Before the popularity of Black-owned music labels, a few high-spirited individuals were the first to embark on owning their own. In the most turbulent of times and in the most unlikely of places, these Black record producers changed the course of music history. Berry Gordy, Curtis Mayfield, and Sylvia Robinson present compelling stories in Black music and entrepreneurship. Here’s a primer on how the early pioneers got their start and solidified themselves as legends.
Berry Gordy, Motown Records
When people think “top music executive,” Berry Gordy is the man. As the founder of Motown Records, he orchestrated arguably the most iconic period of black music.
From an early age, Gordy sought a position in the music business, starting out as the owner of a fledgling record shop and thereafter as a songwriter. When he discovered the musical talents of a young Smokey Robinson, he quickly borrowed the capital to start Tamla Records in Detroit, MI. In 1960 that name was then incorporated into Motown, as Gordy built a portfolio of successful artists. Stand out acts included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, and the Jackson 5.
The independently-owned label became a major national and international success. He carefully crafted artists’ public image and a signature smooth sound. During the height of the Civil Rights era, Gordy achieved crossover success–which was truly unique as African Americans encountered racial discrimination. But both Black and white audiences listened to Motown music, dubbed “The Sound of Young America.”
Curtis Mayfield, Curtom Records
While Gordy was in Detroit, across Lake Michigan, there lived a man with musical genius that would ultimately ‘rock and roll’ the music industry.
Curtis Mayfield was an industry regular since age eight, when he taught himself the guitar and toured with a local Chicago, IL gospel outfit. He followed with forming the group the Impressions as a teen, scoring a surprise Top 10 single in 1958 with “For Your Precious Love.” Before leaving the Impressions and becoming a solo artist, he contributed several songs including “Keep On Pushing” and “Move On Up,” distinct for becoming rallying cries of the Civil Rights Movement.
Mayfield also had a fierce desire to own himself, growing up in the impoverished Chicago projects. It propelled him to found two independent labels, Windy C and Curtom. Through the latter he released the soundtrack to the Blaxploitation film Super Fly, which was noted for lyrics pertaining to social justice issues. Mayfield had the uncanny ability to capitalize on the music he created and set it apart from the norm.
Sylvia Robinson, Sugar Hill Records
Sylvia Robinson’s path similarly followed the others, starting in the music business early as artist Little Sylvia. As time waged on in the biz, she experienced betrayal and slights as a performer and songwriter, not receiving credit for two smash hits. Disillusioned, she took a brief break from the industry to raise her children in Englewood, NJ.
Ironically, her earlier industry disappointments would follow her into a subsequent business partnership with husband Joe. Together, they started All Platinum Records, but only produced mildly successful work before running into legal problems that caused it to collapse.
Then, there was a chance trip in Harlem, where she heard the inklings of what was already an underground cultural phenomenon: hip-hop. Robinson immediately recognized the commercial potential. She rounded up a group of ragtag amateur spitters culminating in the production and release of “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 by The Sugar Hill Gang. It was this “little” woman who engineered rap’s formal introduction into the mainstream, setting into motion the rap and hip-hop genre that we know of today.
All three of these ingenuities speak to the need to be persistent when the odds are stacked up against you. Starting their record labels when they did, they had to confront racial discrimination and being largely ignored by the white establishment of that time.
Through their stories we can be encouraged to be the boss in our own lives, whether through entrepreneurship or other independent action. Hold steadfast to the vision and keep moving along through the dark or unreasonably times.
These stories are the ones you will find sprawled across the galleries of the new National Museum of African American Music opening in September in Nashville, TN. We invite you in, to take a trip back down memory lane, discover new aspects of one of our most revered art forms, and never stop moving to the tunes that carry us through our daily lives.
Carlyn Pounders is a journalist who writes about art and technology. Find her on Twitter @CarlynTechTalk.