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

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