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Berry Gordy: Father of the Motown Sound
Berry Gordy Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 28, 1929. He was the seventh born out of eight siblings. His parents migrated to Detroit from Georgia during 1922. They were part of a mass exodus of African Americans who left the South in the 20's and traveled to northern cities in search of better economic futures. During that time jobs were plentiful in the factories, mainly the big four automotive plants that like, Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet, and General Motors.
Berry and Bertha Gordy would instill in Berry Jr. and his brothers and sisters a strong work ethic and a belief that anything could be achieved through persistence. His family also had deep roots in business. Berry Sr. owned a plastering and carpentry service, a general store, and a printing business. Gordy's family believed in the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which stressed economic independence for blacks. Gordy Sr. named his store after him. Berry Gordy Jr. was heavily influenced by the ambition of his father.
Like his father, he was also very determined and he tried many new ventures. Berry was an average student who earned decent grades. Despite this he decided to drop out of Northeastern High School to peruse a featherweight boxing career. He once even fought on the same card as the great Joe Louis. He had a brief but successful series of fights but decided to give up boxing in 1951. That same year he would then decide to try out the Army. He served for two years during the Korean War; there he earned his high school equivalency diploma.
After his short stint in the army, he decided to open a record store, which only sold jazz records. Berry always enjoyed listening to records in his basement and he had a great love of music. Berry always hung around Detroit's popular nightspots to hear the bebop jazz sounds. He was able to see the performances of famous artists like pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. Unfortunately, Berry's store eventually closed due to financial difficulties.
Gordy soon found himself working at Ford's Mercury plant, earning $85 a week. Bored with his assembly line job, he spent all of his free time writing songs. Berry would hum melodies and make up song lyrics in his head to break the monotony of everyday work. Berry soon began to get serious about song writing and he got his big break when he won a talent contest. He wrote a song for Jackie Wilson called "Reet Petite." It became a major R&B hit in late 1957. Gordy continued to dabble in freelance songwriting and he found success with "Lonely Teardrops," and "To Be Loved," which were two other hits that he wrote for Jackie Wilson. He also wrote a hit song for Barret Strong called "Money (That's What I Want)." This gave Berry a strong reputation as an accomplished songwriter in the music world. Berry was an outstanding writer despite the fact that he was unable to read music. Gordy had no musical talent at all, as far as singing or playing music was concerned. He did however have an ability to gauge whether a song had the elements of popular appeal. He had the power to detect star quality and potential in songs and performers.
The first star that Gordy would discover would be William Smokey Robinson, a Detroit high schooler with a soothing falsetto voice and an ear for sweet lyrics. In 1957 Smokey Robinson was the lead singer of a group called the Matadors. They auditioned unsuccessfully for Jackie Wilson's manager, but Gordy who was instrumental in Wilson's earlier success happened to be present at the audition. His talent for recognizing star power came in handy because he saw something that everyone at that audition seemed to miss.
Berry persuaded Smokey and the Matadors to change their names to the Miracles and work with him. Berry Gordy began recording Robinson's group, The Miracles, for New York based End Records. They had early success with their record "Got a Job/My Momma Done Told Me." Gordy then established Jobete Publishing company and began Motown Records. The name was derived from the city of Detroit's nickname "The Motor City." Smokey Robinson convinced Gordy to start his own recording company because although Gordy was very successful as an independent songwriter he remained on the fringes
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