Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

April 27, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Not quite 30 years old in 1959, Berry Gordy needed money.

Gordy was from a solid, hard-working African-American family in Detroit —  a family that emphasized discipline and education — but Berry, the seventh of eight children, had not accomplished much in his first three decades. He had been in the Army, which he didn’t like. He had had various jobs, but Berry didn’t care for labor very much either. He had tried to make it as a professional boxer, but that wasn’t his thing either. His wife was divorcing him, and he was fearful of losing his children

What he liked was music, and Detroit’s active musical scene was the place he wanted to be. He thought of himself as a songwriter, but the more he learned about how things worked, the more he envisioned himself as a producer. He had an idea for producing records, but he needed money. About a $1,000 would do, he thought. He didn’t have any money, and his friends were unable or unwilling to part with theirs.

After exhausting every other resource, he turned to his family. The Gordy family was not rich, but it had a fund to which every working member was required to contribute $10 a week. The main purpose of the fund was to buy real estate if they needed it; it was not meant to finance wild-brained ideas like producing a record album.

Still, with the family sitting around the dining table one evening, Berry made his pitch for $800 and was hammered with questions, especially from his sister Esther. What had he ever done? What success had he ever had? How was he going to pay the money back? Two other sisters, Gwen and Anna, said they were for giving him the money. A third sister, Loucye, agreed. Esther held out.

Their mother and father, Barbara and Berry Sr., sat in silence. When the children looked at them, they nodded. That left Esther as the lone holdout, and the vote had to be unanimous. Okay, she said, but the first money Berry made had to go toward repaying the fund.

Gordy got his money, but he also learned something valuable. “I knew right then,” he wrote later, “if I ever made money, she (Esther) would be the one I’d get to watch it for me.”

Make money he certainly did. It wasn’t an easy road, but Gordy took his family’s money and turned it into Motown Records. He found and developed talent among Detroit’s African-American community, and as Motown’s reputation grew musicians from all over the country migrated to Detroit. Gordy was convinced that the strict segregation that had heretofore ruled popular music — there was black music and there was white music — could be overcome. He wanted to sell black artists to white audiences.

Gordy did that by not only controlling the music but also the appearance, dress, and choreography of the artists whose records he produced and promoted. In doing so, Motown Records became and remained the richest black-owned business in America for several decades. Gordy went on to a wide-ranging career that included not only records but also television and movie productions. By 2000 he had divested most of his interests in Motown Records and its progenies.

In 2016, Gordy was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. Gordy is currently 90 years old.

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