”Mother Motown,” they once called Raynoma Gordy Singleton — and for good reason. Besides being Berry Gordy’s second wife, ”Miss Ray” helped the ex-boxer found his first record label, Tamla, in 1959. She brought to Gordy’s various ventures musical know-how, personal charm, and the optimism of an aspiring entrepreneur. Shortly after meeting him, she arranged the ”shooby doo-wop” backup vocals on Jackie Wilson’s ”Lonely Teardrops,” one of Gordy’s breakthrough hits; she taught Smokey Robinson the ins and outs of keys and time signatures; she banged the tambourine on more than one early Gordy record; and, after the Motown assembly line got rolling in the early ’60s, she transcribed all the music in order to copyright the songs. Until the Gordys’ stormy separation in 1963, Raynoma was, in effect, Berry Gordy’s musical alter ego and chief lieutenant.
Readers of Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl or Nelson George’s fine Where Did Our Love Go? already know the rough outline of the story retold in Berry, Me, and Motown: The Untold Story. What the former Mrs. Gordy adds in this spotty, often bitter, and sometimes self- serving memoir is an insider’s sense of how the rough-and-tumble record business actually works.
The usual suspects, from the charming and doomed Marvin Gaye to the unlikable and imperious Diana Ross, drift in and out of the narrative. In trying to account for Motown’s success, Raynoma Gordy emphasizes her former husband’s ruthlessness, but she also suggests that his deep sense of inferiority about being black accounted in part for his resolve to aim black music at white ears.
It seems obvious that the decisive factor in the beginning was Gordy’s own sure instinct for pop. The first song he recorded at his new Hitsville, U.S.A. studios was ”Money,” in 1959. Recounting the story of that session — from the song’s origins in a riff borrowed from Ray Charles’ ”What’d I Say” to the refinement of Barrett Strong’s shrieking vocal — the author almost makes you feel as if you’re peering over Berry Gordy’s shoulder. For hours he exhorted his musicians to play and sing harder, until finally they couldn’t play orsing at all.
At 7 a.m. on the fourth straight day of work, after recording more than 40 takes of the song and after spending all night mixing and remixing the tapes himself, Gordy got the sound he wanted. Ruthless he may have been. But he had also produced a terrific record — an omen of hits to come, and a hint that Gordy’s empire was built on more than the numerous cruelties claimed by his former wife. C+