Wednesday, 17 August 2011

From Ollie McLaughlin’s Northern Soul legends to the world of Pretty Rick

When I launched Al Abrams Associates in early 1967, I represented not only Stax/Volt in Memphis but also Ollie McLaughlin’s Ann Arbor, Michigan-based legendary Northern Soul labels – Karen and Carla – and their roster of artists.

That gave me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work not only with the incredibly talented Barbara Lewis (then on Atlantic), but with Deon Jackson, The Capitols, The Excels and The Spike Drivers – the latter being the group then on Reprise that spawned one of my favorite entertainers, the versatile Ted Lucas.

I worked with Ollie’s labels and artists on media coverage and thanks to people like Mike Gormley of the Detroit Free Press, Judy Spiegelman at Soul Magazine, Loraine Alterman at R’n’B World and Sandy Gardiner at the Ottawa Journal, we were able to get the word out effectively.

Ollie was always very supportive and came through for me when I needed his support to get my new company off the ground. That helped when we made the March 11, 1967 issue of Billboard – somewhat ironically on the page following a Motown ad.

Several years later, I got a phone call from a talent manager named Punch Andrews. He asked me if I would write the first biography for an artist who was just releasing an album titled “Smokin’ O.P’s” on the Palladium label.

I liked what I heard when I listened to the singer and his band. And that’s how I came to write the first-ever press biography of Bob Seger.

Looking back at it today, I think it may be one of the worst things I ever wrote. It just seems that back then – as even now – I simply didn’t have the affinity for white artists as I did for black music.

Another client was Detroit’s Uptight Productions. I wrote some classic artist biographies there, including the very first one for The Black Mer-da. But what I remember best is that when it came time to pay me, owner Arnold “Pretty Rick” Wright would always give me my $1,000 fee for each biography in dollar bills – yes, that is one thousand individual bills in a paper bag.

Those dollar bills always bore traces of some white powdery substance on them, but I didn’t complain. Nor did I ever dawdle to count them out in front of Rick.

When Pretty Rick decided that he wanted a world-class photograph taken of him as befits a Detroit record mogul, I gave the assignment to a friend, J. Edward Bailey III, who was a photographer for Fortune, Life and Time magazines. He also received his $2,500 fee all in dollar bills.

We sent the photos out to all the big media – and they were absolutely stunning portraits.

Fast forward four years and I am sitting in the City Desk area of the Detroit Free Press talking to a young reporter friend named Bill Schmidt – who later went on to become the Newsweek Bureau Chief in Cairo.

Bill mentioned a story he was working on for publication that Sunday and thought I might recognize one of the names. It was Arnold Wright, and the Freep was desperate to find a photo of him to use for the story.

I asked Bill if he had tried the entertainment desk. He ran there and came back with a photo in his hand.

That Sunday the Freep ran a big expose headed “The Ten Top Men Running Detroit’s Dope Business.” Most of the photos were, as you’d expect, mug shots. But there, at the top of the page, was the stunning professional portrait of the Top Dog himself – Pretty Rick. He certainly got his money’s worth out of that photo.

You could have knocked me over with --- a dollar bill.

I also was responsible for single-handedly turning America’s shopping centers into circuses by virtue of introducing the concept of free entertainment to lure shoppers. I did it first for Detroit’s late and lamented Wonderland Center.

John Oppedahl of the Free Press – long before he became the City Editor who gave Peter Benjaminson the tip that Florence Ballard was on welfare -- gave me full credit for the innovative merchandising concept in a widely-read major Page Three story.

What kind of entertainment did I introduce?

Well, for starters, there was Oink, the Singing Pig.

Music is music, but that IS another great story!

© Al Abrams

Monday, 15 August 2011

Sexual Healing

We were still lucky in 1965-66 that our expansion on West Grand Boulevard still left us with some neighbors in the adjoining houses. One of these neighbors was a doctor and he came in handy on more than one occasion.

As we expanded space, we hired more and more employees. One that I particularly remember was an attractive blonde from Australia. It didn’t take long before she started getting a lot of attention from Motown’s alpha males.

In fact, only hours after I had made a date with her, one of our best-known songwriters came into my office. He had been among the first to date her and now he had a dose of clap. And he was very concerned that his wife, who was frequently at Hitsville, would find out. He demanded I tell Berry immediately and have her fired. My sigh of relief at being forewarned could probably be heard blocks away.

Wanting to avoid what could have been the rapid spread of a gonorrhea epidemic at Hitsville, I told Berry about the problem. His suggestion was brilliant.

I went to see our version of Typhoid Mary and after first coming up with a reason to break our date for that night, asked if she was aware of our new Motown health coverage policy.

Of course she replied she wasn’t. So I explained to her that in order to be covered in our health insurance policy, she needed to have a medical checkup from our staff physician -- the doctor next door -- and I handed her a form that I had just created.

Then I ran next door and told the Good Doctor of our plan. He agreed he would say nothing about her carrier status, but would give her the necessary shots and medication as part of her “insurance checkup.”

He also agreed he would treat the songwriter immediately.

And so disaster was averted. However, I never made another date with the Aussie not wanting to push my luck.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Things I learn from reading the newspapers (on line.)

I've just read that Motown’s Mary Wells is getting the “Unsung” TV show treatment that Florence Ballard received a couple of years ago. Mary deserves that recognition. I was honored to be a part of the excellent show “Unsung” presented on Florence. Flo was a gem and the show’s producer, Nancy Oey, really did a wonderful job of capturing her unique spirit.

Alas, fans of Mary won’t find any of my behind-the-scenes stories on Mary’s “Unsung” episode on US TV next week. However, I do have a really fabulous anecdote about Mary in my book that you’ve never heard before, along with my rare original press releases and a great news article about her that hasn’t been seen since 1964.

I have also been following the renewed series of news stories indicating that Berry Gordy’s long-rumored Motown musical may soon be debuting on Broadway. I hope Berry doesn’t sign off on a script until he has a chance to read Hype & Soul.

Why? Because there are so many stories of our very early days at Motown that Berry has probably forgotten over the years. My goal is to bring a big smile to his face and more than just a few laughs as he once again remembers so many things from our fantastic shared past.

I also can’t wait to see the response of Mrs. Esther Edwards when she once again sees all these great artifacts from Motown’s history that are in my book. Putting Hype & Soul together with the incredibly talented art and graphic designer Joe Boy, has often been like unearthing an archaeological treasure trove of Motown history.

Louvain Demps of the Andantes, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing from almost Day One at Motown in 1959, also reminded me about Janie Bradford’s upcoming “Heroes and Legends” award show.

I can’t wait for Janie and Brenda Holloway and so many of this year’s other honorees to read and see these fantastic old photos, press releases and news stories once again.

In fact, I can hardly wait for all the worldwide fans of Motown and Northern Soul to see this book.

We’re still three weeks away from the publication date, but the wait will be worthwhile. My sincerest thanks to the many of you who have already ordered your pre-publication copies at

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Making music, not history

I am so thrilled that my book is so close to being published by Temple$treet in such a beautiful collector's edition.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to one of Professor Mark Clague's music classes at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The students are all future music teachers, working on their master's degrees.

Whenever I have the honor of talking to a group like this, I always wonder what Berry Gordy's reaction would have been 50 years ago if I took him aside and told him I had a vision that in 2011 students at universities around the world would be studying Motown, and that the music we were producing would still be being played on the radio, TV and movies.

No doubt Berry would have suggested that I had been working too hard, and told me to go home and take the rest of the day off.

But then, what if I had grabbed his arm and said, "But Berry, all of this will be taking place while there is a black man as president in the White House!"

Berry would have either pulled up my shirt sleeve to check for needle marks or called for an ambulance to take me away.

Here is the point I've made to many interviewers:

We were just a bunch of kids making music.

We didn't know we were making history.

And yet, we made both.

Al Abrams
3 August 2011