Robert Gordy, Who Led Motown’s Publishing Division During Prime Years, Dies at 91

Robert Louis Gordy, Sr., younger brother of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and chief executive for many years of the company’s successful music publishing division, died Oct. 21 at age 91. He passed away from natural causes, according to his family, at his home in Marina del Rey, Calif.

The youngest of eight siblings, Gordy enjoyed a little-noticed music career as a recording engineer and songwriter before taking command of Motown’s Jobete Music in 1965.

“His ability to succeed at whatever he attempted or that I threw his way amazed me over the years,” said Berry Gordy in a statement, noting that he was “deeply saddened” by his brother’s death. “He was absolutely the best lil’ brother anyone could ever hope for.” Gordy added, “I will miss his love, his support, and his loyalty.”


Born July 15, 1931 in Detroit, Robert Gordy followed his elder brother into boxing, then moved into music circles such as the city’s Flame Show Bar. Sister Gwen held the popular club’s photo concession, where he operated the darkroom. In his autobiography, Berry Gordy recalled visiting the Flame with Robert to see Billie Holiday perform; 20 years later, the younger Gordy played a character in Lady Sings The Blues, Motown’s production of the Holiday biopic.

In 1958, Gordy co-wrote and recorded “Everyone Was There” under the name of Bob Kayli. Leased to Carlton Records, the lightweight pop song referencing recent hits such as “Peggy Sue” and “Yakety Yak” became a minor chart success.

After his brother started Motown Records, Gordy left a post office job to join the venture, initially working for in-house engineer Mike McLean. “At that time, he was building the first eight-track machine in the east,” Gordy later explained. “I put together the electronics, learned how to read the schematics, helped with the writing and so on.”

He went on to become the company’s first stereo engineer, before working for the Quality Control department.

Reflecting its founder’s songwriting roots, Motown operated its own music publishing arm from the start. When Jobete manager, Loucye Wakefield, died prematurely in 1965, Robert Gordy sought the job. “When Loucye died, in fact, Berry first rejected my offer to go into Jobete,” he recalled in 1980. “‘What do you know?’ was his reaction, but I said, ‘Believe me, I’ll learn.’ ”

Motown’s explosive success from 1964 onwards with the Supremes and other acts made Jobete a substantial revenue source, capitalizing on the talents of writers Smokey Robinson, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, among others. Jobete opened its own professional department in 1966, securing covers and expanding the catalogue’s reach. Among its most popular titles to this day: “My Girl,” “Dancing In The Street,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “The Tears Of A Clown,” “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “What’s Going On” and “For Once In My Life.” Earnings continued to grow as stars such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye evolved into self-sufficient, influential songwriters.

By 1971, with Robert Gordy promoted to vice president/general manager, the division had 5,000 copyrights under its roof and 100 writers under contract. He joined the board of the National Music Publishers’ Association, and actively participated in industry seminars and conferences. He retired from the post in 1985.

“One of the main values of our catalog,” Gordy once said, “is that it has stood the test of time.” When Britain’s EMI Group acquired half of Jobete in 1997, the sale price of $132 million proved that to be true (EMI bought the balance seven years later for $187 million).

In his 1994 memoir, To Be Loved, Berry Gordy wrote, “So Robert, I’d like to thank you for moving Jobete from a holding company for our copyrights into a highly profitable, competitive international publishing company, keeping us No. 1 for many years. And also for being my little brother.”

Marc Schneider