Berry Gordy’s “Literary Reflections” on Late Brother Robert Gordy

Robert Louis Gordy Sr., whose talents, contributions, and support helped older brother Berry Gordy build Motown Records into an international music empire, died on Friday, Oct. 21, in Marina del Ray, California.  He was 91.

The youngest of eight Gordy children, Robert was born on July 15, 1931, in Detroit, a year and a half after Berry.  As a youngster – in the early-1940s – Robert helped Berry sell Michigan Chronicle newspapers.  Berry wrote about their newspaper venture in his 1995 autobiography, “Berry Gordy:  To Be Loved – The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.”

“From the shoe (shining) industry, I turned to journalism, selling the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s top colored weekly newspaper,” Berry wrote.  “One weekend, I packed up some papers and went to sell them in the white neighborhood…Well, I was a big hit and sold more Michigan Chronicles in less time than ever before.  I decided I could afford to share the wealth and brought brother Bobby (Robert) down with me the next week.”

As Berry and Robert grew into adulthood, both shared a passion for music.  In the late 1950s into the early ‘60s, under the pseudo name Bob Kayli, Robert released a clever-lyrical single titled “Everyone Was There.” He co-wrote the song with big brother Berry and recorded the snappy tune on Carlton Records, a New York City-based label.  The hot single charted on Billboard in 1958 and earned Bob Kayli (Robert) an appearance on the popular nationally-televised music and dance show Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.  Nevertheless, the single cooled off drastically when white audiences discovered that the white-sounding Bob Kayli was actually Black. 

In Berry’s autobiography, the chief architect of the Motown Sound wrote about the valuable lessons he learned about the racial climate and music in America because of what happened to his younger brother.  Seeing how record buyers turned their backs on the younger Gordy’s music caused Berry to package and market early Motown Records in a different manner.   

“I had not forgotten the hurt I felt when my brother’s record ‘Everyone Was There’ had died when the public realized that this white-sounding record was performed by a Black artist,” penned Gordy.  “That was why we released some of our early albums without the artists’ faces on them.  This practice became less necessary as our music’s popularity started overcoming the prejudices.”

Robert, aka Bob Kayli, recorded other singles on Carlton, Anna, Tamla, and Gordy labels but didn’t reach anticipated levels of success.  Robert went on to work at Motown Records as a skilled recording engineer.  And he wrote or co-wrote an array of songs for Motown artists, such as Marvin Gaye, Carolyn Crawford, The Supremes, The Isley Brothers, The Detroit Spinners, and more. 

In the mid-1960s, Robert ran Jobete Music Publishing, a music publishing arm of Motown.  He took the executive position following the death of his sister, Loucye Gordy Wakefield, who had given top leadership to the publishing entity until her passing.  Despite having no experience in music publishing, Robert guided Jobete and expanded it into a profitable publishing business earning international acclaim.  Robert maintained his top executive position with Jobete for two decades.

Among his many talents, Robert also had acting chops, making his acting debut 50 years ago (October 12, 1972) in Hollywood’s “Lady Sings The Blues.”  The film represented the feature film debut of Diana Ross, who starred as jazz singing legend Billie Holiday.  The movie was also the first for Berry Gordy as executive producer under Motown Productions.

Robert played the character of drug pusher “Hawk” in the movie.  Interestingly, according to Berry Gordy, Robert’s part in the film almost didn’t make it to the silver screen.

“We were on our way to Detroit for our first big preview of the film at the Americana Theater when it dawned on me that all of my family, and Robert’s friends, were expecting to see him in the film, and his only scene was cut out,” Berry Gordy wrote in his autobiography.  “I got panicky.  There was no way I could do this to my brother.  I put that one scene back in just for the Detroit showing.”

However, Berry left the scene in for all theater showings after seeing how brilliant his little brother’s role was and the impact it had at a certain juncture of the film.

Shortly after Robert’s passing on Oct. 21, Berry issued the following statement through Universal Music Enterprises.

“I am deeply saddened by the sudden passing of my younger brother, Robert.  He was absolutely the best lil’ brother anyone could ever hope for.  His ability to succeed at whatever he attempted or that I threw his way amazed me over the years.  I will miss his love, his support, and his loyalty.”

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