Forty years ago, in a dingy club in Pontiac, Michigan, a dangerous brawl erupted, complete with smashed chairs, broken bottles, and bruised bodies. Angry patrons rushed toward the bar where a young black group, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, was performing. Thinking quickly, the group’s manager, Berry Gordy, shoved them toward a narrow stairway and a quick exit.
In the late 1950s, many blacks enjoyed rhythm and blues music, but it was routinely unprofitable and often performed in shabby venues. Berry Gordy, who would become one of the greatest entrepreneurs in Michigan history, would change that. He had a vision of taking black-inspired music out of the slums and giving it broad, national appeal as a respectable art form. In 1959, shortly after the Pontiac brawl, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and risked it to start Motown Record Corporation, named for the "motor town" of Detroit, where he lived and where he worked on the assembly line.
Once in business, Gordy hustled musical talent from the streets of Detroit and pinched pennies to survive. He set up a used two-track recorder in the small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that became Motown "headquarters." His father did the plastering and repairs and his sister did the bookkeeping. His vocal studio was in the hallway and his echo chamber was the downstairs bathroom. "We had to post a guard outside the door," Gordy says, "to make sure no one flushed the toilet while we were recording."
The fact that Gordy started Motown out of his home is more than a quaint historical footnote. Doing that today in Detroit’s residential areas would violate the city’s repressive ban on home-based businesses—a sad comment on how stifling Detroit’s regulations and taxes have become since the 1950s.
Gordy’s success is sometimes ascribed to his knack for writing and producing hit songs. But it’s more than this. As actor Sidney Poitier observed, "Berry Gordy . . . set out to make music for all people, whatever their color or place of origin." In doing so, Gordy made black music—the Motown sound—part of the mainstream popular culture in America.
What an achievement! Gordy had white teens all over America humming the catchy tunes of the Four Tops and the Temptations. After that, he promoted a flurry of black stars including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Gordy so much wanted their music, and that of other Motown singers, to reach the larger white audience in America that the sign on his headquarters read, "Hitsville, U. S. A."
The impact of Gordy’s remarkable accomplishment is worth pondering. At one level, he created more opportunities for blacks everywhere in the music business—production, night clubs, recording, and marketing. Beyond that, in an era of racial tensions, Gordy’s music bonded blacks and whites together in unity. In 1964 and 1965, some whites attacked blacks in Oxford, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama. But during this time many white fans everywhere were making number one hits for Gordy out of the first three songs by the Supremes: "Where Did Our Love Go?," "Baby Love," and "Come See About Me."
The Motown sound became mainstream American music not by law or force, but by choice. It was clever entrepreneurship, not affirmative action mandates, that persuaded whites to integrate black musicians into their record collections. Gordy used well-crafted songs to capture not just the number one position on Billboard’s Top 100, but the number two and three positions as well for the whole last month of 1968.
America’s system of private enterprise gave Gordy the chance to air his records on radio stations and have them compete for sales in record stores all over America. But when Gordy tried to expand the Motown sound into England, he found government standing in his way.
The government stations, especially the British Broadcasting Company, refused to play Motown records and give Gordy the chance that private enterprise gave him in the United States. "Because we couldn’t get our records on the government stations," Gordy said, "our earliest airplay had come from Radio Veronica and Radio Caroline, ‘pirate ships’ anchored a few miles off the coasts of England and Holland."
The Motown music heard from those pirate ships captivated British listeners. Soon the demand for Gordy’s records swamped the record stores from Liverpool to London and forced the bureaucrats to permit Motown music to be heard on government stations. When Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America began playing Gordy’s records, his empire penetrated the Iron Curtain and truly became an international force.
Success, Gordy explains to this day, starts with a dream. "That’s what’s wrong with people," Gordy said when he started Motown. "They give up their dreams too soon. I’m never going to give up mine." And because he didn’t give up, blacks have more opportunities today and American music has changed forever.