Berry Gordy: Biography, Family & Songs

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

You know the sounds of The Four Tops, The Supremes, and The Jackson 5, but do you know the story of the man behind the bands? In this lesson, learn about the life, family, and songs of Berry Gordy.

Life of a Legend

Everyone loves a success story, right? Well, the life and career of Berry Gordy may be one you'll really love. Known as Berry Gordy Jr., he was born Berry Gordy III on November 28, 1929, in the city that would eventually make him a music icon--Detroit.

His father, Berry II, was a contractor, and his mother was an insurance agent. Berry played the piano and also, for a short time, the clarinet. He always had a love of music, though, and won a talent contest as a child for a song he wrote called 'Berry's Boogie.' A high school dropout, the young Berry had aspirations to become a professional boxer, but his career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.

After coming back from the war, Gordy opened a music store in Detroit, but the business failed. He worked with his father at a car manufacturing plant for a time, and while there, he wrote songs and sold them to Decca Records. He soon realized, though, that the record company was making a lot more money than he was and decided he wanted a record company of his own.

Motown is Born

Gordy's friend Smokey Robinson suggested Gordy borrow money from family to open a record company, and in 1959, the Motown music movement was born. The company started in a house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, where its founder lived and worked. It grew into a major musical complex where musicians practiced, recorded music, and were taught how to handle themselves like stars and representatives of their record label.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles

Motown's first number-one hit on the R&B charts was 'Shop Around,' performed by none other than Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. The song sold over a million copies and became America's first taste of the Motown sound--a mix of African-American gospel and new rock and roll music.

In all, Motown produced over 100 number-one hits and countless top-ten records. In 1988, Gordy sold the recording part of his company to MCA, Inc., although he still maintains partial control of the music publishing arm of his company. That year, he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he's never played an instrument professionally.

The Motown Family

Gordy was the seventh of eight children in his family. He was married and divorced three times and has eight children. However, Gordy's real family was among the musicians whose careers he launched. Gordy's Motown family included such greats as The Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye, all of whom had hit songs under the Motown label.

His musicians were his real family.
Jackson 5 in 1972

Gordy was also known to have had intimate relationships with some of his stars, including Diana Ross of The Supremes. The two are parents to a daughter, Rhonda Ross Kendrick. Kendrick is an actress who also starred in a 1998 miniseries about the musical group The Temptations, who were also part of the Motown label.

The Supremes included Diana Ross.
The Supremes in 1966

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