Berry Gordy Jr. was born in 1929 in Detroit in a family consisting of eight children. Gordy’s family relocated to Detroit in 1922 (Biography). His family adhered to strong moral behavior in society, which formed the basis of Gordy’s desire to succeed in his personal and professional life. However, Gordy Jr. encountered challenges in his academic endeavor when he dropped out of school in the 11th grade to pursue professional boxing (Schweikart ). After a short stint in professional boxing, Gordy Jr. was drafted into the army to participate in the Korean War in 1950. In his quest to succeed in life, Gordy assumed the role of fixing upholstery in vehicles at Ford Motor Company (Schweikart). Gordy Jr. began working in a record store as a manager before transitioning to the creative and entrepreneurial dimension of the music business.
Gordy decided to pursue a career in music. According to Schweikart, Gordy embarked on his musical career by first composing a broad spectrum of R&B songs in the mid-1950s, a stint that builds his name and reputation and set the stage for him to become a fully-fledged music writer and producer. He was able to reinvest his songwriting ability into production, an aspect that accelerated his entrepreneurial journey. Biography reports that Gordy Jr. established a mutual working relationship with artists he signed, such as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and together they entered the music scene with captivating hit singles. His production expertise peaked nationally after some of the songs he produced started topping the charts.
The Business and Successes
Before he started Motown Records, Gordy Jr. encountered financial struggles. Per Davis, Gordy Jr. encountered difficulties getting money when he needed it (73). A New York publisher once refused to pay Gordy his payment owed (Schweikart). Even though he attempted to press charges, he was advised that the costs likely to be incurred in the lawsuit could be more than the royalties owed. The experience taught Gordy Jr. the need to have control in a business, a significant lesson in entrepreneurship. Gordy Jr. started Tamla Records, later incorporated into Motown Records, using 800 dollars he borrowed from his family to gain the control he desired (Davis 75). The financial support, coupled by Gordy’s musical prowess, enabled him to produce one of the catchy songs known as Way over There featuring William Smokey Robinson (Sexton). Robinson’s group promptly became a sensation under Gordy’s Motown Records label. Subsequently, the artists projected Gordy’s company and soon attracted chart-toppers like Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Contours, and Prime, among others (Sexton). These artists actively participated in Gordy’s entrepreneurial success.
Gordy scouted for talents in nightclubs and street corners of Detroit to develop Motown Records as a successful venture. He gathered a limitless supply of talents, including young black performers (Sanjek 1190). Sanjek further reveals that Motown Records had already released three singles among the top-ten songs in the billboard chart (1192). Motown’s hit singles continued to top charts throughout the 1960s (Sexton). During the 1970s, in an attempt to project the company as a global business venture, Gordy Jr. moved Motown from Detroit to Hollywood, the core location of the entertainment industry. Gordy diversified his business activities by creating a motion picture department (Sexton). According to Sexton, the new division made an immediate impact after the releases of the first film dubbed Lady Sings the Blues, a video presentation that documented the life of Billie Holiday. Although Gordy had achieved much success in the music business, he still wanted to pursue other business ventures. The desire to pursue other ventures saw him resign from Motown Records to head an umbrella corporation that envisaged all his business enterprises (Sexton). Later, as Gordy Jr. achieved success in other ventures, Motown records started failing as most of his artists’ singles failed to top the charts like it was the norm in the previous years. Gordy’s success deteriorated because famous artists left for other record labels and few new talents were joining the company.
Key Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned from Gordy Jr.
Commitment to workers’ growth is a core trait that Gordy demonstrated and a characteristic that entrepreneurs should acquire. As such, entrepreneurs should invest in their workers’ growth and progress to stir their companies or businesses towards success. The success of Gordy’s business was linked to his ability to grant personal attention to each artist and worker (Biography). Every Motown performer was trained in-house on how to control themselves on stage and other social gatherings. He also instituted a quality control program that modeled his previous entrepreneurship experiences applicable in his music business. Consequently, Gordy fostered an enabling environment without any restrictions regarding creativity (Sanjek 1195). Gordy’s company created opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity and encouraged them to aim for the highest echelons in the music industry.
Focusing on staff welfare is another lesson that entrepreneurs can learn from Gordy’s success story. As the leader of Motown Records, Gordy demanded his signed artists to embrace hard work, live a straight life, and show commitment to societal morals and expectations. Gordy felt he owed his workers sound financial advice so that they would not squander their proceeds from hard work to end up broke and afterward languish in poverty (Sexton). For that matter, Gordy set up a financial counseling service at the company to offer insightful financial advice regarding the management of money they received as part of royalties. The service helped the artists with investment programs and opportunities that they could use to advance their personal and professional life. Hence, Gordy’s management skills projected his company to greater heights and became a successful record label in the United States.
Biography. “Berry Gordy Jr. Biography”. Biography, April 2, 2014. https://www.biography.com/musician/berry-gordy-jr. Accessed September 9, 2020.
Davis, Clark. “For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South”. Southern Cultures, vol. 17, no. 4, 2011, pp. 71-90.
Sanjek, David. “Do You Wanna Dance? Historical Narratives and American Popular Music”. American Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 4, 2005, pp. 1189-1200.
Schweikart, Larry. “Berry Gordy Jr. and the Original Black Label”. Foundation for Economic Education, May 1, 2003. https://fee.org/articles/berry-gordy-jr-and-the-original-black-label/. Accessed September 9, 2020.
Sexton, Paul. “Berry Gordy: The Visionary Who Made Motown”. U Discover Music, January 12, 2020. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/berry-gordy-visionary-made-motown/. Accessed September 9, 2020.