Berry Gordy Jr.’s life story reads like the ideal American success story: from a struggling songwriter/promoter in the 1950s, Gordy Jr. became the greatest record producer in American music history. For a brief shining moment in the ’60s and ’70s, legendary Motown Records Hitsville USA’s Top 40 repertoire became as famous as Detroit automobiles.

“Made In Detroit” Motown music featured a roster of blockbuster artists, including The Supremes with Diana Ross, The Four Tops, The Contours, Tammi Terrell, The Spinners, Jimmy Ruffin, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Jr. Walker & The All Stars, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Miracles, Michael Jackson, The Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, The Commodores and many others.

The seventh of Berry Gordy Sr.’s and Bertha Fuller Gordy’s eight children, Gordy Jr. experienced several hits and misses before finding his niche. A gifted songwriter, in the late 1950s he penned hits for the great Jackie Wilson, including “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved.” 

Smokey Robinson urged Gordy Jr. to move into music production, which was much more lucrative than songwriting. With help from older sister Esther, Gordy arranged an $800 loan from his family, launching Tamla Records on January 12, 1959. He soon purchased a building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, which became the world- famous Motown Hitsville U.S.A. music factory. Gordy, his wife and young son moved into second-floor living quarters. 

Berry Gordy Jr. possessed a keen eye for talent. In 1960, he incorporated Motown Records (a contraction of Detroit’s “Motor Town” nickname), producing Barrett Strong’s biggest hit, “Money (It’s What I Want)”—Gordy Jr. shared writing credits with Janie Bradford. The Miracles “Shop Around,” written by lead singer Smokey Robinson, gained traction; soon, the two songs reached #1 and #2 respectively on the R&B National and Billboard pop charts.

Gordy’s time as an auto assembly line worker shaped his vision. He told the Telegraph, “I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door as an unknown and come out another door a star, like an assembly line; that was my dream. My family said, ‘Those are cars. You can’t do that with human beings.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the same thing—artists come in and you have one group writing the songs and producing them, then somebody else works on their stage performance.’”

A select group of Motown artists were sent on bus tours to promote Motown songs; when they returned to Detroit, they’d record as many new songs as humanly possible, then head back out on the road again. 

The trademark “Motown Sound” featured tambourines to accent the backbeat, electric bass guitar, distinctive melodic and chord structures and call-and-response singing popular in gospel music. Complex arrangements and elaborate vocal riffs were frowned upon. Tracks were sometimes pumped through the company’s “Echo Chamber,” adding a reverb, aptly led by the dream production team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brain Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland).

A major factor in the widespread appeal of the label’s music was Gordy’s use of a tight-knit group of studio musicians, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, who recorded the “band tracks” on Motown recordings. 

Down in basement Studio “A,” also known as the “Snake Pit,” the Funk Brothers provided the instrumentations for the Motown sound. They became the Motown hit machine “factory workers,” recording more No. 1 records than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones—combined. The Funk Brothers were not publicly credited until 1971, when Marvin Gaye listed their names his album, What’s Going On. The band was chronicled in the 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Though he did sign white acts to his labels, Berry Gordy largely promoted African-American artists. His “Artist Development Team” carefully controlled artists’ dress, mannerisms and choreography to increase widespread public appeal. Like the Detroit factories, which operated night and day, the Hitsville studio remained open and active around the clock. Quality control meetings were held every Friday morning; Gordy employed his veto power to ensure only the very best performances were released. 

By 1966, Motown expanded to 450 employees, grossing $20 million ($155 million today!) and occupying seven additional neighbouring buildings. From 1961 to 1971, Motown Records produced over 180 Top 10 Billboard hits. No other music company has achieved such success, or exerted such influence upon American culture.

In 2009 Smokey Robinson told a reporter, “Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” 

By 1970, an increasing number of Motown sessions were recorded in Los Angeles rather than Detroit, notably all the Jackson 5 hits. In June 1972, the company moved to L.A., abandoning the city that had provided its unique sound. Gordy eventually sold his business to Universal Records in 1988.

That same year, Berry Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was paid the following tribute: “Gordy endeavoured to reach across the racial divide with music that touched all people, regardless of the colour of their skin. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression. After Motown, black popular music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste.” 

Berry Gordy’s legacy lives on at The Motown Museum, the birthplace of Motown Records on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.

Berry Gordy Jr.’s life story reads like the ideal American success story: from a struggling songwriter/promoter in the 1950s, Gordy Jr. became the greatest record producer in American music history. For a brief shining moment in the ’60s and ’70s, legendary Motown Records Hitsville USA’s Top 40 repertoire became as famous as Detroit automobiles.

“Made In Detroit” Motown music featured a roster of blockbuster artists, including The Supremes with Diana Ross, The Four Tops, The Contours, Tammi Terrell, The Spinners, Jimmy Ruffin, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Jr. Walker & The All Stars, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Miracles, Michael Jackson, The Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, The Commodores and many others.

The seventh of Berry Gordy Sr.’s and Bertha Fuller Gordy’s eight children, Gordy Jr. experienced several hits and misses before finding his niche. A gifted songwriter, in the late 1950s he penned hits for the great Jackie Wilson, including “Lonely Teardrops” and “To Be Loved.” 

Smokey Robinson urged Gordy Jr. to move into music production, which was much more lucrative than songwriting. With help from older sister Esther, Gordy arranged an $800 loan from his family, launching Tamla Records on January 12, 1959. He soon purchased a building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, which became the world- famous Motown Hitsville U.S.A. music factory. Gordy, his wife and young son moved into second-floor living quarters. 

Berry Gordy Jr. possessed a keen eye for talent. In 1960, he incorporated Motown Records (a contraction of Detroit’s “Motor Town” nickname), producing Barrett Strong’s biggest hit, “Money (It’s What I Want)”—Gordy Jr. shared writing credits with Janie Bradford. The Miracles “Shop Around,” written by lead singer Smokey Robinson, gained traction; soon, the two songs reached #1 and #2 respectively on the R&B National and Billboard pop charts.

Gordy’s time as an auto assembly line worker shaped his vision. He told the Telegraph, “I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door as an unknown and come out another door a star, like an assembly line; that was my dream. My family said, ‘Those are cars. You can’t do that with human beings.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the same thing—artists come in and you have one group writing the songs and producing them, then somebody else works on their stage performance.’”

A select group of Motown artists were sent on bus tours to promote Motown songs; when they returned to Detroit, they’d record as many new songs as humanly possible, then head back out on the road again. 

The trademark “Motown Sound” featured tambourines to accent the backbeat, electric bass guitar, distinctive melodic and chord structures and call-and-response singing popular in gospel music. Complex arrangements and elaborate vocal riffs were frowned upon. Tracks were sometimes pumped through the company’s “Echo Chamber,” adding a reverb, aptly led by the dream production team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brain Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland).

A major factor in the widespread appeal of the label’s music was Gordy’s use of a tight-knit group of studio musicians, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, who recorded the “band tracks” on Motown recordings. 

Down in basement Studio “A,” also known as the “Snake Pit,” the Funk Brothers provided the instrumentations for the Motown sound. They became the Motown hit machine “factory workers,” recording more No. 1 records than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones—combined. The Funk Brothers were not publicly credited until 1971, when Marvin Gaye listed their names his album, What’s Going On. The band was chronicled in the 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Though he did sign white acts to his labels, Berry Gordy largely promoted African-American artists. His “Artist Development Team” carefully controlled artists’ dress, mannerisms and choreography to increase widespread public appeal. Like the Detroit factories, which operated night and day, the Hitsville studio remained open and active around the clock. Quality control meetings were held every Friday morning; Gordy employed his veto power to ensure only the very best performances were released. 

By 1966, Motown expanded to 450 employees, grossing $20 million ($155 million today!) and occupying seven additional neighbouring buildings. From 1961 to 1971, Motown Records produced over 180 Top 10 Billboard hits. No other music company has achieved such success, or exerted such influence upon American culture.

In 2009 Smokey Robinson told a reporter, “Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” 

By 1970, an increasing number of Motown sessions were recorded in Los Angeles rather than Detroit, notably all the Jackson 5 hits. In June 1972, the company moved to L.A., abandoning the city that had provided its unique sound. Gordy eventually sold his business to Universal Records in 1988.

That same year, Berry Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was paid the following tribute: “Gordy endeavoured to reach across the racial divide with music that touched all people, regardless of the colour of their skin. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression. After Motown, black popular music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste.” 

Berry Gordy’s legacy lives on at The Motown Museum, the birthplace of Motown Records on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.


Chris Edwards is the owner of Walkerville Publishing, along with his partner Elaine Weeks; their latest book is 5,000 Ways You Know You’re From Detroit.