for pre-kindergarten; and, “Do You Love Me?” Berry Gordon, hits again. Remember Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany? Gordy did those films?
I educated my children on Motown music with pop quizzes on Motown star names and constant exposure to Stevie, Marvin, Diana and of course, the Temptations. Our granddaughter, watching the Motown play at the Hippodrome a couple of years ago, whispered questions to me throughout the production and sang along with every song. I think she got the fever too.
Of everyone influential in popular culture, Berry Gordy is at or near the top of everyone’s list. Born in Detroit, Mich. of a middle class family with eight children, Berry III was named after his dad. According to one published source, Young Berry’s grandfather, Berry Gordy I, was the son of James Gordy who fathered both Berry Gordy’s dad and President Jimmy Carter’s grandfather, yes they are related. Berry Gordy’s family was originally from Georgia but like 6-7 million African Americans between 1940 and 1970, the Gordys left the south to escape commonplace lynchings and to seek job opportunities.
Berry Gordy left high school early and became a prize fighter, trying to get rich quick, but he was drafted into the army for the Korean War serving as a chaplain’s assistant (as I once did), who played the organ on the front lines during services.
He came home in 1953 and married. Gordy opened a record store but it failed, so he started writing songs. Eventually Gordy met Jackie Wilson and successfully wrote songs for the rising star. But it was Berry’s eventual meeting a star of the future, Bill ‘Smokey’ Robinson who helped change his life. It was Smokey who urged Berry to borrow $800 to start a record company (which became Motown Records) and it was Robinson whose group’s songs were among the label’s first recordings and hits. Gordy and Robinson remain the best of friends.
Motown Record Corporation was founded on April 14, 1960 with the signing of a second artist named Mary Wells. Smokey wrote consecutive hits for her: “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Two Lovers,” and “My Guy.” The magic of Motown that we’ve all come to love had begun, taking hostage the hearts of so many.
Berry Gordon signed Jimmy Ruffin (David’s brother), the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Contours and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. What would life have been like if Berry had not introduced us to all of this great music and all of these great artists?
This year we celebrate the greatest album of all-time, the 50th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Going On?” The first time I heard the title song on a 45 RPM little record, I played it repeatedly. Then I got the album and wore it out too.
Berry was skeptical anyone would like Marvin’s groundbreaking album. But he took a chance, again, and look what we got.