With a modest $800 loan from his family, thirty-year-old Berry Gordy finally had enough money for a down payment on a small, two-story house in a beat-down area of Detroit. His neighbors included a family-run funeral home and a beauty parlor, but Berry didn’t care. The year was 1959 and all he could think about was laying down a secure foundation for his music empire.
Little did Berry know that his record label, Motown, would create a sound so revolutionary that it was dubbed “the heartbeat of America.” With an eye for talent, Berry went on to discover artists like Diana Ross, Marin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder, among hundreds of others.
This is the story about how one man, with a crazy dream, created one of the most successful record labels of all time.
Owning a music label wasn’t always Berry’s dream. He wanted to become a professional boxer. In eleventh grade, he dropped out of high school to box. Although he was good, the Korean War meant that Berry was going to have to put boxing on the back burner. After serving in Korea, the former professional boxer used his discharge money to open a jazz record shop.
But after two years, Berry closed its doors and took a job as an assembly line worker at the Lincoln-Mercury car plant in Detroit, while writing songs on the side. One of his first projects was for a local soul singer, Jackie Wilson. Six of Jackie’s first singles, including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops,” all of them were a success and some of them made it all the way to the number one spot on the R&B charts. Berry finally felt like he found his calling.
Although he wrote a couple of number-one R&B singles, Berry received next to nothing in royalties. The songwriter realized if he wanted to make money, he was going to have to produce his own records for his own label. Berry already discovered one music group on their way to international stardom, The Miracles, but now he had his eyes set on building a whole portfolio of successful artists.
He just needed his own label first. With the help of Smokey Robinson (founder and frontman of The Miracles at the time), Berry asked his family for a loan to open up his own R&B label, Tamla Records. Berry originally wanted to name the label, Tammy from the hit 1957 romantic comedy, “Tammy and the Bachelor,” but the name was already taken.
With enough money for a down payment, Berry and his wife, Thelma Coleman, received the keys for their new house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 1959. He converted the kitchen into a control room and the garage into a recording studio, while he and his wife lived upstairs. Always dreaming big, Berry added the sign that read, “Hitsville USA.”
The recording studio was open 22 hours a day, closing only for maintenance from 8am until 10am. Within the next seven years, the label experienced tremendous success, and Berry purchased an additional seven houses in the same neighborhood. These additional houses became offices for Motown’s public relations and marketing teams, as well as talent management.
As Tamla Records began to gain traction, Berry incorporated the label as Motown Record Corporation. Motown is actually a blend of the words “Motor Town,” and it soon became a nickname for the city of Detroit. At the time, the city of Detroit was a well of young talent, and Berry had no trouble finding artists to sign.
The time Berry spent as an assembly line worker actually inspired the way that he ran his label. “I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door unknown and come out another door a star, like an assembly line,” Berry explained in an interview with “The Telegraph,” Berry said that although his friends and family said it couldn’t be done, he knew he was on to something.
He understood that an artist’s road to success depended not just on the artist themselves but on a collaborative effort from songwriters, producers, and stage performance workers. If done right, this process could be streamlined and, just like an assembly line, he could pop out successful artists one after another. And that’s just what he did.
No one, not even Berry himself, realized how impactful his assembly line way of thinking was at the time. But Berry had just revolutionized the way artists and producers alike thought about music. Experts have debated the secret to Berry’s success for years, but one thing they can agree on is this: Berry’s focus on a tight-knit work environment was key to his assembly line success.
When Berry started out as a songwriter, he says that he only had three things on his mind: money, good music, and girls. “All the cool cats were smooth. So I learned a few steps and was acting a fool on the dance floor,” Berry said. “But then I started meeting girls.”
Like any songwriter, Berry pulled from his life experience, which gave him the inspiration to write the legendary song, “Do You Love Me,” sung by The Contours in 1962. Berry originally wrote the song for The Temptations, who were still struggling to make it big. But when he tried to locate the group to record the song, The Temptations were nowhere to be found.
Now that he knew how to dance, Berry was getting all of the girls. Berry said he was really happy, but he didn’t have enough money to take them out. Again, Berry pulled from his life experiences and wrote the hit song, “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song was originally recorded by Barrett Strong in 1959 and became Motown’s first hit in June 1960.
“Money” was such a big hit that even the Beatles recorded their own cover in 1963. Although the chronology of Berry’s fanciful narrative for his own life is a bit out of order, the moral of the story remains the same: If you want to be successful, write from your own experience. If you’ve experienced it, you can bet that other people have too.
Berry’s songs for Jackie Wilson topped the R&B charts, but now that he had his own label, Berry had a different vision. He wanted to create music that crossed the racial divide. “I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles, the cops and the robbers,” Berry said. “I wanted everybody to enjoy my music.” And Berry had the talent to do so.
Berry’s grandfather was a classical pianist, and Berry used to love listening to him play. He even studied music with his grandfather for a year, but his love for jazz beats and smooth harmonies got him kicked out of class. His music studies, however, did not go to waste. Just like songwriting, Berry pulled from his life experience when he produced.
Berry’s time with his grandfather helped create the impeccable sound Motown was known for: propulsive rhythms, handclaps, and tambourines overlaid with uplifting melodies and strings. Berry also pulled from Sunday morning church music and the sounds he heard from artists in his neighborhood. It was the combination of romanticism and emotional excitement, sprinkled with elegance that set Motown apart from the rest.
Dubbed “the sound of young America,” Motown music was the start of a new area. It redefined not only the way Black music sounded but all music from then on. Regardless of color or social background, everyone found themselves in Motown’s sound. Teenage girls loved Diana Ross and teenage boys wanted to be Smokey Robinson.
Smokey Robinson was one of Berry’s earliest projects and protégés. The two first met in August 1957 when Smokey came in for an audition. He brought along a notebook filled with scribbles of more than 100 songs he had written while in high school. Smokey handed his songs over to Berry to look over while he sang. And boy did he sing.
Berry was so impressed with Smokey’s audition that he agreed to a collaboration on the spot. Berry helped Smokey, and the rest of The Miracles release their first single, “Got a Job.” Motown still wasn’t around, and the song got little play outside of the local radio stations, but it marked the start of a long collaboration between Berry and Smokey’s musical group.
The Miracles were formed in 1955, by Smokey Robinson and his childhood friends, Warren “Pete” Moore and Ronnie White. The three had been singing together since they were eleven years old and went to the same high school in Detroit. The singing group had two other original members, Clarence Dawson and James Grice, but they left the group shortly after it was formed.
They were soon replaced by Claudette Rogers, who went on to marry Smokey in 1959, and her cousin Bobby Rogers. With a solid lineup, The Miracles started going to auditions at record labels with the hopes of getting signed. The group’s first few auditions didn’t go too well, but Berry saw something in them and gave them a chance. And it was a good thing he did.
After guitarist Marv Tarplin joined the group in 1958, the Miracles were unstoppable. The music group was not only one of the most influential groups in pop and R&B history, but they were also the heart and soul of Motown. The Miracles gave the label its first million dollars in sales, with their single “Shop Around,” which undoubtedly put Motown on the map.
When the single first came out, it got a lot of play on local radio stations around Michigan, and the reaction was great. But Berry wanted the whole country to hear what his label had to offer. With the single in hand, he went from city to city trying to get the record played. Berry knew that if he could get just one influential disk-jockey to play his track, the music would speak for itself.
One of the most important meetings Berry had during this time was with Philadelphia disk-jockey, Georgie Woods. He was very powerful and influential within the Black music community, and Berry knew that any track Georgie played turned into gold. Berry was excited to meet Georgie, but the feeling wasn’t mutual.
Georgie didn’t have the time to meet with a nobody from a label that no one had heard of. Determined as ever, Berry wasn’t going to take no for an answer and sat in that radio station for eight hours. Eventually, Georgie peeked his head out of his office and asked one of his assistants to get him a hot dog. Berry jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to run the errand himself.
When he came back, Berry handed Georgie his lunch, with a little something extra on the side: The Miracles’ new track. Georgie put the record on and listened to no more than ten seconds before turning it off. Berry couldn’t tell if he liked it or not, but when Georgie came back on the air, “Shop Around” was the first track he played. The radio station’s phones immediately started ringing off the hook with people wanting to hear it again.
One of the listeners that day was no other than Philadelphia songwriter, Leon Huff. Leon, who was still a teenager at the time, said that The Miracles’ single was what sparked his interest in entering the music business. Leon went on to form Philadelphia International Records and became Motown’s biggest rival, with 175 gold and platinum records.
It was very important to Berry, for personal and professional reasons, that Motown had a family atmosphere. He hosted countless barbeques and picnics for his workers and artists, and the company even had a theme song that they would sing. “We are a very swinging company, working hard from day to day, nowhere will you find more unity, than at Hitsville USA!”
Berry wanted the company to feel like a family, and he made sure to position himself as the head of the household. Like a good father, he was strict and expected nothing but the best from his workers, but still knew how to love. It was that balance that Berry provided his “family” with that contributed to the label’s success.
Berry’s tiny studio worked around the clock and produced hundreds, if not more, of recordings. Most labels at the time would release ten tracks, hoping that one would be a hit. But not Motown. Berry had a strict quality control system that would help him and his team determine which tracks would be released.
Every Friday at nine o’clock in the morning, Berry met with his label’s songwriters and producers to listen and critique each other’s tracks. Only songs that were unanimously voted in favor of releasing were released. Anything else went into the vault and was revisited at a later time. Berry’s process of quality control was one of the reasons why every Motown song was a guaranteed success.
In Berry’s eyes, success meant moving up the economic and social ladder. He wanted to make money. Most of Motown’s signed artists came from the projects in Detroit. They were talented and very bright, but raw and uneducated. So Berry created the Artist Development station within the label’s assembly line. He hired Maxine Powell, who ran her own finishing and modeling school, to head the department.
It was Maxine’s job to tutor Motown’s artists, so they were presentable down to the last detail. She taught them how to speak in public, how to get out of a limousine with style, and even how to hold a cigarette with class. Berry also hired choreographer Cholly Atkins, who fine-tuned the artists’ stage presence and taught them elaborate dance steps.
In the late 1950s, there were only two Black-owned record labels in the US: Vee-Jay in Chicago and Duke in Houston. Although Vee-Jay was, oddly enough, the first label to distribute The Beatles’ records in America, it devoted itself to rhythm and blues and gospel. The same went for Duke. But Berry’s vision was to create music for all of America.
With segregation still prominent in some states, Berry realized that if he wanted his artists to dominate the charts, Motown couldn’t be perceived as a “Black label.” Instead of putting the performers on their album covers, Berry made the decision to hide their identity. The early Motown albums covers have images of cartoon drawings and white couples, instead of the performers themselves.
Berry says that one of the most important people he hired was a man by the name of Barney Ales. Barney, a white man from Detroit, was hired in 1960 as the label’s Head of Sales. Before joining Motown, Barney worked at Capitol records Warner Bros. Records, meaning he had lots of connections with pop disk-jockeys all over America.
Berry was aware of the controversy that surrounded the recruitment of a man like Barney, but he didn’t care. Berry wanted the best person for the job, and Barney was it. Many people don’t know this, but Barney was credited as a co-writer on some Motown hits, such as “One Upon a Time” by Marvin Gaye and “What’s the Matter with You Baby” by Mary Wells.
Even in the early days of Motown, Berry always had respect and affection for British audiences. He even credits them for helping his label get off the ground. In 1963, The Beatles covered three Motown songs on their second album, “With the Beatles”: “Please Mr. Postman,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “Money (That’s What I Want).” But it wasn’t just The Beatles who helped establish Motown. Motown helped establish The Beatles.
The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr has said that when the band was first formed, the four Beatles didn’t know each other that well, but they did have one thing in common—a love for Motown. “We all had The Miracles, we all had Barrett Strong and people like that,” Ringo said. “I suppose that help us gel as musicians, as a group.”
When The Supremes’ song “Baby Love” gave Motown their first number-one single in Britain in 1964, Berry decided it was time to book his artists for a tour across the pond. The next year, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, and Martha and the Vandellas went on tour in the UK as the Motown Revue. When the group touched down at Heathrow Airport in London, they were blown away.
The Motown Revue was greeted by hundreds of fans holding up signs and banners. The singers weren’t used to this type of attention, and Berry credits this experience as critical for his artists’ self-esteem. Britain’s most popular television show at the time, “Ready Steady Go!” even dedicated an entire episode to Motown.
The Motown Revue was another one of Berry’s genius ideas. Never before had a record company taken all of their singers and send them out to perform together. In the early days, some singers had at least one hit song, while others were still relatively unknown. But that didn’t matter. By the end of the tour, thousands of people knew them all.
The performances also gave Motown’s second-tier acts a chance to improve their performing skills. It was actually at a Motown Revue concert in 1963 that Stevie Wonder got his big break. His performance of “Fingertips (Pt. 2)” earned him his first number one on the music charts. Smokey Robinson also composed songs while on the road. “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl” were later huge hits for The Temptations.
By his own admission, Berry is a shrewd businessman. To ensure that his label was a success, he took complete control over his artists’ careers. Berry was their label, manager, and music publisher. Motown’s in-house production teams were the secret to his singers’ success, but some felt suffocated. One of Motown’s first stars, Mary Wells, left the label in 1964. Her million-selling hit, “My Guy,” caught the attention of 20th Century Fox Records and they offered her a very lucrative deal.
Another blow was when Holland-Dozier-Holland, the label’s most successful songwriting team, left in 1968 in the midst of a fight over royalties and profit-sharing. Of the few that left the label, nothing hurt Berry more than Diana Ross’s departure in 1981.
Berry has been divorced three times and has eight kids with six different women. But if you ask him who his greatest love was, he always says Diana Ross. She was his greatest love and his greatest creation. It was actually Berry who gave Diana her name. She was born Diane, but Berry thought that the name Diana had more class. It was Berry’s dream to make her into one of the biggest stars in the world. And he did.
After her career with The Supremes, Diana launched a solo career in 1970 with the release of her album that featured her top hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Diana also ventured into acting and earned a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the 1972 film, “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Like many of Motown’s artists, Diana Ross was born to a working-class family in Detroit. At fifteen, she joined the singing group, The Primettes and, after experiencing some local success, the singers wanted to take their careers to the next level. Diana asked Smokey, her childhood neighbor and friend if he could help them secure an audition with the label.
Smokey agreed but on one condition. He would bring them in for an audition only if The Miracles could hire The Primettes’ guitarist, Marv Tarplin, for their next tour. The girls agreed. On the day of the audition, Berry recalls walking to a business meeting when he first heard Diana sing. Her voice stopped him in his tracks. But after learning their ages, Berry advised the group to return after graduating from high school.
Although Berry didn’t sign The Primettes, the group spent a lot of time at the recording studio, often providing background vocals and hand claps for other artists. The girls also continued with their performances, with Diana acting as the group’s makeup artist, hairstylist, costume designer, and seamstress. By 1960, Smokey, who was now Motown’s vice president, allowed The Primettes to record their own songs in the studio.
By 1961, Berry agreed to sign the singers, but only if they changed their name. The girls were given a list of names, but chose The Supremes, reportedly because it was the only name that didn’t end in “ette.” After a few lineup changes, Berry signed Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard under the name The Supremes.
In the early years, Berry envisioned The Supremes performing in high-end, classy nightclubs and on Broadway. He wanted them to broaden their repertoire by playing standards as well as their hits. Widely popular in the 1950s, standards are songs that have been recorded or performed by various artists from different genres.
But by the time The Supremes came around, standards were on the decline, and Diana didn’t like Berry’s idea. Before a performance in Manchester in 1965, Berry tried to persuade The Supremes to perform the standard, “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You,” but Diana refused. Berry was devastated. They had fought before, but this was the first time Diana flat out refused to comply with Berry’s demands.
Berry says that performance in Manchester changed everything for him. He realized that managing Diana was his whole life, but if he couldn’t get her to listen to him, then what was he doing? The Supremes then took the stage and performed their first few numbers, while Berry and Smokey looked on from the side of the stage.
But just when Berry started asking Smokey for advice on how to handle Diana, something amazing happened. Diana started singing, “You’re Nobody ‘till Somebody Loves You.” “I thought I was dreaming,” Berry said. “She sung it better than she ever did.” When the tour came to an end, the rest of the artists went back to Detroit, but Berry took Diana to Paris, marking the beginning of a six-year-long love affair.
By 1967, Berry officially changed the group’s name to Diana Ross and The Supremes. The name change refueled rumors that Berry was preparing Diana for a solo career. Then in 1968, Motown’s songwriting group, Holland-Dozier-Holland, left after a nasty dispute over royalties.
The quality of Motown’s music began to decline, and standalone soul singers, like Aretha Franklin, began to replace the pop sound that The Supremes were known for. Diana finally went solo in 1968. This caused some jealousy within the group and from other Motown stars. Some people felt that Berry’s infatuation with Diana and his obsession with making her the next Barbra Streisand distracted him from investing in other Motown artists’ careers.
Berry moved Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1971 and achieved his dream of turning Diana into an actress. But by then, their relationship was over, and Diana married Robert Silberstein, a prominent public relations man. She eventually gave birth to their daughter, Rhonda. Years later, however, news leaked that Rhonda was actually Berry’s daughter, not Robert’s, and the couple divorced in 1977.
Berry continued to manage Diana’s career up until 1981 when she was offered a $20 million contract with RCA. At the time, it was a hard pill for Berry to swallow. It hurt that people left him for money, but he realized that if someone offered him that same sum, he’d probably leave Motown too. Until this day, Diana and Berry share a great friendship.
Motown’s move to LA marked a change in how Motown did business. The audience’s taste were changing, and more labels seemed to be popping out of nowhere, giving Motown a run for their money. It was also during this time that the label’s biggest star, Marvin Gaye found himself at multiple crossroads. His marriage to Berry’s sister, no less, began to fall apart and constant headlines from the Vietnam War left him disillusioned.
His world view began to expand, and he wanted to create music that meant something. Marvin also became fed up with Berry’s assembly line method of work. So in 1971, Marvin gave Berry an ultimatum. He will record another album, but only if Berry gave him complete control over the production process. Berry, realizing the severity of the situation, agreed.
Marvin’s brother’s service in Vietnam was the inspiration and driving factor for his 1971 album, “What’s Going On.” Recording the album was Marvin’s way of not only comprehending the craziness in the world but educating the masses. “What’s Going On” wasn’t exactly a protest album in the strictest sense, but it did have that spirit.
At first, Berry didn’t agree with the direction of the album. He thought that the album’s message didn’t align with Motown’s usual music and refused to release it. Only after Marvin threatened to leave the label was the album released. “What’s Going On” turned out to be one of Motown’s most successful and meaningful albums, with two Grammy nominations and multiple NAACP Image Awards. Billboard magazine also named Marvin the “Trendsetter of the Year” after the album’s release.
“What’s Going On” paved the way for other Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder, to gain control over the production of their own music. Stevie, who signed a deal with Motown at the age of 11, is undoubtedly one of the best singer-songwriters of all time. He used this to his advantage while negotiating creative autonomy with Berry.
Frustrated, Stevie let his Motown contract expire on his 21st birthday in May of 1971, but returned the next year after Berry offered him a much higher royalty rate. Later that year, Stevie released his number one hit, “Superstition,” and began to tour with The Rolling Stones out of fear that he was pigeonholing himself as an R&B artist.
Another one of Berry’s greatest discoveries was The Jackson 5. He remembers their audition in 1969 like it was yesterday. The kids decided to sing Smokey Robinson’s song “Who’s Loving You,” and they just blew it out of the water. “Smokey had written that from his own pain and creativity, and Michael sang it better than Smokey,” Berry said. “It was amazing. A 10-year-old kid!”
Berry personally took charge of The Jackson 5 and brought them out to California to live with him at his own home. Joined by a team of writers, Berry began to work on material for the group. Their first four singles, “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There” went straight to the number one spot. It was the first time in history that any group had done that.
When asked about Michael Jackson as a kid, Berry says that he was a sponge. He always sat with Berry in the recording studio, taking in everything around him. Everyone used to call Michael “an old soul in a young body.” There’s a theory that applies to anyone who experienced trauma or, in this case, fame. The age that they experience this trauma or fame is the age at which they stay at forever.
Berry remembers Michael being a very warm person, but his childhood trauma and fame fueled an addiction that led him down a very different path. “I think he had too much power and no one respected him enough to stop him from doing things,” Berry said. Once he started taking pills, he became self-absorbed, and no one could get him to stop.
Berry, who will turn 91 in November 2020, has outlived many of his Motown artists. Michael Jackson died of an overdose in 2009. Marvin Gaye was shot by his own father in 1984. Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations. Florence Ballard from The Supremes. Motown too. For years, Berry tried to keep Motown an independent label, but the music industry was becoming more and more corporate.
In 1988, Berry finally gave in. He sold the label to MCA and Boston Ventures for $61 million. Motown was later bought by Universal. Berry’s main motivation for selling Motown was to preserve its legacy by putting the label in stronger hands. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter who owned the label, just as long as its legacy remained intact.
Motown is still around today. After separating from Universal in the summer of 2011, the label went through some structural changes. R&B singer Ne-Yo joined the label as an artist and Senior Vice President of Artists and Repertoire. In 2018, the label began releasing several albums from their catalog in celebration of its 60th anniversary.
As for Berry, he is still living at the top of the world in his mansion in Beverly Hills. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and awarded a National Medal of Arts by former President Barack Obama in 2016. Berry also developed “Motown: The Musical,” which ran on Broadway from March 2013 until January 2015. He hoped the show would improve Motown’s reputation and clear up rumors surrounding its decline.
The tiny recording studio on West Grand Boulevard is now a museum, and Berry still goes back to visit from time to time. The top floor, where Berry used to sleep, is now a gallery filled with photographs and awards. Downstairs, where the magic happened, is preserved exactly as it was. Visitors can schedule a guided tour and actually reenact the dance steps for The Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and The Temptations’ “My Girl.”
Berry made sure to be in Detroit when his musical, “Motown: The Musical” opened in 2015. After curtain call, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, The Supremes, The Miracles, The Velvelettes, and then 85-year-old Berry came up on stage to dance.
The crowd went wild as some of music’s greatest artists in history all danced under the same roof one last time. Berry raised his hands in triumph, and rightfully so. Berry Gordy started off as a former assembly line worker with a crazy dream. With hard work and sheer dedication, he created a new sound that completely revolutionized the way people think about the music industry.
And the artists he discovered. Can you imagine a world without Stevie Wonder? Diana Ross? Michael Jackson? Because I can’t. Berry not only created a label. He built one of the greatest musical empires in history. His assembly line thinking turned out some of the greatest artists in music history. Berry’s work truly made the world a better place.