Berry Gordy III (also known as Berry Gordy Jr.) was the seventh of eight children (Fuller, Esther, Anna, Loucye, George, Gwen, Berry and Robert), born on November 28, 1929 in Detroit, to the middle-class family of Berry Gordy II (also known as Berry Gordy Sr.), who had relocated to Detroit from Oconee in Washington County, Georgia, in 1922. His grandfather, named Berry Gordy I, was the son of James Gordy, a white plantation owner in Georgia, and his female slave. His half-brother, James (Son of the elder James and his legal wife), was the grandfather of President Jimmy Carter. Berry Gordy II was lured to Detroit by the job opportunities for black people offered by the booming automotive businesses. Gordy dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to become a professional boxer in hopes of becoming rich quickly; he boxed professionally until 1950, when he was drafted by the United States Army for service in the Korean War. Arriving in Korea in May 1952, Gordy was first assigned to the 58th Field Artillery Bn., 3rd Inf. Div., near Panmunjom. He later became a chaplain’s assistant, driving a jeep and playing the organ at religious services at the front. His tour in the Korean War was completed in April 1953.
After his return from Korea in 1953, he married Thelma Coleman. Gordy Jr. developed his interest in music by writing songs and opening the 3-D Record Mart, a record store featuring jazz music and 3-D glasses. The store was unsuccessful, and Gordy sought work at the Lincoln-Mercury plant, but his family connections put him in touch with Al Green (no relation to the singer Reverend Al Green), owner of the Flame Show Bar Talent Club, where he met the 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 six 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. The Gordy siblings and Davis also wrote “All I Could Do Was Cry” for Etta James at Chess Records.