Berry Gordy was a man with a mission: he wanted to prove that a black-owned record company could be as big and successful as any other business in the music industry. But was this spectacularly successful capitalist only interested in profit? Certainly, Gordy proved that black songwriters and artists deserved a place at the top of the pop pantheon. He proved that a record label could develop a specific sound and score hit after hit. He proved that soul music could remain eternally youthful and popular. But his contribution to African-American history was not purely symbolic. He also made a positive contribution. It took him some time to do it, and he worried that it would harm the commercial side of his enterprise, but in 1970 he launched Black Forum, a label designed to put the civil-rights era on vinyl; a permanent record (literally) of the black struggle.
The sound of new black poets in young America
Black Forum opened its account with an album of a speech from the late Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam, recorded in April 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. With a striking drawing on the sleeve depicting a stern Dr King in front of black soldiers, and the words “Black Forum” displayed prominently on the right (a design feature maintained for the imprint’s first three releases), it left prospective buyers in no doubt about what they’d be getting. The album won a Grammy Award in 1971 for Best Spoken Word Album – Motown’s only winner that year and only the parent company’s second Grammy ever (after The Temptations scored their first). It’s good to attract attention early, but in terms of profile, the award marked Black Forum’s peak.