Motown: Berry Gordy's 'Assembly Line' Made Songs for Everybody

1959: Berry Gordy founds Motown Records.
The Brady Bunch kids meet the Jackson Five in 1971 Photograph by Everett Collection

1959 Berry Gordy founds Motown Records.

I wanted to do something that would make people happy.

So my question was, how do I turn that vision into reality? I was in Detroit. The time and place was very important. I tried writing songs and all that, but I had to eventually get a real job to make some money, and I went to the Ford Motor Co., and I worked on the assembly line. I would see the cars come in one door a bare metal frame and go out another door a brand-new car. Everybody was buying new cars—black people, white people, you know, Jews, gentiles. I got the idea to do my music business and have it like an assembly line, where artists would come in one door an unknown kid off the street and go out another door a big star.

People said I was crazy. I said, “Why not? We have the same feelings—white people, they’re sad and happy, and they get mad at the same things we get mad at.” I just felt that I could make music for all people, and I just had to figure out a method. We took the assembly line approach. We had a charm school and a production room, and we had classes, and we had producers, and we had writers. I would take a person like Smokey Robinson, who came to me, who was a poet but did not know how to write songs. I showed him how. Then others came along, like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and they were better than I was for songwriting, so I had to move back into the business.

The business was always the biggest problem. I told Smokey one day, “I can’t understand. I’ve got five hits there, and they’re only going to play one.” And so he says, “I know, but what are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I guess I have to get more labels. They’ll never know they are from the same company.” So we had several labels. We had Motown. We had Gordy. We had VIP. We had Tamla. We had different labels, because I found that disc jockeys only wanted to play one record from one company. In 1968 we had five records out of the top 10. They were on different Motown labels. That was my greatest year.

We were so busy making hits, I didn’t realize how relevant the music was until I met Dr. Martin Luther King. He told me that it was creating social and emotional integration long before his political and intellectual integration started. It was so inspiring to me. —As told to Devin Leonard

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