Berry Gordy
Berry Gordy; drawing by David Levine

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, 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.


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.

When the FBI began in the early Sixties to practice on the Nation of Islam the disinformation techniques it honed into COINTELPRO a few years later, its first assault, Clegg tells us, was on the reputation of the man the group revered as “the Savior.” As a result, press accounts of the life of Fard appeared in several Hearst outlets that were based on material provided by the Bureau, which conjoined fact and fabrication with such ingenuity that one can’t reliably be distinguished from the other. It does seem likely that Fard came to Detroit from California after a sojourn in Chicago, where he absorbed the influences of Garveyites and Moorish-Americans who were followers of Timothy Drew, a charismatic from North Carolina who became known as Noble Drew Ali, and taught to his sectarian outposts in several cities the earliest version of a homegrown black American Islam. Drew Ali disappeared mysteriously in 1929, thought by many of his adherents to have been murdered in Detroit on the brink of Fard’s arrival there.

Professor Clegg credits a central assertion of the FBI’s campaign—that the “New Allah of the Black Nation” left California after being released from San Quentin, where he had been imprisoned for three years for selling heroin. The law enforcement version of Fard’s life in California suggests a disposition toward petty crime that began to assert itself in 1918, when he was detained for an assault with a deadly weapon. Still, he was able to buy a small restaurant, which would become the site of other recorded transgressions—among them a bootlegging charge in 1926 that preceded by a month the arrest that sent him to jail.

He may not have been God incarnate, and he may not have been the white, dope-dealing grifter his worst enemies said he was; but even though he will be ever obscured in the gloam of myth and self-serving memory, we can deduce from what he left behind that W.D. Fard had plenty of what the street calls “game.” During the three years he spent in Detroit he preached to thousands, and coalesced around him a few hundred devotees who dedicated themselves to his gospel of the superiority of “the Asiatic black man” and his religion, Islam: moral living, proper eating, and the complete renunciation of white Christian—“spook”—society. Among these devotees was a “little man from Hamtramck” named Elijah Poole.

Elijah, undereducated, unemployed, already past thirty and chronically unsuccessful, confounded any reasonable expectation by taking what he was given and using it as the foundation upon which he built one of modern black America’s most durable institutions.

In 1897, Elijah Poole was born into the same unquiet times in the same deadly quiet place as Berry Gordy Sr. had been ten years earlier, which kept him right on schedule to catch some of the worst of what rural Georgia could do to a human spirit. His family didn’t linger in Sandersville; it left when he was three, borne out of the countryside in the rising human tide of casualties of the agrarian depression that was settling over the South at the turn of the century. They didn’t get any further than a bigger small town—Cordele—where Elijah exhausted his youth in his family’s grinding struggle to subsist among Crisp County’s hostile and dangerous white minority.

His father, William Poole, was a minister, albeit a “jackleg,” which meant he was casually trained and informally ordained. Preaching was a vocation among several other catchpenny occupations William and Mariah Poole were required to practice in order to feed their eight children. The sixth of these, fair-skinned, fine-featured, almond-eyed Elijah was favored by his family, fussed and prayed over by its elders, proclaimed by them to be a child of special destiny. This didn’t exempt him from helping with their support by doing any work he could find, beginning when he was ten. He never finished elementary school. At sixteen Elijah, aspiring to be a railroad porter, moved to Macon. He stayed there for ten years, working at a sawmill, a brick factory, and as a gang laborer laying track for the Southern Railroad.

He had seen black men dangling from tree limbs in Cordele and a mangled black corpse dragged through the streets of Macon; he had seen farm workers who were paid eight dollars a month being flogged at gunpoint; white people had cursed him when he was a boy and cheated him when he was a man. He had, he said, “enough of the white man’s brutality in Georgia to last me for 26,000 years.” When he caught his train headed north, Elijah Poole must have felt like a runaway slave.

In Detroit, scrambling for some purchase on a better life, Elijah settled in Hamtramck, a small, working-class, Polish-flavored suburb. After a couple of years of steady employment at the highest wages he’d ever made—sixty cents an hour—he job-hopped through the next several, going from factory to foundry to auto plant like a dollar from hand to hand. When the stock market crashed, so did the market for unskilled labor in Detroit. By 1929, Elijah and his wife, Clara, had five children, and soon after were among the first generation of Americans on public assistance. Idleness shamed and debilitated Elijah. For a while he was a stumble-down, gutter-crawling drunk. Sometimes, Clegg tells us, his wife Clara would have to “bring him in off the streets on her shoulders.”

In the fall of 1931 Elijah went to one of W.D. Fard’s meetings, and was smitten. Afterward, he approached Fard in a receiving line and caught his eye. “You are that one we read in the Bible that he would come in the last day under the name Jesus,” he said to Fard. “You are that one?” According to Elijah, Fard paused, looked deep into his eyes, smiled, and whispered to him in reply, “Yes, I am the One, but who knows that but yourself, and be quiet,” then touched his shoulder and gently pushed him away. Elijah was struck by this revelation with the force of a falling tree. From that moment on, he was a hope-to-die acolyte. Within a year, he had a new name—Elijah Karriem—and was appointed Supreme Minister. Elijah had been delivered by another’s grace into the presence of his main chance. He would seize it and hold on tightly for more than forty years. He can be forgiven for thinking he’d been fingered by God.

Fard was twice arrested in 1933, and banished from Detroit after a bizarre ritualistic killing by a deranged black man who claimed to be answering a call from “the Gods of Islam.” The newspapers, which conflated what they knew of Fard, Noble Drew Ali, and the killer’s confession into evidence of a “voodoo cult,” flogged the story into clamorous anti-Muslim public reaction. Faced with charges of disturbing the peace and the prospect of unceasing police pressure, Fard, who had taken the surname Muhammad and conferred it as well on his Supreme Minister, chose exile in Chicago over jail, designating Elijah as his successor. Fard’s leave-taking splintered his Detroit followers into acrimonious factions. The men who had taken up positions at “the Mahdi’s” right hand before Elijah-come-lately was even thought of bitterly opposed his ascension. Several left and took constituents with them.

The organizational disunity that followed Fard’s departure was beyond Elijah’s capacity to manage or repair. He held on to a core group of the steadfastly committed. Others he disparaged as “hypocrites.” But Detroit became so uncomfortable for him that he began to spend more of his time among loyalists in Chicago, where Fard completed his spiritual instruction by giving him a list of 104 books to read and a copy of the Koran with text in English and Arabic. Then, in 1934, he bestowed upon Elijah the title “Messenger of Allah,” boarded an airplane, and was gone for good.

They had only known each other for thirty months, but Fard left Elijah with the doctrinal and organizational blueprints for building an institution and a set of instructions. Elijah himself didn’t have the political wherewithal to build his Nation until the government of the United States made him a gift of it eight years later by locking him up for evading service in World War II, thus casting him as a martyr for the faith, and consolidating his claim on the loyalties of many of the erstwhile followers of the disappeared “second Jesus” who had been denying Elijah’s right of succession for more than a decade.


The Gordys came out on the other side of the Depression’s bleakest years doing a little better than making ends meet. “Pops” preached his dinner-table doctrine of do-for-self, but Bertha ran the family, and her daughters were its early-rising stars. Along with minding eight children and a grocery store, Mrs. Gordy managed to piece together a business degree at three colleges and start an insurance company; she and her first two daughters, Loucye and Esther, became business, club, and political women of high local influence. The younger girls, Gwen and Anna, were sort of working-class debutantes with an enterprising edge, first applied to the cigarette and picture-taking concessions at the Flame Show Bar.

As soon as the industrial mobilization for World War II began, waves of Southern whites were rolling into Detroit. By then, most of its black population had been there long enough to change from backward newcomers into old settlers disdainful of backward newcomers. Their scorn turned into rancor once it became clear that competition for jobs in the defense industries was stacked in favor of those they regarded as “white trash”; about a third of the nearly two hundred defense plants in and around Detroit were refusing to hire blacks. The black community’s dismay at being revisited by people and practices most came north to leave behind was hammered into resentment by the police department’s unbroken twenty-five-year habit of harassing and abusing black citizens. These combustible elements rubbed each other wrong until one day in June of 1943 when they ignited a race riot in which twenty-five black people were killed, seventeen by police. As the United States marshaled its forces against fascism on two fronts, and Elijah Muhammad prepared to go to jail for refusing to join them, thirty black Americans were killed that month, the victims of racial assaults. Elijah’s biographer notes that these events confirmed for him and his “small, but growing, following” that “at the end of the day, the white man, whether in Georgia, Detroit, Chicago, or Berlin, had nothing to offer but slavery and death.”

On his part Berry Jr. spent the war doing his best to dodge working for any of his father’s businesses, which he found disagreeably hard labor, admiring from afar the flash and cash that the captains of the numbers industry were brandishing on the city’s east side, and resolving to find ways to make enough money without having to conform to the dreary rituals of a nine-to-five job. Becoming a boxer was his first stab at a self-definition that was congenial with the sense of special purpose he drew from being a third son who was nonetheless a crown prince, having been anointed as bearer of the name his cherished father already shared with his revered grandfather, a Gordy household saint. At sixteen, short and slight—a featherweight—he quit school to fight for money.

His professional boxing career lasted two years and fifteen fights. He says in his memoirs that his better way came to him one night as he stood before a Duke Ellington poster affixed on a wall next to an advertisement for a local boxing card. It struck him then that the busiest fighters worked once a month and took punishment every day in between, while musicians, if they were any good, worked nearly every night; besides, “the fighters were about twenty-three but looked like fifty; [the musicians] were about fifty and looked twenty-three.” So Gordy, who had banged around a bit on his mother’s piano as a kid but really couldn’t play anything but a jukebox and the phonograph, decided to take up songwriting. First he wrote a radio jingle for the family print shop. Then he sent his first song to Doris Day; a few weeks later he got back an autographed picture.

In 1951, Gordy was drafted, right on time for the Korean War. He went armed with whatever protections a lifetime of his father’s homiletics afforded, and, he tells us, the cadences of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” beating away in his head. As with other young men on whom school had only landed a glancing blow, the army had an edifying effect. He came home with a high school equivalency diploma and the manner of a counterfeit college boy, professing his devotion to jazz as “the only pure music.” A few weeks after his discharge, he got married, went to work in his father’s plastering business, and tried to settle into being what he had always hated to think he might have to become.


Before the FBI found him wrapped in a carpet under a bed in his mother’s house in Chicago in 1942, Elijah Muhammad had been more or less on the run from his sectarian enemies for seven years; forced out of Chicago, he encamped in Washington, D.C., whence, in the disguise of a see-through alias, he preached a circuit of cities in the Northeast, gathering and tending new flocks. In his sermons, particularly those in Washington, where agents of government were sure to be paying attention, he talked “to the white man like the white man’s daddy,” excoriating the war and its racist prosecutors, the United States of white America, while extolling the Japanese as potential liberators and expressing his hope that they would win. A deliberate man, conservative and cautious, whose long beleaguerment had engendered a sense of persecution he kept honed to the fine edge of paranoia, Elijah must have known he was throwing bricks at the jailhouse door.

The FBI reacted to his provocations by making Elijah a public enemy, then rousted out of their homes and temples all the Muslims it could find without looking too hard, arresting sixty-five it thought likely to be eligible for the draft. The government satisfied its need to keep Elijah out of earshot until the war was over by sending him away on the draft violation for what turned out to be three years. He sat out the war in a medium-security federal facility in Milan, Michigan, proselytizing inmates and ministering to a small circle of the imprisoned faithful, while issuing directives through Clara to the shards of the community the FBI left behind. Temple #1 in Detroit was down to thirty-five congregants, nearly all women and children; the new mother church, Temple #2 in Chicago, was reduced to holding services in members’ homes.

But as soon as the war ended, those who had been jailed on draft-related charges trickled back into temple life and began to rebuild. At Elijah’s behest, some pooled their resources, bought a 140-acre farm in Michigan, and started to raise cattle. Late in August of 1946, Elijah Muhammad, forty-eight, walked out of prison after four years in the dark, alone and ungreeted. He didn’t know it yet, but he was a made man.

His arrest had galvanized Muslims as his presence among them never could. They saw his prosecution as persecution like that Jesus had suffered for castigating the Jews. His real offense was preaching the Nation’s creed. So whatever Elijah was guilty of they must all be guilty of, and by going to prison he had subjected himself to the “torments of the devil” to honor their shared convictions. This confirmed for them his place in the lineage of prophets, and enshrined his name in Muslim hagiography. Thereafter, Elijah Muhammad would be their “little lamb,” the saintly “Messenger of Allah.” For the first time he had the stature and authority to run the organization Fard had bequeathed to him. Now he had to build it.

Elijah had had a couple of insights while he was locked up that were the basis of a recruitment strategy, he later recalled: the radio, which had taken him to a president’s fireside while he sat alone in his cell, would be the most effective way to broadly advertise his message; and prisons were potentially rich fishing grounds for converts. Henceforth, bringing in new members would have the highest priority. When they arrived, they would be leaned on heavily for financial support, as many as ten contributions every week to various projects and funds.

He needed money; a despised people had to be economically self-sufficient. Returning to Chicago, Elijah supervised the first Muslim small businesses: a grocery store, a restaurant, and a bakery. They were heavily dependent on the volunteer labor and dutiful patronage of the faithful. When he wasn’t baking and butchering, his ecclesiastical rhetoric was skewing toward the economic self-determinist, black man’s heaven-right-here-on-earth elements of Fardian doctrine. He was transforming believers into a clientele.

By 1952, the Chicago temple and its associated businesses employed forty-five people. Elijah’s estimated net worth was $75,000, not including his house or other real estate owned by his church but controlled by him. His annual income was $25,000, derived mostly from donations and sales receipts. This was roughly the contemporary equivalent of the price of a house on an acre of land in one of America’s tonier suburbs, and it was a product of the extraordinary diligence and charity of a little more than three hundred people.

The members of Chicago’s Temple #2 were all that Elijah Poole had been: unskilled migrants from the South, uneducated past eighth grade, employed as bellboys, factory workers, laundresses, laborers, and domestic help. The upright Muslim laity, who forswore bad habits, were always polite, industrious, well groomed, and neatly attired, and could get jobs when other African-Americans couldn’t. Thus they became the medium of an unprecedented transfer of wealth from their white employers into the treasury of an indigenous black institution, and established a tradition wherein, as Clegg puts it, “Muslims purchased and gave freely, and…the[ir] leadership sold and received freely,” which would make Elijah Muhammad wealthy and his nepotistic inner circle “n[egro] rich.”

1952 was the year a convicted burglar, who had followed his two older brothers into the Nation while he was for six years in a Massachusetts jail, came to Chicago to meet the man he thought of as his spiritual father and felt he already knew from the letters they had been regularly exchanging. Elijah Muhammad embraced him when he got there, doted on him and kept him close, trained him as a minister, then twice dispatched him to invigorate lagging eastern territories. He was so productive in this work, and so quickly, that Elijah promoted him over many more experienced others, then sent him off to colonize the imperial city. “There’s gold in New York,” Elijah told the younger man, who struck a lode there so deep and wide he minted the Nation of Islam’s gilded age of influence and spread in the late Fifties and Sixties.

Malcolm X would become the public face of the Nation of Islam, a walking, talking billboard for its power to uplift and redeem. Because Elijah stayed away from the general public and Malcolm spent so much of the time he was under its gaze reflexively attributing most of what he was, said, thought, or did to his master’s influence, teachings, or saving grace, he more or less created Elijah Muhammad in the minds of most contemporary Americans. For him, Elijah had “the power of the sun.”


Detroit in the early Fifties was experiencing the first flowering of the arts among the children of its black immigrants; its nightspots were the workshops then of more than a dozen men and women who were preparing to go to New York and become stars of jazz. Berry Gordy Jr., eager to shuck off his father’s gentle but insistent yoke, persuaded his brother to become his partner in a record store that sold only classical jazz in a neighborhood that was only buying rhythm and blues. He held out, true to the orthodoxies of his own taste and unyielding to his customers’ desires, long enough to go broke. This failure was the purchase price of all the practical education he would ever need about the perils of mixing romance with finance. But with two children by 1955, and a foundering marriage, it left him with no alternative to an eighty-six-dollar-a-week job nailing upholstery to car seats in a Ford Motors plant.

Gordy worked days and networked by night in Detroit’s choicest venue for brand-name black entertainment, the Flame Show Bar, where his sisters by then had the photography concessions. The Flame’s proprietor was a man named Al Green, a paint manufacturer who went into the recording business after the war so that he could move more shellac, the primary stuff of which phonograph records were made in those days. He also managed the careers of Johnnie Ray, a white boy with a freaky style who was Detroit’s gaudiest pop singing star in the early Fifties, and the extravagantly talented Jackie Wilson, plucked from a singing group, who was about to supplant him, and, in the process, change Gordy’s life.

Al Green was exemplary of what white people of relatively minor means could accomplish by selling black music before white people were paying attention. Mom and pop storekeepers, rack jobbers, and song peddlers, alive to an unmet market demand in America’s cities after the war, began making records to enliven their more permanent commercial interests. Not many of them cared much about the music, or the people who made it, or the people who bought it. Some were white retailers of black music in black neighborhoods, whose disdain for their clientele had been hardened by the ease with which they induced people too poor to have discretionary income to make one last purchase with the money they had put aside for carfare home. Most thought their customers would buy anything, as long as it was of a certain type. They were selling a product they never would have brought into their own homes; thus they had no urge to improve it.

At first, this new, wildcatting class of record entrepreneurs was beneath the attention of its social betters, the oligarchs of the music business establishment. The atmosphere around them was overheated by feverish commercial thuggery; their practices routinely included the extortion of publishing rights to songs as the price of getting them recorded, and pilfering writers’ credits to jack up their take of the royalties on every record they sold. Small-label owners were squeezed between suppliers demanding to be paid on time and distributors disinclined to pay a company for one record until it released another one they needed to stock. Moreover, sudden success could have deadly consequences: small companies often choked on their first hit records by being forced to lay out cash to get the records pressed and shipped, while their distributors withheld payment as long as possible.

Occasionally, black enterprisers shouldered their way into the rough new trade of catering to the appetites of transplanted African-Americans for what was still familiar from the old places, where lifelong habits of outlook and taste had been formed. Before Gordy, the most successful had been a married couple, Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken. She was a radio announcer in Gary, Indiana; he traded on her local renown by opening a record store which bore her name. They moved into Chicago and started VeeJay Records. They employed a roster of contract players of styles so various that their sheer eclecticism made an advantage of the public’s haphazard buying behavior during the several years between the end of one musical era and the beginning of the next. The Brackens were passive stewards, but under the direction of Ewart Abner and the deft judgment of Calvin Carter about artists and their repertoires, Veejay Records outgrew its appointed place in the rigidly segregated music business of that time.

In 1955, when records were still being sold mostly to adults, black popular music—“rhythm and blues”—accounted for less than 8 percent of the industry’s revenues. The six companies that shared most of the market systematically expropriated income from black performers and from small-label owners by selling note-for-note copies by white singers of rhythm-and-blues originals. These “cover versions” made the likes of Pat Boone suddenly rich and briefly famous. It was still impractical for any black artist working in an authentic black style to aspire to sell his wares in the vastly richer “general” marketplace. That changed in 1956, the year of Elvis Presley’s advent. Overall record sales that year increased by $100 million; a younger generation overran the marketplace so suddenly that the record industry hadn’t yet gotten around to considering it a legitimate market segment.

Abetted by Top 40 radio formats that ruthlessly circumscribed their listeners’ universe, popular music was being permanently bent to the disposition of the young. Old lions of the music business establishment like Mitch Miller of Columbia Records groused about the disproportionate influence being exerted on his industry by kids, whose purchasing power was relatively small; he spoke for institutional interests that were threatened by independent operators who controlled more than their share of the raw materials being used to make the music kids were buying so avidly. The forces were aligning for another cyclical skirmish in America’s long-playing race-based culture wars; in the late Fifties preachers and police chiefs and politicians began decrying the debilitating effects of “jungle music” on the character of American youth.

In 1956, Sam Cooke learned how to overcome the deficit of being a grown-up black male well enough to become an acceptable object of the abstracted desires of pubescent white girls. This feat required a kind of brain surgery, to rewire the circuitry in the imaginations of a whole class of consumers, so that when they heard his voice and closed their eyes the twinned demons of race and sex never came unloosed. Creating a black teen idol for the general audience required crossing over more than the boundaries of a segregated marketplace. From then on, for the most ambitious among subsequent generations of black entrepreneurs in the popular music business, figuring out how to cross those boundaries would become the equivalent to unraveling the mysteries of DNA.

VeeJay succeeded at something less complicated than crossing boundaries—a kind of cultural cleansing. It used storebought songs and arrangements from New York’s pop music mills to whiten its presentation of unambiguously black performers. Later, it became the only black record company ever to release original recordings by a major white act—the Four Seasons—and, under terms of a leasing agreement with the British company EMI, introduced the Beatles to the American market.

VeeJay made lots of money—$15 million in 1963 alone—and moved from Chicago to California, where it spent money so recklessly that by 1967 it succumbed to the thousand cuts inflicted in its defense of sixty-nine lawsuits. The Brackens, Abner, and the mostly white lawyers, accountants, and managers brought in to save the company after Abner left stole, gambled away, and squandered the money on lavish offices and bad deals faster than even Beatles records could bring it in. The Brackens divorced. She ended up back on Indiana’s airwaves. When he died in 1972, the year Motown moved to California and made Ewart Abner its president, Jimmy Bracken was back in Gary, peddling records out of a hole in the wall.

Berry Gordy Jr. quit his job at Ford and cultivated Al Green and his young, mob-wired assistant, Nat Tarnopol, to get his songs into Jackie Wilson’s golden throat. Gordy co-wrote three big pop hits for Wilson in 1956 and 1957. This certified Gordy as a professional and secured his position at the elbow of a star, but left him as broke as before. Even after he received his thousand-dollar royalty check, a year late, for the latest and largest of these commercial triumphs—a song called “Lonely Teardrops”—he figured he was making about $27.50 a week at his full-time self-employment in the music business.

This was the first of several cycles in the singer’s long career, the radiant false spring of his early rock-and-roll stardom. Wilson weathered better in other, older demographic regions: his act was never really suitable for the consumption of children. Another former boxer, as physical as a predatory cat, Wilson had a sexual swagger that was unabashed. His supple, operatic tenor, however casually developed and indifferently maintained, was an instrument routinely capable of making men quiver and women quake:

No one could approach the electric, kinetic excitement that Wilson created on stage. He’d spin around and then slide down into a split,… jump up in the air, drop the mike and grab it just before it hit the stage, finally climaxing the song as he fell to his knees, begging.

Like other black entertainers of his generation, Wilson had apprenticed in the old show business, so that certain of his vocal mannerisms suggested Al Jolson, and the style of celebrity he chose was a version of Errol Flynn’s. The second Mrs. Gordy, Raynoma, recalled a visit in 1958 from Wilson and his entourage:

When Jackie strutted into the house that morning, the place stopped. What a sight: his perfected ‘do and his shimmering shirt unbuttoned to the navel. Diamond rings and gold chains. Major flash and personality…. Jackie never went anywhere without makeup. His was thick pancake foundation with eyeliner and rouge; maybe a touch of lipstick…. There was something both ludicrous and then completely appropriate about it, a way to call attention to [himself] as [a] star….

Gordy and Wilson would never again work together—the singer’s lifelong contractual indenture to another label precluded that—but forever after Jackie Wilson was the talent standard against which Gordy measured, and always found wanting, every other male performer he ever worked with. Gordy was starstruck, but not enough to keep sharecropping on Nat Tarnopol’s plantation. In his characteristic way he converted disappointments into business axioms: to make money at music, he had to control the means of production; and, if performance was an inherently unstable variable in the making of a hit record, he had to exert as much control as he could over everything else.

Within four years of his beginning in 1956 as a struggling supplier of songs, the rawest material of the record business, Gordy would become one of its franchise holders: first as an independent producer selling records he made on his own to companies with the wherewithal to put them out, then running a start-up label that released records in Detroit and sold to bigger companies the rights to distribute them everywhere else, and finally by presiding over an operation that managed every facet of its business. All this resulted less from deliberate calculation than from a sequence of one thing leading to another toward an inescapable conclusion: he had to master the music industry to protect himself from it.

Every step up this ladder was an act of self-defense for Gordy. The ruthless nature of the business conspired at every turn to cheat him out of even the small successes that would have made it easier for him to keep going. He was a songwriter, so producing records seemed the most straightforward way of ensuring that his songs were done the way he wanted, and that he would be paid fairly for them; but then he got a $3.19 royalty check for being the producer of a record he’d made and sold to a label in New York. He knew he had to find the means to become the property of himself. He had no alternative but to go to his family. The $800 Berry succeeded in borrowing from them required him both to account to his formidable elder sister for how little his life so far had amounted to and to use his future royalties as collateral.

At its inception Motown was literally a cottage industry, with Berry and Raynoma working out of their apartment, where they set up the equivalent of a vanity press for aspiring amateurs willing to pay $100 to have demonstration records made of their songs, or to record themselves with professional accoutrements. By 1959 they were at the center of a small circle of the singers and musicians who would be integral to Motown’s original corps, and who had about them when they all began the innocent aspect of teenagers in a Deanna Durbin movie who spruce up the barn and put on a show.

Raynoma, something of a prodigy, had elaborated on her high school training well enough to be able to score and arrange music to a professional standard. She organized the talent Berry brought in, helped him shape songs and singers, and ran their fledgling business while he was out trying to make deals. In 1959, a record Gordy produced and sold to United Artists called “You Got What It Takes” and another, called “Money (That’s What I Want)” and released on his sister Gwen’s label, Anna Records, became nationwide hits. And so Gordy’s upstart crew beheld this shiny success with wonder, surprised that something of their homely design could find enough favor in the wider world to make them a little famous, at least in Detroit.

Gordy moved his company into a two-family house in a residential neighborhood on the city’s west side. He and Raynoma lived upstairs. A sign was mounted across the front, above a large bay window, grandly proclaiming “Hitsville, USA.” The recording studio inside was cobbled together under “Pops” Gordy’s supervision from scrounged materials and secondhand equipment. Gordy incorporated himself as a one-stop show business conglomerate, forming, simultaneously, Jobete Music Publishing, Berry Gordy Jr. Enterprises, the Motown Record Corporation, and International Talent Management, Inc. He named his first label Tamla, after the title of a Debbie Reynolds movie popular then with teenage girls.

By this time Detroit had grown up into a city with half a million black residents. It was teeming with unharnessed young talent. As Mary Wells, Gordy’s first female star, put it, “Before Motown, there were three careers available to a black girl in Detroit—babies, the factories or daywork….” The city never had much organized recording activity. Gordy knew that if he built it, they would surely come.


At fifty-two, Elijah Muhammad, the convicted anti-American, was living an American dream. He stepped out of a jail cell in 1946 and five years later he walked into nineteen rooms of house in the Woodlawn section of Chicago, transported out of nearly a half-century of penury into the upper middle class on the backs of the cheerful givers and spenders in his burgeoning rank and file. By the early Fifties he was extending his reach, and his acquired taste for comfort was causing him to widen and tighten his grasp. He set out to make Chicago the model city of the Nation’s economic program. The Chicago group bought real estate and spun off small businesses throughout the Fifties and, since they had a captive market of thousands offollowers, they were profitable, worth about $400,000 in 1958.

For his part, Elijah took no salary—a tax dodge—but used as his bank account the Nation’s Poor Treasury, funded entirely by the donations of members. This was a prerogative he exercised for the rest of life and extended as well to most of his family. In 1958, Elijah began converting assets held by the temple into his own—three residences, the farm in Michigan, and two of the local businesses in Chicago. Actually, he controlled and benefited from most of the enterprises that he or his family or their proxies didn’t own, particularly when the Nation began to do business on a national scale. Five years later, Clegg discloses, Elijah told his tax lawyer, “You see we run it and we are just using [the organization’s name] as a trade name.” The economic program Elijah practiced was monopoly capitalism.

He preached thrift to his followers. “If you must have a car,” he counseled, “buy the low-priced car, or a rich man’s used car, and not his used Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces.” Elijah bought his first Cadillac, new, in 1955; bought another for Clara in 1956, and changed Cadillacs almost every year through 1959, when he switched to Lincolns. His son-in-law, Supreme Captain Raymond Sharrieff, national commander of the organization’s internal police force, the Fruit of Islam, started driving used Cadillacs at about the same time, taking care to keep a respectful one-model-year lag between his and the Messenger’s. This made him the Typhoid Mary of the avarice that would infect those closest to Elijah and, over time, metastasize into full-blown corruption.

Malcolm X was appointed the organization’s national spokesman in 1956, a kind of senior vice president for marketing and sales. He was the catalyst for the elements in the chemistry that caused the Nation’s influence and visibility to grow. One of the elements in that chemistry was the repressive white reaction in the South to the opening chapters of the civil rights struggle, which had begun to be conveyed nightly by television news into living rooms across America. As the intransigence of the white players in this unfolding drama began to be expressed in acts of savagery, the Fardian formulation about white people’s innately evil nature began to seem more plausible to many black Americans. Meeting these assaults with unyielding passivity may have been a brilliant long-term strategy for softening enough white hearts to ultimately assure the passage of federal civil rights legislation, but it also helped to create a receptive black audience for Malcolm’s withering public scorn for nonviolence, its adherents in the Afro-Christian church establishment, and his advocacy of armed self-defense.

While media attention on the South made it easy to mistake the Southern Negro for the whole of his tribe, by mid-century most African-Americans were living in cities, where they were becoming younger and angrier. When they met, one of the first things Elijah told the twenty-eight-year-old Malcolm was that he felt the Nation would find its future among the young. In his time, Malcolm would recast the face of the Nation in more ways than one. By 1960, a couple of years before its enrollment crested at about 20,000,1 the Nation’s membership was predominantly male, and mostly between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five. Its strongest appeal was among the disaffected children of the disappointed migrant generation in which it had first taken root.

While Malcolm’s star was being hung, Elijah was receding farther away from the eye of any public wider than his own. Malcolm was better suited to the work of these times. Elijah was television-unfriendly: an unprepossessing five and a half feet tall, chronically beset by bronchial asthma, a deliberate, sometimes stumbling speaker with an oral delivery at least one auditor described as “barely literate.” But Malcolm was out there hard-selling “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad” and the less Elijah was seen the larger he got. When Elijah showed himself again, on a speaking tour of several cities in 1958 and 1959, the effectiveness of Malcolm’s work was evident: audiences of 13,000 in New York and 10,000 in Washington, D.C., where he was handled and secured as if he were a visiting head of state.

As Elijah’s enterprise grew, it inevitably became more bureaucratic. By 1959, Chicago was the administrative hub, the home office, of a business with thirty franchises in fifteen states. Elijah ran it absolutely but indirectly, through a tight circle of those he trusted enough to be his intermediaries. He was a man whose nature would have inclined him to keep his money under a mattress or buried in his yard had he not gotten so much of it in the middle of his life that he had to put it into real estate. And so he was easily moved by Malcolm’s suggestion that he ought to place his family in the organization’s most sensitive jobs. Although Elijah was never unduly sanguine about his children’s abilities or those of anyone they married, with something to protect for the first time in his life he instinctively chose obedience and discretion over competence. His inner circle was on its way to becoming “the royal family.”

The Nation of Islam turned the corner on its era of greatest influence in 1959, when a television documentary intended to make it infamous gave it celebrity. Starring Malcolm X, with a cameo appearance by Elijah Muhammad, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” written by Louis Lomax and Mike Wallace and broadcast as a five-part series in New York, was hostile and inflammatory. It invoked the specter of a quarter million Black Muslims mobilizing for a racial Armageddon. The program provoked a reaction like Detroit’s to the “voodoo cult” alarm in the Thirties, on a bigger and broader scale. It was rebroadcast in other parts of the country. Negative stories followed in Time magazine and US News & World Report; the Nation of Islam had become a media-certified national phenomenon.

The rebukes and disavowals of the African-American establishment followed. Actually, the larger the shadow the Muslims cast from their corner of the race debate, the better it served the interests of the black civil rights advocates who were in the middle of it, since it made them seem to white people so much the preferable alternative. Conversely, attacks on the Muslims by the assimilationist black leadership for espousing separate social and economic development, and repudiating integration, made the Nation of Islam more attractive to members of the sizable black outcast class, who didn’t have money to go where they were theoretically allowed and didn’t care much about voting because they thought they already knew they would never be considered assimilable by white American society, and had given up trying to be.

The public controversy engendered by “The Hate That Hate Produced” was also good for business. By the end of 1959, six months after it aired, the Nation had established twenty new temples and moved into seven more states. The following year, the first edition of the Muslim newspaper was distributed nationally. By 1962, 120 radio stations were carrying Elijah Muhammad’s half-hour sermons every Sunday.

It might have surprised white Americans, who were just beginning to get used to Negroes as polite, if insistent, petitioners for the full benefits of citizenship, to learn that what scared and offended them most about what they had heard of Black Muslim belief—the characterization of whites as a race of devils—was not a position that would seem nearly as extreme to their black countrymen, inasmuch as it was based on an ingrained cultural assumption. As the ethnographer Daryl Cumber Dance noted twenty years ago,

…The white devil in Black folklore remains the cruel, racist white,…the harsh slave master, the unfeeling white boss, the brutal… sheriff, the unjust white judge, and the ordinary, all-American, white Christian who visits all manner of persecution onto his Black brother. 2

In the America of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Islam was still among what Lenny Bruce was calling “those non-scheduled theologies,” and Americans were acculturated in their schools and churches to think of it as expressly antagonistic to the Euro-Christian enterprise. The conjunction of Islam with a “black supremacy cult” would have further convinced most white Americans that black Islamism was both sordid and alien.

The Nation wore its social stigmata as the badge of an alternative national identity. This was one basis of the appeal it had for African-Americans who were inclined to look at their possibilities as a glass half empty. For the pessimist about race relations in this country, who viewed the past behavior of Euro-Americans as a prologue, the secular elements of the Muslim program, which were concerned with developing separate social and economic institutions in the black community, and insulating it against the demoralizing effects of American popular culture, would seem not only reasonable but appropriate.

The chance to affiliate with an institution that repudiated the traditions of a society that seemed organized against the interests of its black citizens was incentive enough for some to join the Nation who might not otherwise have overcome their queasiness about its doctrinal exoticisms: the man-worship, junk history, and millenarian science fiction. Those who converted were enfolded in the womb of a self-isolating community. The regulating effects of prescriptive religious practices on chaotic lives are underestimated factors in the appeal they seem to have for the poor and the dislocated, or others whose existence is ungoverned by the stabilizing rhythms of the workaday. Familiarity is a last refuge of the lost. The Nation was an enclave culture, wherein rules of membership, conduct, dress and diet, roles, obligations, decisions, and beliefs were unambiguous. All of life that mattered was inside; anything beyond was the grave.

—This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

May 20, 1999