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The legacy of Berry Gordy Jr. as the creator of Motown Records began as a drafted soldier in the Korean War.
He’s most known today for creating the iconic Motown sound and elevating the careers of music legends like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. Yet, in 1951, he was known only as a wayward teen searching for purpose.
Born on November 28, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, Gordy Jr. was the seventh of eight children to Bertha Fuller Gordy and Berry “Pops” Gordy Sr.
Gordy Jr.’s parents, who were strict and encouraged a strong work ethic, didn’t expect their son to drop out of high school and pursue a boxing career, but he did.
His plans, however, were cut short when he was drafted into the Army in 1951 to fight in the Korean War, according to the website Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Korean War soldier Berry Gordy Jr. becomes Motown Records producer
For two years, the future record producer traded in a mic and sound booth for a rifle and a side arm. By 1953, his service ended with the Korean War Armistice Agreement.
Gordy Jr. returned to Detroit to open a jazz music store, but when it failed, he resigned to work on the assembly line of the Ford Plant.
Yet, the manufacturing job didn’t dampen his musical spirit as he began writing music in his spare time. Honing his skills over the next few years, Gordy Jr. eventually wrote his first hit song “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson in 1957.
Leaving the Ford Plant in 1959, Gordy Jr. borrowed $800 from his family’s savings to open the Motown Record Company, which he operated from his apartment until he was able to purchase the house he named Hitsville USA.
And hits he made.
Attracting some of the most talented Rhythm and Blues musicians in Detroit, including Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, Gordy Jr. built up Motown Records to produce over a dozen number one singles in the 1960s alone. In fact, roughly 75% of Motown’s releases in 1966 made the charts, according to Blackpast.org.
Moving across decades, his producing prowess led to the rise of stars like Gladys Knight and the Jackson Five.
Berry Gordy Jr. receives his flowers
While the prestige of the record company ultimately declined and later artists, such as the Supremes and Diana Ross, moved on to other labels, Gordy Jr. established one of the most successful record companies in its heyday.
In 1988, Gordy Jr. sold his interests in Motown to Music Corporation of America and Boston Ventures, but he eventually received his flowers.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year. Nearly 30 years later, in 2016, former President Barack Obama honored Gordy Jr. with the National Medal of Arts.
Even today, the reach of his legacy continues to plant seeds in a new generation. In 2021, Motown Records signed artists from Fire in Little Africa, a multimedia hip hop project commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
A high school drop out with a passion for music, 92-year-old Berry Gordy Jr. was both a soldier in the field and a legendary songwriter and producer in the recording studio.