"Don’t judge yourself by others’ standards … have your own. And don’t get caught up into the trap of changing yourself to fit the world. The world has to change to fit you. And if you stick to your principles, values and morals long enough, it will" – Berry Gordy Jr.
The auto industry has had a significant effect upon American popular musical culture in a way that many people may not have entirely realized. If it had not been for the booming automotive business in the ‘twenties, Berry Gordy Jr’s family might not have moved to Detroit. After a stint with Lincoln — Mercury, as the young Berry envisaged a way that he could associate the "production line" activity with a method of producing future artists, he created a spark. This vision would help him to develop a business that was to have a permanent effect on the black entertainment industry and the music world in general.
During times when racial tensions were still prevalent in America and the country was still somewhat divided and often inhospitable, Gordy was responsible for steering a musical path through the troubles and helping to unite a somewhat torn country. His contribution to the music industry cannot be overestimated and he will be viewed in the annals of history as an iconic figure.
Gordy’s story is one of a classic "rags to riches." He was born into a middle-class working family, who would move from Georgia to Detroit as the automotive business established a strong growth pattern. Following an initial stint with the Army, time served in Korea and an early position as a record store manager, Gordy began writing songs in the mid-’fifties and producing fledgling artists. As a songwriter, his big break was the famous "Reet Petite," picked up by Brunswick Records in 1957 for the singer Jackie Wilson. This track went on to achieve significant international exposure. A few more hit singles were to follow before, in 1960, Tammie Records, (to go on to become Tamla, Motown and ultimately Tamla Motown) was formed. Several labels were incorporated within this company and managed out of a now famous suburban house in Detroit — "Hitsville USA."
Motown was soon to become a label with national reach, following the hit "Way Over There," by the Miracles and other releases. A veritable "who’s who" of emerging artists were to flow through the doors of the unassuming house, including the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandelles, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and the iconic Jackson Five.
Throughout this period of growth, Gordy remembered his time at the auto plants. "Every day I watched how a bare metal frame rolling down the line would come out the other end a spanking brand new car. Maybe I could do the same thing with my music … create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another door a star."
Berry Gordy ensured a strict "production line" of his own would apply within Motown. Each track had to be simple, yet catchy, have a recognizable hook and a certain element of intensity. By all accounts he was a strict taskmaster and insisted that all his artists were schooled in the arts of presentation, composition and professionalism. Within this somewhat regimented approach however, Gordy did not lose sight of creativity. "It still had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and give them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes."
During the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, Gordy decided to relocate to Los Angeles and closed Hitsville. From then on, his company grew further into an entertainment conglomerate. The company moved into movie production, with a string of hits to its credit.
While Motown did not continue to live up to the heady heights of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, it nevertheless was responsible for establishing Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and the Jacksons as household names. Ultimately, Motown was sold to MCA in 1988.
At its height, it is estimated that Motown’s "production-line-track-machine" was responsible for creating hits from three out of every four releases, a figure that has not been repeated. Gordy described this phenomenon as "the sound of Young America" and his movement was certainly responsible for revolutionizing American popular music. "We stuck to who we were at Motown, and the world came around."