Al Abrams was the
first employee Berry Gordy, Jr. ever hired—shortly after
borrowing $800 from family members to start Motown Records.
Abrams was supposed to promote the records of some of the first
acts signed by the record label to Detroit-area disc jockeys so
they’d get radio play.
Abrams came up with Motown's slogan, “The Sound of Young
America,” because “he wanted to push diversity” and was
“colorblind,” wife Nancy Abrams told the Associated
Press. She said her husband put that philosophy into practice
during a 1960s Motown tour through the southern U.S.
The Detroit native
later was named the first Motown Records press officer. His job:
to get media coverage for the startup record label and its young
stable of entertainers. It was a role Abrams both relished and
couldn’t believe at the same time, labeling himself in
interviews as a
Jewish kid in an all-black company where people my age were
making music and history.”
“Al was the prolific writer in our family. He could take the
most benign story and turn it into an intriguing and moving
masterpiece of words,” recalled wife Nancy Abrams in an online
message to friends, family, and fans. “He believed that stories
need to reflect the individual or the story that needs to be
started his eight-year odyssey with Motown Records in 1959,
promoting the likes of Smokey Robinson and the
Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Diana Ross
and the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder.
He concocted publicity stunts and photo shoots, spread rumors
and legendary stories. But those sincere efforts opened doors
for African-American musical acts and the Motown sound during
the civil rights movement.
Abrams captured those magical years in a coffee-table book
released in 2011. While
Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown
was released two years after the 50th anniversary of
Motown’s founding, it spawned a 2013 traveling exhibit entitled
“Motown Black & White.” The coffee table book contains a lot of
anecdotes about recording sessions, touring, and going to all
ends of the country to promote Motown Records, or what Abrams
called “just a bunch of kids making music” during a turbulent
time in the early 1960s.
“Al was always proud that he was the young ‘persistent’ Jewish
teen that took Motown through racist media and PR barriers
without ever realizing his own personal risks, said wife Nancy.
“He had a world view where compassion and humanity has no
borderlines. He will always be Motown’s original PR Go-To-Guy.
His life is now his legacy. Memories fade --- but, legends never
die as their lives become an inspiration for others.”
Ironically, the exhibit returned to the Detroit-area this week
at Saginaw's Castle Museum and is scheduled for showings
next year at the Detroit Historical Museum and the
Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. A second
volume of the coffee table book is due next year. Both editions
feature rare photographs, press releases, and historical
documents Abrams managed to salvage and save from his Motown
Abrams donated much of his iconic collection to the
University of Michigan. He spurned offers from the Hard
Rock Café and others.
Abrams was honored
for his legendary music promotion work with Motown’s original
artists when he was selected as an inductee into the Michigan
Rock and Roll Legends hall of fame in 2011. He also co-wrote a
musical entitled “Memories
of Motown,” which featured some former Motown legends and had a
month-long run in Berlin during 2009, the record label’s
official 50th anniversary.
Singer Martha Reeves told the Detroit Free Press
that Abrams worked “like a partner” to Gordy. She added he
“broke down a lot of doors” and got her and other Motown artists
“through the doors that were always shut to us.”
Abrams and Gordy
parted ways in the late 1960s. He started his own public
relations firm, signing a client list that featured James Brown,
Stax Records, and Hot Wax Records. Abrams also claimed to have
written Motown rocker Bob Seger’s first-ever promotional
biography for media distribution.
“Al was a gentle spirit and kind soul. To him, diversity and
humanity are one and the same-- and he lived by that statement,”
said wife Nancy. “He loved his family, animals, and the
Abrams would later
embark on a journalism career in the 1980s, which took him north
of the border as a writer and editor for the Windsor Star.
He also wrote as a freelance reporter for the Detroit Free
Press and other publications. He began a Blade Runner column
at the Toledo Blade in 1990, which was billed as
featuring local gossip and city hot spots. Abrams became a
regular contributor for La Prensa and Sojourner’s
Truth, writing special-assignment stories.
According to Rico Neller, editor of La Prensa, “Al was an
extremely talented writer/publicist who had a literary knack of
turning the routine into the extraordinary, when he applied his
pen to paper or keystokes to screen—he composed literary
Over the years, Abrams wrote nearly a dozen books or essays on a
variety of topics, including one in 1985 entitled Special
Treatment: The untold story of the survival of thousands of Jews
in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Abrams is survived
by his wife Nancy, daughter Alannah Hutka, and two
Emery Abrams-Reiter and Luca Elianna Cecilia Hutka. A memorial
service will be held Thursday, Oct. 8, 1:30 p.m. at
Chapel in Farmington Hills. There will be no public burial.
Memorial contributions can be made by PayPal
or mailed to P.O. Box 207, Tontogany, Ohio, 43565, in care of
Internet: Detroit Free Press,