The Lost Tycoons

To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography

by Berry Gordy
Warner Books, 432 pp., (out of print)

Berry, Me, and Motown

by Raynoma Gordy Singleton
Contemporary Books, 320 pp., (out of print)

Before Berry Gordy Jr. became the most conspicuously successful black entrepreneur of the twentieth century by selling black music to white people, American Negro fortunes were made in the self-service industries of a people whose intimate concerns others were indisposed to serve—like hair-care products, cosmetics, burial insurance, and ghetto publishing. These were family businesses built by extracting revenues from markets too narrow and out of the way to be worth bothering with for anyone who was able to burrow into the main vein. Because so many have, from time to time, succeeded in the “informal” economy, and because, at least according to the Gallup organization, black Americans are the most religious people on earth, there has always been a lively commerce among them in sin and redemption. This has allowed some who are especially gifted at either to become, however transiently, “n[egro] rich.”

The Nation of Islam was such an enterprise: it also became a thriving family business, worth about $75 million (on paper), at the time of the death of its proprietor. Built on the backs and donated dollars of this society’s cast-down and unassimilable, its assets were compounded over the years into vast real estate holdings: farms, schools; bakeries, restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores, and other small businesses; controlling interest in a bank; a fish-importing operation; the biggest-selling black newspaper in the country; and a majority stake in the career earnings of Muhammad Ali.

Revenue from the tithes of the pious and the crimes of outlaws mingled in the steady flow that streamed through the Nation’s seventy-six franchises into its corporate treasury in Chicago. This Nation, born of the street, was propagated in prisons, and its governors regulated themselves by the metronomic rhythm of street commerce that is as well its only immutable rule: “cop and blow”—acquire and squander. “It was the best organization the black man ever had,” its fallen star, the apostate Malcolm, once bitterly observed. “…N[egroes] ruined it.”

Once upon its time, Motown Records was the best business a black man in America ever had. After all those years of guarding the legend he had encouraged others to make of him by saying as little as he could get away with, it isn’t surprising that the autobiography Berry Gordy Jr. finally produced five years ago reveals little that he hadn’t already allowed to become known as official history. Its circumspection befits the man who used to admonish the project kids he was turning into supper club singers and movie stars that “good manners will get you into places money never will.”

Although history is likely to appoint his place among the children of the Sixties, Berry Gordy Jr., born in 1929, is a member of their parents’ generation and so was raised at a time when “race men”—conscientious agents of group pride and progress—were a cultural ideal of the serious-minded. He knew he was obliged to make himself available to the importunings of his social conscience …

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