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Al Abrams wasn’t just Motown’s first publicity man. He was the first signed-up employee. In fact, he was signed up before the ink was dry on the incorporation of the company.
He had no experience of the music biz; not much experience of anything, in fact. And he wasn’t even black.
He was an eighteen-year-old Jewish kid with a drivers’ licence and he answered an ad from Motown Founder, Berry Gordy Jr. for someone to drive his acts to public appearances and local record hops.
The fledgling company was growing organically as it went along. When Berry realised he needed an A&R man, Mickey Stevenson was sitting in his office pitching for a singing career. Mickey turned out to be the A&R man’s A&R man, hiring the Funk Brothers, the Detroit Symphony and the cream of arrangers and producers. Berry could pick ’em, even when there was only one unlikely culprit to choose from.
Al was there when Berry needed a publicity man. Berry asked, Al said yes, and the rest is history; or, if not exactly history, Al made it up.
Like the time when Tommy Good’s first disc was due to be released and Al spread the idea that Motown didn’t want to put out a white kid’s record. Just fired up enough, Tommy’s fans were incited to ‘March on Hitsville’ seeking justice for their hero. The two wicked uncles, Berry and Al, laughed as the mock indignation filled the papers and emptied the record shops.
And when Berry asked Al to raise Smokey Robinson’s song writing profile, and he did it by having Bob Dylan describe Smokey as ‘America’s greatest living poet’. Dylan must have heard about it, but, fortunately for Al, ‘nothing was revealed’.
Then there was the time that Al, dressed like a swami and carrying a small reptile, did the ‘snake walk’ from radio station to radio station to tempt influential DJs into playlisting Motown product.
But there’s a serious side to Al’s legacy too. If Berry and Al hadn’t come together, it’s possible that Motown would not have had the earth-shattering crossover success it had with all the races creeds and colours of the world. Al’s ‘mission statement’ slogan: ‘It’s what’s in the grooves that counts’ put the attention squarely on the music and the songs. These weren’t ‘race records’, R&B or gospel, though they were imbued with the pulse and emotion of blues and jazz.
Motown was a crucible for a new music, a new culture, a new rhythm that danced to the beat of the industrial world, the world of progress, and the world of the young, but a world with all the heart and longing and angst that keeps it human.
Al was a funny man, a mischief maker, a creative when that didn’t mean a person with a computer. The music, the Motown legacy is as much Al’s as his lifetime friend Berry’s.
What he was, above all, was a great human.
Those of us who had the privilege to know him will miss him deeply.