Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. hired fellow Detroit native Al Abrams in 1959 to serve as publicist for his fledgling record label. Abrams was 18 at the time, and Motown’s first employee.
“Present at the creation, so to speak,” says Abrams. “It was incredible. I’m surrounded by all these geniuses, people who are creating music left and right – artists, songwriters, producers. And I’m actually getting a paycheck for all of this, too. And I’m beginning to think I must be the luckiest kid in all of Detroit. And I probably was.”
Abrams worked with Motown until 1966, through the groundbreaking years that changed pop music, as Gordy and his staff made and sold now-classic tunes targeted at an integrated youth market. He was present for the national launch of the careers of The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops – acts that helped define the “Motown Sound,” that now-iconic pop-smooth, refined approach to soul and R&B.
“We were just a bunch of kids making music. We had no idea we were making history,” says Abrams.
Abrams’ collection of photographs, albums, stage costumes and ephemera of that time are on display at the Muhammad Ali Center through November 10. “Motown in Black and White” is a visual portrait of Motown’s legacy, with never-before-seen photos of The Supremes and other Motown artists behind the scenes and during candid moments with Gordy’s family. Videos of Motown performances play in the exhibit.
Abrams started amassing his collection from day one.
“The best job I could have had there would have been if I had been the janitor,” he says. “Because if I had been the janitor, every night, in Studio A, waste baskets would be filled up to the top by [drafts of] songs written by Smokey, by Holland Dozier Holland, by all the artists.”
“I did believe that there was a legacy, after a while, that needed to be preserved. Somehow or another it did dawn on me that yeah, we were on to something here,” he adds.
Photos from his collection include The Temptations in mid-synchronized dance recording an ABC-TV special on the Motown Records lawn, a portrait of Gordy with Motown’s first gold record (“Shop Around,” The Miracles, 1961) and members of The Four Tops signing autographs for Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
And then there are two curious photos – in one, people are marching with signs. It’s 1964, a year after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but it’s a whites-only protest crowd, and they’re carrying signs demanding that Hitsville “Release Tommy Good Now!” The next photo shows a handsome white man singing on the steps of Motown headquarters, with Gordy and other staffers looking on. If you squint, you can see the top of Abrams’ head behind a woman in the background. But this event – what Abrams called “The March on Hitsville, 1964” – was his party. Tommy Good wasn’t a political prisoner. This was Abrams’ elaborate, Civil Rights movement-referential publicity stunt (complete with hired “protestors”) to help launch Good’s first Motown single, “Baby I Miss You.”
“My job was on the line, because I was told that if it backfired, if there was any backlash, you know, I’m out. Fortunately, it came off,” says Abrams.
Ever the hype man, Abrams points out that Good is still performing, and looking good on stage.
“49 years later, and Tommy Good still fits into the same suit that he fit into that day,” says Abrams. “I gotta give him the credit on that one.”
The exhibit is included in Ali Center admission.