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Music

The king of Motown: The five best Berry Gordy songs

Berry Gordy is an iconic figure in music. In 1959, he founded Tamla Records, and in the following year, it became Motown Record Corporation. Possibly the most important American record label of all time, Motown helped to put soul on the map.

Without the massive cultural strides that Motown made, music would be a completely different beast from what it is today. Headquartered in Detroit, the name was a portmanteau of motor and town, and following Motown’s huge successes, it would become a popular nickname for the Michigan city.

Gordy was born in Detroit in 1929 and dropped out of school in the 11th grade to become a professional boxer. Hoping to become rich quickly, coming from a middle-class African-American background, he boxed until 1950 when he was drafted into the US Army for service in the bloody Korean War.

He served in Korea from May 1952 until April 1953 and earned himself a high school degree in the process. As an interesting side note, Gordy is a distant relative of ex-US President Jimmy Carter, with both of their paternal roots tracing back to the same Georgia Slave plantation.

When Gordy returned from Korea in 1953, he married Thelma Coleman in Toledo, Ohio. He’d always had a keen interest in music, and developed it by opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record shop that specialised in jazz music and 3-D glasses. It was the ’50s, after all. The venture would prove to be unsuccessful, so Gordy found work at the local Lincoln-Mercury car plant. Luckily, his father’s connections in the Michigan music scene brought him into contact with Al Green (not that one), who owned the Flame Show Bar Talent Club.

It was at the club where he met legendary singer Jackie Wilson, and soon, Gordy would be finding the successes he’d sought after for so long. In 1957, Wilson released ‘Reet Petite’ a song Gordy co-wrote with his sister Gwen and producer Billy Davis. It was a modest hit in the US, but made waves in the UK and reached the top ten on the Singles Chart.

Making progress with his songwriting, Gordy reinvested the profits into production. In 1957, he discovered the R&B troupe The Miracles, and quickly put together a roster of artists. It was Miracles frontman, Smokey Robinson, who encouraged Gordy to start his own label, and with Robinson’s support, he borrowed $800 from his family to establish Tamla records.

Gordy quickly found that he had a knack for unearthing and nurturing musical talent, as well as an understanding of artist management. Over the course of the 1960s, Motown became a cultural institution in America, and Gordy effectively made some of the most influential American artists through his songwriting and management. In the ’60s he was behind the successes of The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5 and many more.

Without Gordy’s efforts, music today would be without some of its most important facets, a huge testament to his work. So, on his 92nd birthday, we’ve listed his five best songs, so you can kick back and enjoy the beauty of Motown. Classic after classic, this is list is sure to be a joyous experience.

Berry Gordy’s five best songs:

‘Try It Baby’ – Marvin Gaye

An early Marvin Gaye classic, this R&B number is quintessentially Motown. Funky, soulful and confident, you just cannot beat the sultry tones of the late Marvin Gaye. Famously, Gaye and Gordy were brothers-in-law, and this Gordy penned track is one of his finest from the early Motown days.

The song concerns a woman who’s “moving up” and “leaving (her man) behind”. Another classic part of the track is that The Temptations provided the warm backing vocals, even though they’d just hit their own creative stride. Interestingly, ‘Try It Baby’ was covered in 1968 as a collaboration by both The Supremes and The Temptations, and it is brilliant.

‘I’m Livin’ in Shame’ – Diana Ross & the Supremes

One of The Supremes’ most iconic hits, this 1969 release was the sequel to their 1968 number one, ‘Love Child’. A massive chorus, it is undoubtedly one of Gordy’s finest moments.

Inspired by the plot of the 1959 film Imitation of Life, it explores the quest of a ‘love child’ shunning her family and her mother. You just cannot beat The Supremes. 

‘I Want You Back’ – The Jackson 5

The first single by The Jackson 5, this is the song that first put Michael Jackson and his siblings. on the map.

The chord progression that Gordy wrote is one of the most revered of all time, and in music theory, is constantly praised for the emotive character it has. It is also one of the most sampled songs of all time, and is perhaps Gordy’s most famous work.

‘Do You Love Me’ – The Contours

An R&B staple, and one of the most enduring Motown hits, whenever this track is played, dancefloors are filled. Invoking the dance crazes of the day, the Mashed Potato and the Twist, it’s sure to have you on your feet within seconds.

Originally intended for The Temptations, it landed with The Contours who made it their own. It also features the brilliant music of James Jamerson and Co. who brought the music to life.

‘All I Could Do Was Cry’ – Etta James

One of Motown’s first releases, Etta James is unmatched on this entry. Her powerful, gushing vocals set a precedent for everyone that followed, including Adele.

Inspired by heartbreak, as with every Etta James song, it’s a slower doo-wop infused number that has you yearning for your loved ones. Have the tissues ready.