Without Motown Records, the entire landscape of modern Black music would be radically shifted. The label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr., will be turning 90 this Thanksgiving as the label celebrates its 60th year.
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Gordy was born in 1929 and raised in Detroit, Mich. Dropping out of high school, Gordy, who had an interest in music as a boy, chased his dreams of becoming a professional boxer. After winning over a dozen professional bouts, Gordy made a return to songwriting, which was interrupted by a stint in the Army.
At 27, Gordy, then working in an automobile plant, quit his job to chase his music dreams and began songwriting full-time. A chance meeting with a manager led to a connection with Jackie Wilson, with Gordy co-writing and writing a few of his hits. In 1959, with the encouragement of his friend Smokey Robinson of The Miracles, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and started Tamla Records in January 1959.
After Hitsville U.S.A.’s headquarters opened and the Motown Record Corporation was created in 1960, things began moving quickly for the label. Gordy promoted his star acts, The Miracles and Mary Wells, who had a string of hits penned by Robinson. The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and more churned out hit after hit, defining the classic Motown sound.
In 1972, Gordy relocated the Motown headquarters to Los Angeles, Calif., and produced the Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings The Blues” starring label star Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and a young Richard Pryor. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards. While Gordy’s focus shifted to Hollywood, stars like the aforementioned Gaye, Lionel Richie and The Commodores, Rick James, and DeBarge became Motown’s next generation of legendary performers.
In the ‘80s, music tastes began to shift. Sensing the changes ahead, Gordy sold the label to MCA for $61 million but retained his publishing. In his view, it was the best way to make certain Motown survived. Today, the label exists in partnership with the Universal Music Group with a bevy of young stars on its roster like the rap group Migos. The classic Motown acts are also featured prominently, and their vast array of legacy hits are available in digital formats, vinyl reissues and more.
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