There are many great cities throughout America where the music perfectly encapsulates the voice of it's people. When discussing these areas, you will commonly hear New Orleans, Nashville, Austin along with the city that's nearest and dearest to my heart: Detroit, Michigan. As a city, Detroit has a history longer than the established United States. Due to it's fertile land and plethora of water, indigenous tribes called the area home for hundreds of years, lending their names to our many lakes and rivers. Some time later, the French settled for a brief period to capitalize on the fur trade while also providing it's name.
But there was one man who is responsible for the shape of Detroit in the Twentieth Century: Henry Ford. His company would turn a small port into a booming city, attracting people from all parts of the country to the area and providing employment to its growing population. One of employees working on an assembly line was a young man with much different aspirations. His name was Berry Gordy, Jr.
Berry Gordy, Sr., the son of a white plantation owner and one of his female slaves, left the Deep South seeking new opportunities within the booming industrial town of Detroit. As a young man, Berry Jr.'s love of music and entrepreneurial spirit inspired him to open 3-D Record Mart, selling jazz records, while planting the seeds for creating the classic Motown sound. Berry's store was unable to remain successful, so as many young Detroit men did, he took a job on a Ford Assembly line, where it is rumored he met a young Jackie Wilson. Berry's found the daily life of a factory worker dull and monotonous and was said to use the rhythmic sounds of the factory as beats for his creative outlet that would soon prove to be a musical revolution.
In 1957, Wilson and Gordy, with the help of Berry's sister Gwen, wrote and produced Rete Petite. While not an instant success in the states, it found fans across the ocean in the United Kingdom. Berry and Jackie would continue to create 6 more songs over the next 2 years, including one that reached Number 7 on the pop charts called Lonely Teardrops. [Michael Jackson, once an artist on the Motown Label with his brothers would cover this song in 1984, and Chuck Jackson earlier in 1961.]
With the newfound success in the studio and some inspiration from his friend Smokey Robinson, in 1959, with a loan of $800 from his family, Berry founded Motown and Tamla Records, and a once-used label he named Rayber. While it may seem strange in today's world to create multiple labels, radio stations had regulated the amount of air time each label was permitted. Being the suave businessman he was, Berry created a total of four labels to ensure his artists would receive enough attention to increase sales.
Marv Johnson's Come to Me would become the first release from Talma records. It was picked up for national distribution and considered a success! For their second release, and the only 45" pressing on the Rayber label, Gordy produced I Can't Concentrate by Wade Jones which unfortunately did not find an audience; however is now considered one of the rarest records for collectors.
During my visit through the museum's exhibit of Motown's early years, it was pointed out that the first four releases did not contain images of the artists. The sad reality that music was still segregated, along with the rest of society, was a grim reminder of a pre- Civil Rights era that we continue to fight today. But something special about the Motown sound resonated with people of all colors and backgrounds and aided the decision to include band photographs.
Motown Records achieved its first number one record with The Miracles Shop Around and firmly placed the label on the map. With new found success, Berry, with astute business savvy, knew that he alone could not run his new musical empire. He hired only the best, and expected nothing less from those brought into the Motown family. Seemingly, the most influential and crucial individual he brought on was his sister, Esther Gordy. She was named Vice President and CEO, titles not common for black women in the 1960s. She was affectionately known as "The Mother of Motown" and took on the role caring for the younger artists.
As the Motown empire grew, Berry soon realized his studio / home / office was not large enough to accommodate his needs. To ensure he could continue to grow the label, Gordy decided to purchase the entire row of homes on his side of West Grand Boulevard, along with a home across the street in which he reconfigured its layout and acoustics to emulate a mock venue. He helped a young blind boy, Stevie Wonder, practice in this room to prepare for his upcoming tours.
Over the next decade, Berry Gordy created a new genre, with the help of artists like The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, and perhaps his greatest musical discovery, the Jackson Five.
At the funeral of Michael Jackson, Gordy stated he was not only the
"King of Pop" but "the greatest entertainer to ever live".
By the 1970s, Berry felt in order to continue being a pioneer in the industry, he would relocate to Los Angeles, signing on additional artists such as Lionel Ritchie and Rick James. While the label was moved out of Detroit, it was undeniable that the Motown sound would continue to live on. Berry continues to live Los Angeles and recently produced Motown: The Musical which ran at the Lunt-Fontanne theater for several months with a return slated for a future date.
BY KEVIN FINKBEINER
CONTRIBUTING FROM METRO DETROIT, MICHIGAN