Detroit songwriter, arranger, producer was second wife of Berry Gordy Jr. and played integral role in the beginning of Motown Records
The story of Motown Records is peopled by a group of fascinating characters, a feisty group of (mostly) Detroiters who were crucial in building Motown into a worldwide phenomenon.
Raynoma Gordy Singleton was one of those key people, a petite dynamo who made her mark during the label’s early days. “Miss Ray,” as she was known at Hitsville, formed a business partnership with Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958 that quickly blossomed into romance.
Singleton died Nov. 11 in California, but in keeping with the very private life she led in recent decades, there was no news release or official obituary. Services were in Canoga Park, California, in mid-November. She was 79.
“ ‘Miss Ray’ doesn’t seem to get due recognition in most accounts of Motown’s history, but she surely was a vital figure at the beginning,” said Adam White, author of “Motown: The Sound of Young America” with Motown executive Barney Ales.
“This was a woman who could play 11 instruments and had perfect pitch,” White said. “Her formal music training gave structure to those early creative endeavors, and she knew how to bring the best out of young talent. Not to mention the fact that she found the building on West Grand which became Motown’s headquarters.”
Along with Gordy’s formidable sisters, Singleton was one of the strong women who helped the failed record store owner build his empire and create a musical genre.
“It’s to Berry Gordy’s credit that he gave significant responsibility to strong women, and Ray was one of those,” said historian White. “Even after a spell out in the cold, she eventually came back to Motown. She was family, and there always seemed to be a place for family there.”
That “spell out in the cold” began after Motown sales vice president Ales discovered that Singleton, by then estranged from Gordy, was selling bootleg Mary Wells records in New York to help pay her bills.
Her tell-all book, “Berry, Me, and Motown,” published in 1990, accused Gordy of not giving her sufficient credit or money and helped deepen the chill between her, Gordy and the Motown family.
But the deep freeze didn’t last. In recent years, Singleton flew in to attend at least one Motown Museum fundraiser at the Detroit Marriott, even if she kept a low profile, away from reporters.
Born and raised in Detroit, Singleton played in the Cass Tech orchestra and studied music theory there, emerging a confident, trained musician.
After a brief marriage to Charles Liles, a saxophone player, Singleton had her fateful meeting with Gordy in the fall of 1958, when — in Gordy’s words — the “exciting, light-skinned, fast-talking, ninety-eight-pounder” showed up with her sister Alice to audition for his fledgling music company.
The young sisters didn’t impress the would-be mogul with their singing, but, as Gordy recalled in his 1994 autobiography “To Be Loved,” Raynoma caught his attention when she said she could arrange and write sheet music. After she pulled a high C out of thin air, on demand, he was sold. The two formed a business and eventually, a romantic partnership that produced a son, Kerry Gordy, in 1959. They married in 1960.
An important factor in the Motown sound was the lush instrumentation and backup vocals — and Miss Ray was busy in the background helping write lead sheets for the musicians, auditioning singers and forming the “Rayber Voices” (for “Ray” and “Berry”).
The Rayber Voices originally consisted of Ray, Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Sonny Sanders (with Gwendolyn Murray a bit later). Their intricate, precisely arranged backups were key to the sound of the early Tamla and Motown records Gordy produced. Later on different voices were used, and the backup groups became the Originals (male) and the Andantes (female), but the concept remained the same, a group of in-house backup singers who provided backup on almost every Motown record.
She made herself invaluable to Gordy, moving him out of his sister’s house and into her own apartment, and then finding the house at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. that would become Hitsville.
By 1961, their marriage had fizzled. Singleton was dispatched to New York to open a field office for Jobete, Motown’s publishing arm, the bootlegging incident (caused, she said, by insufficient funding from Detroit) ensured that Singleton was on the outs for a time.
She married songwriter Eddie Singleton and was rehired by Motown several times, up to the 1980s, Gordy recounted in his book. The thaw in their relationship was enabled as well by their son, Kerry, who sought out his father and renewed their bond.
Singleton was active on and off in the business over the years. She was executive producer of Rockwell’s (aka Gordy’s son Kennedy) 1984 single “Somebody’s Watching Me,” worked with the singer Sherrick, and in 1989, helped British producer Ian Levine track down the label’s original stars to re-record their Motown records.
After Gordy answered Singleton’s charges in his own 1994 book and gave her the credit she felt she hadn’t received, their relationship warmed considerably.
Gordy applauded her “incredible contribution to Motown” in his memoir, pointing out that she had retracted some of the more hurtful accusations in her book and noted, “Today we are closer than ever.”
Singleton is survived by her sons Cliff Liles, Kerry Gordy and William Edward Singleton Jr., as well as a daughter, Rya Singleton.
Susan Whitall is the author of “Women of Motown,” and a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at Twitter: @swhitall or at susanwhitall.com.