Berry Gordy Jr. was a high school dropout who created an American icon.
Born Berry Gordy III in 1928 (later known as Berry Gordy Jr.), he was the seventh of eight children in a family where his father was a Detroit entrepreneur who had owned and operated several diverse businesses. Although young Berry had the opportunity to work in these businesses as his older siblings had, he instead decided to drop out of high school during his junior year to pursue a career as a professional boxer.
He boxed for a few years until he was drafted to serve in the Army during the Korean War in 1951. After his return to Detroit from the Army in 1953, he married, opened an unsuccessful record store, worked at the Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant, and began to write music. He was able to meet singer Jackie Wilson through a mutual friend and was able to write a song for Wilson that became an international hit. He went on to write and co-write several additional songs for Wilson that also became hits.
Gordy used the profits from his songwriting to begin producing and building a stable of recording artists. The first group he discovered was a group named the Matadors which later was renamed The Miracles. The group’s leader, William Robinson (aka Smokey Robinson) talked Gordy into creating his own record label. Gordy took this advice, borrowed $800, and launched a business that ultimately became the iconic American company named Motown Records.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Motown launched the careers of talented Black artists like Smokey Robinson and his group The Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and The Pips, The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, The Temptations, Mary Wells, and many others. Motown also produced a sound (“The Motown Sound”) that changed the landscape of music in a way that has endured for more than half a century.
In 1988 Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2013 became the first living songwriter to receive the Songwriters Hall of Fame Pioneer Award. In 2016 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barak Obama.
Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer