In Search of Inspiration: Berry Gordy Jr.

In Search of Inspiration: Berry Gordy Jr.
Berry Gordy Jr.

By Spence Finlayson

NASSAU, Bahamas – Imagine a world without Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Four Tops. You have just imagined a world without Berry Gordy Jr.

I grew up in the Bahamas in the sixties and seventies listening to the wonderful sounds of Motown, the record company that Berry Gordy founded.

My favorite Motown act of course is the Tempting Temptations, who I have had the great privilege of seeing them in concert more than 10 times.

As I write this article, I am listening to David Ruffin singing lead on the Temptations hit “I Could Never Love another after Loving You “on the Classic R & B and Soul on my Cable box.

My friend Billy Bannister is the road manager of the Temptations and he also does the group introduction at concerts. It’s a real thrill to see Billy do his thing!

Berry Gordy and his Motown music have always been a source of inspiration for me.

Berry Gordy Jr was born to a middle-class family and he shattered the color barrier in the American entertainment industry. The son of a plastering contractor in Detroit’s inner city, Gordy rose to become one of the twentieth century’s most stunning success stories, following a sometimes stumbling, but always determined course.

For me personally whenever I felt a little down for whatever  reason, I would play some of my old Temptations songs that takes me back to a pleasant  time in my life .

Berry Gordy was known as the black sheep of his family but he had a burning desire for greatness, a desire to be special, a fire lit by the heroes of his youth, the legendary boxers, as well as the artists and musicians flourishing in Detroit’s club scene, who showed him there was a way out of the ghetto.

In 1957 Jackie Wilson recorded “Reet Petite, a song Berry Gordy co-wrote with his sister Gwen and writer-producer Billy Davis, It become a modest hit, but had more success internationally, especially in the UK, where it reached the Top 10 and even later topped the chart on re-issue in 1986.

Wilson recorded six more songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years, including “Lonely Teardrops” which topped the R& B charts and got to number 7 in the pop chart.

Gordy reinvested the profits from his songwriting success into producing.

In 1957, he discovered The Miracles and began building a portfolio of successful artists. In 1959, at Miracles leader William Smokey Robinson’s encouragement, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to create the R & B label Tamla Records.

On January 21st, 1959, “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson was issued as Tamla 101.

In 1960, Berry Gordy signed an unknown named  Mary Wells  who became the fledgling label’s first star with Smoke Robinson writing her hits “You Beat Me To The Punch”, “Two Lovers” and “My Guy”.

Gordy’s gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent , along with the careful management of his artists’ public image, made Motown initially a major national and then international success.

Over the next decade, he signed such artists as The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, The Contours, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Pips, The Commodores, The Velvelettes, Martha and The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.

I was so inspired by Berry Gordy , I hosted a radio show called “The Motown Hour”  with Kirk Johnson, where I played the hits by the various Motown artists and shared some background information about the writers and producers and little tidbits about the artists.

Berry Gordy’s dream began to take shape , a hit factory, based on the principles he learned working on Detroit’s Lincoln-Mercury assembly line, where  a kid could walk in one door an unknown off the street and come out the other a polished performer.

Gordy’s standards were ferociously exacting. With determination and constant innovations, he cultivated a music that communicated basic feelings, cutting through cultural and language barriers.

By the mid -60s, Motown dominated the nation’s pop music charts, becoming the soundtrack for the lives of millions, black and white.

While growing up in the Bahamas in the sixties and seventies, when radio was king, we all would gather on my family’s porch and listen to the hits from The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Pips, the Jackson 5, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, the Originals, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Junior Walker and The All –Stars, it was a real glorious time.

A painful memory for me was in 1973, I was watching my favorite group, the Tempting Temptations perform on NBC, their classic hit “Papa was a Rollin Stone”.

I went to the corner store to purchase some soft drinks and when I returned through my corner I saw my mother being helped into a waiting car, she suffered a massive stroke but lived for 5 years after that though bedridden for the entire time.

In 1972, Gordy relocated Motown Record Corporation to Los Angeles, where he produced the commercially successful Billie Holiday biography, “Lady Sings The Blues”, staring Diana Ross who was nominated for an Academy Award and Richard Pryor and introducing Billy Dee Williams.

Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 70’s and 80’s by Artists including the Jacksons, Rick James, Lionel Richie  and long–term signings , Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the record company was no longer the major force it was it had been previously.

I can fondly remember as a member of the Pioneers Sporting Club, a Nassau based dominant track and field club headed by my oldest brother Alpheus “Hawk” Finlayson, driving from Miami, Florida to the University of Florida in Gainesville or from Miami to Knoxville, Tennessee to compete as a triple jumper and listening to the hits from Motown during the long drive.

While I was competing at the Florida Relays at the University of Florida, I can still remember a guy with a boom box in the stands near the triple jump pit, playing all of the Temptations hits one after the other. That certainly inspired me and I came 4th in the Triple Jump in the High School Division beating out 44 athletes from high schools across the United States. Temptations Forever!

“Motown 25″

In 1983, Motown hosted a television show “Motown 25″ that was a smash hit. My Temptations battled the Four Tops for the battle of the bands and I believe the Tempts with the great Dennis Edwards singing lead.

Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops was sensational. Stevie Wonder did his usual super performance and Marvin Gaye was right on with his hit “What’s Going On?”

But it was Michael Jackson who stole the show with his ‘Moonwalk” while leading his brothers, The Jacksons.

Berry Gordy sat in the balcony and Diana Ross said to him “It’s not about the people that left Motown but it’s about the people that came back and tonight we all came back.”

All of the label’s artist came back and performed for this special night. Richard Pryor was the MC and he delivered his rendition of the Motown Story…A Fairy Tale “:

“Once upon a time in a kingdom known as Detroit there lived a young warrior named Berry.
    And as a youth he fought in arenas with padded gauntlets for small sums of money.
 He got his brains beat out.
    So Berry took employment at a local chariot factory called Ford and learned skills of the assembly line.
But his heart, alas, was not in his work. No , no, no .
      He took on the ways of the minstrel then and he began to write songs for others to sing .
And a local celebrity , Sir Jackie of Wilson , heard some of the songs and put them on cellular platters called discs.
     The townspeople liked the sounds that emanated from the pressed discs and turned them into something called hits.
    But Berry realized something was astray  a bit awry here.
Oh Yes.
   You see the great wealth he had anticipated never materialized .
He was busted .
So Berry went out on a great quest and he found Miracles and Wonders and Marvelettes .
  And he brought the discoveries to a secret place called Hitsville and there he taught them wondrous things.
   There was young Smokey of Robinson, and Mary of Wells and Martha of the Vandellas, Marvin of Gaye and Tammi of Terrell, and there were Pips and Knights named Gladys and Temptations and Tops, Contours, Spinners
    And before anyone realized what was happening, it happened.
Hitsville became like its name
     And Berry said to himself once more, “Self, this is a lot better than being punched in the head by padded gauntlets”.
     And all was going well in Hitsville when our young hero met three fair maidens from the projects of Brewster.
    He groomed them , he gowned them, he nursed them and rehearsed them, then gave out the news that Motown gave birth to the Supremes.
   It was like something out of a fairy tale.
And the family grew and everything they touched turned to gold and bulging pockets.
   And Berry he had climbed the beanstalk to face the great giant and captured the goose that laid the golden records.
   And after five and twenty years, there’s a chance and everyone wants it, that it will happen to them and all will live happily ever after.”
  “ We love you Berry , very much.”

In 1988 Berry Gordy sold Motown Records to MCA for $61 million. Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and he received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Pioneer Award in 2013.

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