Motown music mogul finds his place in history

By: Maria Allard | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published March 24, 2015

 Motown Museum curator Coraleen Rawls gives a speech about the history of Motown.

Motown Museum curator Coraleen Rawls gives a speech about the history of Motown.

Photo by Sean Work


CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. never gave up on his dream of working in the music business.

Although he tried boxing as a career and spent a brief moment on Detroit’s automobile assembly line in the 1950s, neither was fulfilling.

“That wasn’t who he was,” said Coraleen Rawls, curator at the Motown Museum in Detroit.  “He was trying to be a square peg fitting into a round hole.”

On March 12, Rawls presented “The History of Motown” at the Lorenzo Cultural Center on Macomb Community College’s Center Campus. It was one of many presentations of the center’s “101 People, Places, and Things that Made Michigan” exhibit running until May 9.

Rawls touched on Gordy’s early years and how he founded Motown Records, which launched the careers of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Martha Reeves, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and others.

“It was called race music, black music,” Rawls said.

But before the label came to be, Gordy’s true calling was as a songwriter. His first crack at the craft came when he met singer Jackie Wilson at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, where two of his sisters worked.

“Berry asked his sisters to introduce him to Jackie Wilson,” Rawls said. “He started to write songs for Jackie Wilson. They turned out very well.”

One problem: Gordy had to sell the songs first before he got paid. It wasn’t the ideal way to make a living while supporting his wife, Thelma Coleman, and four children at the time. So he gave it up to work for one of the Big Three automobile companies.

One day at lunch, a group of employees sat around talking about how much time they had until retirement. Gordy, just one year with the company, realized he had 29 more years to go. He knew that line of work wasn’t for him, so he quit.

“His wife wasn’t happy about it,” said Rawls. Because of his decision, Gordy and his wife separated and Gordy moved in with a sister.

Gordy, who served in the U.S. Army, grew up with seven siblings in what Rawls described as an entrepreneurial family. His father owned a grocery store at one time and his mother was a teacher. With that business-minded spirit, Gordy soon created Jobete Publishing in 1959 as a way to get his songs out there.

“When promoting the songs, he runs into this young guy who is really cute with hazel eyes,” Rawls said. “Anybody know his name?”

She was talking about Smokey Robinson, which drew a few “woos” from the females in the crowd. “He was the first group to be signed up (to) sing to Berry Gordy.”

But again, payment didn’t come right away, and according to Rawls, Gordy’s thought was, “Why are we waiting for these $4 checks? Why don’t we open up our own record company?”

Every month, Gordy, his parents and siblings each contributed $10 to a family pot to be used should someone need a loan. When Gordy inquired about seeking $1,000 to start a record company, “The family said ‘no,’” according to Rawls. But all was not lost. “He got a $800 check instead. That was the beginning of the career that fed his soul. He had a vision. He had tenacity. (Motown) did have a building in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on Woodward. That was torn down.”

Fans can check out the Motown Museum and Hitsville U.S.A. buildings at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit. The location was once headquarters for Motown.

Audience members watched a video on large screens that Rawls brought. The footage featured interviews with Gordy, Reeves and Robinson. Gordy recalled how he and friends would hang out and sing at the park across from Northeastern High School, on Grandy and Warren in Detroit, where he was a student.

“Aretha Franklin lived around the corner from me,” the music mogul recalled. “Diana Ross lived maybe six doors down the street from me.”

Soon, the sound of Motown was born and gained a large audience.

“The teenagers were just ready for that music. The studio, once we opened it, it never shut down. It was a wonderful place,” said Robinson, who joked that you didn’t want Gordy to mix your music, though. “(There) would be 257 mixes. He was just a perfectionist. I guess that was good, because you see what happened.”

“The young girls wanted to look like the Supremes, no matter your color,” Rawls said. “You just wanted to be wearing the big wigs and the skinny dresses.”

Robinson talked about how in the early years, black fans sat on one side of the theater and white fans on the other. Among those interviewed were the late Maxine Powell, who groomed the artists, and former artist and repertoire man Mickey Stevenson.

“We brought in hope and what could really happen,” Stevenson said. “I think that’s what Motown was about.”

“Our music reflected true things,” Gordy said.

The Lorenzo Cultural Center is located at 44575 Garfield Road. Exhibit hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1-4 p.m. Sundays. While the exhibit events are free, guests are asked to register by calling (586) 445-7348 so seating can be accommodated. For a list of presentations, visit www.LorenzoCultural

For more information and hours on the Motown Museum, call (313) 875-2264.