Gordy, Jr. was the seventh of eight children born to the middle class family of Berry Gordy II (a.k.a. Berry Gordy, Sr.) and Bertha Fuller Gordy, who had relocated to Detroit from Milledgeville, Georgia in 1922. Gordy was brought up in a tight-knit family with strong morals. His siblings were Esther, Anna (born 1922), Bertha, Gwen, Louyce, and Robert L. Gordy (born 1931). They were all born in Detroit, Michigan.
Berry Gordy II (1888–1978) was the son of Berry Gordy I and a woman named Lucy. Berry Gordy I was the son of James Thomas Gordy, a white farmer, and a female slave in Georgia. This James Thomas Gordy (1828–1889) was also, by his wife Harriet Emily Helms, the great-grandfather of James Earl Carter, Jr., the 39th President of the United States, making Berry Gordy III and Jimmy Carter second half-cousins. It is also through James Thomas Gordy (and James' great-grandfather Andreas Presley) that Berry Gordy and Jimmy Carter were sixth cousins to Elvis Presley.
Berry Gordy II was lured to Detroit by the many job opportunities for blacks that booming automotive businesses like Ford offered.
Berry Gordy, Jr's older siblings were all prominent black citizens of Detroit. Berry, however, dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to become a professional boxer in hopes of becoming rich quick, a career he followed until 1950 when he was drafted by the United States Army for the Korean war.
After his return from Korea in 1953, he married Thelma Coleman. He developed his interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record store featuring jazz music. The store was unsuccessful and Gordy sought work at the Lincoln-Mercury plant, but his family connections put him in touch with Al Green, owner of the Flame Show Bar talent club, where he met singer Jackie Wilson.
In 1957, Wilson recorded Reet Petite, a song Gordy had co-written with his sister Gwen and writer-producer Billy Davis. It became a modest hit but had more success internationally, especially in the UK where it reached the Top 10 and even later topped the chart on re-issue in 1986. Wilson recorded four more songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years, including "Lonely Teardrops", which topped the R & B charts and got to number 7 in the pop chart.
Gordy did not cultivate Caucasian artists, although some white artists were signed, such as Nick and the Jaguars, Rare Earth, The Valadiers, Debbie Dean and Connie Vandyke. He also employed several white workers and managers at the company's headquarters named Hitsville USA on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard. He largely promoted African-American artists but carefully controlled their public image, dress, manners and choreography for across-the-board appeal.
His gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent, along with the careful management of his artists' public image, made Motown initially a major national and then international success. Over the next decade, he signed such artists as Mary Wells, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Pips, The Commodores, The Velvelettes, Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5.
In 1968, Gordy moved to Los Angeles, California, and expanded Motown's offices there, following the riots in Detroit. In June 1972, he relocated the entire Motown Records company to LA, closing the Hitsville studios which had produced a long string of worldwide hits. The following year, he reorganized the company into Motown Industries, an entertainment conglomerate that would include record, movie, television and publishing divisions.
In the '70s, Gordy produced the successful film Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross. The film also starred Richard Pryor, and introduced Billy Dee Williams. The studio rejected Williams after several screen tests, but Gordy, known for his gut-feeling tenacity, won out. Williams became a star and Ross was nominated for an Academy Award. (Williams would also go on to portray Gordy in the 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream.) Berry Gordy soon after produced and directed Mahogany, also starring Diana Ross. In 1985, he produced the cult martial arts film The Last Dragon, which starred martial artist Taimak and one of Prince's girls Vanity.
Although Motown continued to produce major hits throughout the 70s and 80s by artists like the Jacksons, Rick James, Lionel Richie and long-term signings, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the record company was no longer the major force it had been previously.Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures on June 28, 1988 for $61 million. He also later sold most of his interests in the Jobete publishing concern to EMI Publishing.
Gordy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and published an autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994. The character Curtis Taylor, Jr. in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls (and its film adaptation) is loosely based upon Gordy and his dealing with The Supremes.
Rhonda Ross Kendrick is the daughter of Gordy and his most successful female Motown artist, Diana Ross, with whom he had a five year relationship. Kennedy Gordy is the son of Berry Gordy and Berry's ex-girlfriend Margaret Norton. Kennedy is better known as the Motown musician Rockwell. Gordy's daughter Hazel was once married to Jermaine Jackson. He recently bought a retirement home in Palm Desert, California.
Gordy was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1998.