Raynoma Gordy’s voice is hardly distinguishable as a background singer on Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” an early recording that helped launch the Motown sound. Similarly, her place in the story of Motown is obscured; she is a blip, a single footnote if mentioned at all. But given how indispensable she was at the start of the Motown empire, particularly as Berry Gordy Jr.’s second wife, more needs to be said about this phenomenal woman, which she finally did in her memoir, “Berry, Me and Motown: The Untold Story” (1990).
In her book, Singleton explained why she had to write it: “I just needed to be recognized. In 30 years I never got a chance to tell Berry how I felt or what I’d been through.”
What she’d gone through was heartbreak, false promises and a distrust that haunted until her last days. It all ended so badly for such a promising beginning in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“The book is hot,” she said during an interview upon publication. “But it’s not based on gossip or vendetta. It is the real inside, untold Motown story. I knew when I wrote the book that I would have to tell it like it was.”
She said that after the book came out, Gordy called her asking her to work with him on his memoir. “Could you imagine me writing some whitewash [expletive] with him?” she said. “There’s no way he could admit to the things I’ve written about. He wanted it to go down as a fairy tale, all beautiful and fabulous. It was a phenomenon, but Motown was triumph and tragedy.”
Born Raynoma Mayberry, March 8, 1937, in Detroit, Singleton was the daughter of a father who was a janitor at an automobile plant and a mother who encouraged her God-given musical gifts. She attended the prestigious Cass Technical High School, where she learned to play 11 instruments, all of which complemented her perfect pitch.
It was these abilities, along with her striking beauty, that attracted Gordy to her in 1958. By then she was recovering from a failed marriage, had one son and was sorely in need of emotional and financial reassurance. She and Gordy married after merging their musical dreams, and together assembled the first pieces of an empire that she would only minimally share.
She was an all-purpose cog at their burgeoning record label, as a backup singer, arranger and teacher—she gave Smokey Robinson and others their basic lessons in music theory. When Gordy needed someone to locate a place to establish the business that became Motown records and Hitsville, she was the source, and she would do the same thing in expanding the company to New York City.
But by 1964, their marriage was over and so was her connection to the empire. The work she did to secure contracts for Stevie Wonder and other acts was soon overshadowed by her indiscretion. While heading the New York office of the company, she unwisely bootlegged 5,000 copies of Mary Wells’ hit “My Guy.” To avoid prosecution, she agreed to a settlement and signed a release from Motown for $10,000 and alimony for the child she had with Gordy. Most significantly, her name was expunged from any future profits from Jobete Music, the company’s publisher.
“I trusted him,” she told a reporter. “Motown was built on faith and trust and loyalty. It was a family. He also promised that he would always take care of me. I kept hearing that and hearing that. It should’ve been the name of the book.
“When I first met him,” she added, “I thought he was a sweet, sensitive guy. Obviously inside he was pretty hard core, insensitive and, to me, totally negligent.”
In 1966, she married musician Eddie Singleton and together they started a record company that never gained traction. She blamed the failure on the far-reaching influence of Gordy. “He had a lot of clout with people we had to deal with when we were starting up,” she wrote.
A year later, she was back at Motown. Once more a marriage had failed and she was again under the thumb of Gordy, this time as a personal assistant to Diana Ross. This position allowed her to witness, as she related, some of the same things that destroyed her relationship with Gordy.
Many Motown fans will remember Rockwell’s hit of 1983 “Somebody’s Watching Me,” and Singleton was the executive producer of the song for a singer whose real name was Kennedy Gordy—Berry Gordy’s son by another woman.
By the late ’80s she was again dismissed by Motown, and she began another professional pursuit as a talent agent and manager. Subsequent to her departure, Motown was sold for $61 million, and the most she could garner for her work and contribution was a plaque.
Later, when asked about her book and the aftermath of her revelations, she said, “The book has totally vindicated me from the negative feelings I’ve had. I used to figure that eventually [Gordy] would understand my contributions and how great I really was and that I’d ride off into the sunset with some money or some credit or something. It didn’t happen, but . . . I’ve always been a very positive person, and that’s the reason I’ve been able to survive. I’m not going to let [the problems with Gordy] kill me.”
When Gordy wrote his memoir, “To Be Loved,” he refuted many of the accusations voiced by Singleton. According to several reports, she apologized to him personally, and they patched up their relationship, becoming close friends.
In recent years, she devoted most of her time to managing and overseeing the musical and acting careers of her children, including Kerry Gordy, Rya Singleton and Eddie Singleton Jr.
Singleton died of brain cancer Nov. 11, 2016, in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 79.