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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.”

1.

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, but at the end of his career he was unlikely to betray the dearly held convictions about getting paid that had made the prospect of cashing in so lush.

His memoir begins near the story’s end, in 1988, when Motown Records finally passed from its founder’s hands into the holdings of the Music Corporation of America. MCA was one sixth of the record industry’s ruling cartel: it was the only company willing to part with $61 million to own little else but Motown’s “brand equity”—the value of its name and history—and the deed to its last trophy property, Stevie Wonder. On one hand, the price seemed modest; every year of its prime Motown made nearly as much as MCA paid, in record sales rung up in dollars weightier than today’s. On the other hand, Gordy kept the cash register—the music publishing companies, the real source of long-term wealth in the business—which is a little like keeping the kernel and getting paid for the husk. On the whole, a storybook return on his family’s thirty-year-old investment of $800 in a junior member who had demonstrated some aptitude for commercial songwriting and none at all for commerce.

Long before he decided to cash out, Gordy knew he had gotten old in the business of selling to the young. His attentiveness to the yearnings of the generations of Americans who followed the many manic consumers of the music he sold had long ago lapsed. The commercial instincts that once were like a hungry wolf’s closing in on a faltering prey had been dulled by the habit he’d acquired along the way of swallowing up whatever he pursued.

Gordy was born near the onset of the Great Depression, the seventh of Berry and Bertha Gordy’s eight children. His mother and father were old-school strivers, “two from the good black dirt” of Sandersville, Georgia. Berry Gordy Sr., the grandson of a slave and her master, married a country schoolteacher. He was born into as hard a life as there was for a black resident of Georgia, although his family had the relative advantage of owning the 168 acres on which it scratched out its living; 90 percent of the state’s black population then were sharecroppers. The racial climate was volatile and nasty; there were 159 lynchings in Georgia during the 1890s.

In 1916, a year before the twenty-eight-year-old Gordy Sr. was conscripted into wartime service, a boll weevil infestation devastated Georgia’s cotton-dependent economy. Increased demand for labor in the industrialized cities of the North began pulling the first trickle of what would become serial waves of Southern black immigrants. Ten thousand black Georgians left that year; of those who stayed, sixteen died at the hands of white vigilantes. In 1917, fifty thousand more headed north. Yet in 1920, black people still made up 40 percent of Georgia’s population, and owned less than 5 percent of its available land. During the next two years 150,000 blacks left the state, Gordy among them. He sold to a sawmill some tree stumps he had pried out of family ground. He figured he needed to take the proceeds, a bank draft for $2,600, out of Georgia before someone of Washington County’s overlording white minority found out he had it.

Whatever illusions a man of “Pops” Gordy’s natural optimism might have had about what was at the end of his train ride north to Detroit would have quickly dissipated once he got there. About 14,000 black migrants were streaming into the city every year, on top of the 30,000 who had preceded them over the previous decade, and were already contending with an acute housing shortage and jostling with European immigrants—Poles, Greeks, and Italians, mainly—in a savage competition for jobs that were worth, on average, about three dollars a day. Gordy paid too much for a bad house on Detroit’s west side, the gentler of the two neighborhoods to which the city’s rigidly segregated housing market confined its black residents. Then he commenced his earnest regimen of hard work and relentless thrift, selling ice and coal, firewood, old car parts, watermelons, Christmas trees, hustling odd jobs to feed a family that by 1929, when Berry Jr. was born, had grown to nine.

By 1931, he had lost the house and the family was on welfare. But even as the Depression deepened, Gordy was unbroken. He found a small, failing grocery store across town. He renamed it after Booker T. Washington, the patron saint of Southern black bootstrappers, tended it with Bertha, and made it profitable. Eventually he got a contractor’s license and started a plastering business. By 1941, they had put aside enough money to buy a commercial building, into which Gordy installed another family enterprise, a print shop.

By his own account, Berry Gordy Jr.’s early life was as regular as a farmboy’s: a Rockwellian tableau of family gathered around the radio every night after dinner, life lessons learned helping his father, just enough benign mischief-making to certify his spunk. His book, however, reports some darker imprints on his memory—protracted bedwetting, never learning to read well enough to be any good at school.

The Gordy family was an effective, self-contained unit, the brilliant invention of a doggedly resilient grass-roots entrepreneur and a woman who thought of herself as a scholar, and took as her vocation transmitting to her children the reverence she felt for learning, culture, and the Holy Ghost. His family would become Berry Gordy Jr.’s first and best idea of a business organization. And its fierce insularity kept him away from many of the snares of ordinary black life while he was growing up in Depression-era Detroit, where by 1932 there were roilings enough among the immigrant throng, which had swelled by then to more than 120,000, to dispose some of those the city had most disappointed to establish the first outpost of the Nation of Islam.

2.

In 1930, eight years after Gordy Sr. arrived in Detroit, the appearance there of an itinerant notions peddler named W.D. Fard became the original cell of a body that would grow robust in J. Edgar Hoover’s imagination. At a time, in a place, where some of the just transplanted, like “Pops” Gordy, were on their way to becoming “new Negroes,” Fard (sometimes spelled Farad, the way it is pronounced) pitched his concoction of Marcus Garvey, the Bible, Hendrik Van Loon, Masonry, weird science, and a cut-and-paste Islam to the many who had failed at reinventing themselves up North and so felt the need of the new identity he was offering. Fard told them they were not who they thought they were—“so-called Negroes”—but members of a lost tribe of “original men” who once had ruled the planet and were destined to again. He sold converts “original names” and also expensive silks imported from the East so that they could array themselves in suitable remembrance of their regal forbears.

Much of what is known about W.D. Fard before he showed up in Detroit in his Model A coupe is speculation. He has been characterized variously as a white man, a “light-skinned Negro,” a “mixed blood Jamaican,” or an Arab who may have originated in places as disparate as New Zealand and Portland, Oregon. His one official portrait, and a couple of putative mug shots, disclose a face that shows no sign of Africa.

Fard himself claimed to be from Mecca, born in 1877 to Alphonso, “an ebony-colored man of the Tribe of Shabazz,” and Baby Gee, “a Caucasian lady, a devil”; as a “mulatto” he could move more easily among white people in the furtherance of his divine mission to redeem and rescue the “so-called Negro” in America. After traveling all over the world to study the educational systems of every civilized country, Fard came to America just before the outbreak of the First World War. He settled in California, where he lived among black Americans so he could learn the folkways of the lost tribe-in-bondage he had come to save. So it was told to and so it was taught by Elijah Muhammad, the man to whom Fard revealed himself as “God-in-person,” who became his “messenger” and the custodian of his legend, and who has himself recently become, for the first time, more than twenty years after his death, the subject of a formal biography, written by Dr. Claude A. Clegg III, a professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University.

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