Updated November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

She was a hungry, ambitious 20-year-old who had studied music and won an amateur singing contest in Detroit; he was an unkempt ex-boxer who was struggling to make it as a record producer. It was an offbeat match from the first, but it lasted long enough for Motown czar Berry Gordy Jr. to build an empire—and for his wife, Raynoma, to lose one.

A late-summer day in L.A. and Raynoma Gordy Singleton, 53, is sitting in the study of the sleek house where she lives with ex-husband Ed Singleton, a music producer, and his wife, Barbara, who invited her to move in when she hit a financial low. It is here that she worked on the just published Berry, Me, and Motown—her take-no-prisoners memoir about her partnership with Gordy—and where she exorcised the demons that have been haunting her for decades. Buoyant, compact, she has the air of a woman who has been relieved of an enormous burden.

If Raynoma is at peace, however, Motown founder Gordy (who sold the company in 1988 for $61 million) has every reason to be rankled by her version of their years together. By her account, he was an unfaithful husband and a rank opportunist who fast-talked her out of her share of the company she helped him build. As if that weren’t enough, her book offers up an insider’s view of his affair with the young Diana Ross, which produced a child, 19-year-old Rhonda.

Gordy’s L.A. office says he has not read the book, but his special consultant. Michael Roshkind, who has, calls it “trashy and false. Raynoma is an opportunist…. What did she really have to do with building Motown—with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder? She’s trying to capitalize on other people’s success.”

Counters Raynoma: “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.”

It was the fall of 1958 when Raynoma Mayberry Liles—the daughter of a Cadillac, Mich., janitor—met an eccentric entrepreneur named Berry Gordy. Desperate to make it as a singer and songwriter, Raynoma auditioned for Gordy, then 29, who was running a fledgling music business out of his sisters’ houses in Detroit. The son of a successful businessman, Gordy was a hardworking sort who, in addition to boxing, had run a record store and labored on the Ford assembly line before turning his hand to producing records. To Raynoma, “he reeked of creativity and excitement and showbiz,” she says.

Impressed with the shapely Raynoma, Gordy brought her into the business. With perfect pitch and a strong background in arranging, she had the skills he needed to develop local acts like the Miracles and the Satintones. She also was willing to let Gordy dominate her life. When she sensed that his sisters were weary of hosting Berry and his musicians, she offered the cramped apartment she shared with her toddler son, Cliff, the product of a teenage marriage. There, she and Gordy began Rayber Music, a shoestring operation that helped aspiring artists launch their songs.

Although Raynoma was wildly infatuated with Berry, who was married and had three children, the two slept in the same bed for weeks before partnership blossomed into romance. As they became more intimate, she claims he told her that he “had a few girls” in the red-light district. Raynoma was shocked to think of her beloved acting as a pimp, but soon afterward, frantic for money for bills, she allowed a woman who lived across the hall to set her up with a client. Berry, she says, never asked where she had gotten the extra $17.

Working frenetically over the next few months, the two managed not only to get Rayber rolling but to start up Tamla Records, which released such hits as the Miracles’ “Shop Around.” Raynoma—then three months pregnant—made what she regards as her first mistake: After registering Tamla and their new publishing company, Jobete Music (said to be worth as much as $200 million today), she removed her name from the legal papers. (A Berry spokesman says her name was never on the papers.) “Berry said it was a formality, that he would always take care of me,” she says.

Only when their son, Kerry, was nearly a year old did Berry agree to divorce his first wife and marry Raynoma. Wedlock, however, did nothing to heighten her sense of security. After the ceremony the groom spent the night away from home—with another woman, she claims. “I was sick, confused, frustrated, disgusted, disbelieving,” Ray says. Berry denied being unfaithful and managed to calm her, but the nightmare continued. Soon she was receiving dead-of-night phone calls from his lover, who taunted her by saying that Gordy had just left her bed. Still Raynoma stood by her man. “It was bigger than just the marriage,” she says. “We had a company to think about.”

It was the company, and not the marriage, that survived. In 1963 it turned out that Berry’s mistress was pregnant; Raynoma left Detroit to open Motown’s first New York City office. At odds over budgets, the two eventually came to a showdown when Raynoma arranged to sell bootleg copies of “My Guy,” by Motown’s Mary Wells, in order to raise operating funds for her office. The FBI found out and arrested her. Gordy, she writes, offered to drop the charges only if she signed a “general release from Motown and all of its entities.” She complied. When they divorced in 1964, he gave her a settlement that included a lump sum of $10,000, $1,382 in alimony each month for 10 years and $150 in monthly child support until Kerry was 18.

Married to Singleton in 1966, Raynoma continued to feel herself in Gordy’s shadow. She and Singleton moved to Washington, D.C., and tried to reenter the music business, but they were unsuccessful, largely, she claims, because Berry was such a voracious competitor. “He had a lot of clout with people we had to deal with when we were starting up,” she says.

Still susceptible to the allure of Gordy and his company, Raynoma went back to work at Motown headquarters in 1967. “I thought they needed me,” she says. “Motown was my baby.” Her marriage to Singleton failed, and she bounced from job to job within the organization. By 1970, she found herself serving as personal assistant to Diana Ross—a position that provided her with a close look at the romance between Gordy and Diana. As Raynoma tells it, she was on the road with Ross in 1971 when the pregnant Diana (who married her personal manager, Robert Silberstein, two weeks later) called Gordy asking whether or not he intended to marry her. Raynoma can only speculate that Berry’s answer was no because, she says, “he doesn’t take any ultimatums.”

Eighteen years after she had returned to the fold, Raynoma was fired by one of Gordy’s assistants, who told her only that the company was paring costs. “I was shocked,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.” Picking herself up, she tried to establish herself as a talent manager, but the going was slow. The final blow came when Berry sold Motown. Says Raynoma, “I really expected that when the company was sold, there would be something there for me.”

These days, Raynoma spends much of her time overseeing her children’s careers: Kerry, now 31, has launched his own record label, and daughter Rya Singleton, 23, is pursuing a singing career. Son Cliff Liles, 34, is a bassist, and fid Jr., 24, works for an executive at Warner Bros, records. “It’s all heredity.” Raynoma says. “They’re just jumping off, and this is my new career.”

By her account, she has come to terms with Gordy and her past. “I feel like my life with him has been a huge chess game, and that I’ve won,” she says. “He’s got all the money, but he didn’t end up with the appearance that he wanted, that perfect person who helped the Boy Scouts.” And while others might see her as vindictive, she says, “I had no choice. I could have continued to protect his name, but I would have been a martyr.”

—Michelle Green, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles