New book on Motown looks at company behind the scene
It’s a daunting task to write a book on Motown, with so many already on the shelf. What is there about the 1960s Detroit record company that hasn’t been told?
Lots, as it turns out. Its stars’ memoirs focus on their personal histories, and the founder, Berry Gordy Jr., has shared his own dramatic narrative on Broadway.
But in “Motown: The Sound of Young America” (Thames and Hudson), available Sept. 13, former Billboard editor (and record executive) Adam White and Barney Ales, the ultimate Motown insider, take a broader view. They offer a tantalizing peek into the company’s “backroom,” a nuts-and-bolts story of how it rose from an $800 Gordy family loan in 1959 to become a company grossing more than $130 million in 1983.
“The back-room-believer stuff was always as intriguing to me as the front of the house,” White said from London, by phone. “There was no one better than Barney Ales as a source of those stories.”
“I was not interested in going to the studio and Berry was not interested in going to the distributors,” Ales said, on the line from Malibu, California. “Working together, it was a great camaraderie. We were completely competitive. He thought his department, A&R and the producers, were the important part of Motown. I thought promotion, sales and distribution were the most important.”
White and Ales were talking in advance of the book’s U.S. publication, which coincides with a private launch party at the Motown Museum in Detroit that Ales, White and all five of Ales’ grown children will fly in to attend.
What sets this book apart, along with a raft of over 1,000 beautifully-reproduced, rarely-seen (and some never-seen) photos, is White’s careful research and Ales’ insider stories.
As general manager, Ales was Gordy’s right-hand man, in charge of Motown sales, distribution and promotion from 1961-75 and after a brief hiatus, from 1977-79. Some also called the strapping Ales Gordy’s “hatchet man.”
“I didn’t mind, as long as I had a hatchet,” Ales quipped.
He also had a reputation. He was born Baldassare (hence “Barney”) Victor Ales on May 13, 1934, in northwest Detroit into a Sicilian-American family. His father was a barber, and Ales grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, graduating from Cooley High School. His Sicilian roots led to many believing that he wasn’t just tough, but might be backed up with mob connections.
“I didn’t say I was, and I didn’t say I wasn’t,” Ales said with a laugh.
That he was friends with Morris Levy, the infamous head of Roulette Records, and owned a vacation house on the same street with him in Miami, only enhanced the rumors. (Levy was convicted of extortion in 1988 but died in 1990, before he could begin his prison term).
That Motown had a Sicilian head of sales and promotion sometimes helped with debt collection, which had been a problem until Ales arrived in 1961. Motown’s glamor girls and suave crooners could be selling records by the truckload and appearing on prestigious national TV shows, but if the independent record distributors weren’t paying for the product, the record company could go broke. And in the early days, before a company had clout, the distributors often didn’t pay.
Ales recalled a trip he had to take to New York to convince a local distributor to pay up for the many copies it had sold of the Marvelettes’ 1961 No. 1 smash “Please, Mr. Postman.”
Despite the distributor’s pleadings, Ales wouldn’t take no for an answer, got the check and hustled to the bank to cash it.
“Before I left New York I was contacted, the guy had called some ‘friends,’ ” Ales recalled. “They warned me, ‘You’re going to put that guy out of business.’ ”
Even decades later, Ales raises his voice indignantly. “I said, he should have been out of business! He shouldn’t have been in business to begin with!” The “friends” backed off.
One of the independent distributors Ales dealt with later was Levy, to whom he gave the job of distributing Mary Wells’ hit record “My Guy” in the New York area.
Ales happened to be in New York to see the hit Broadway show “Funny Girl,” with Barbra Streisand, on his birthday — May 13. Levy called to tell him there was a problem, that someone was bootlegging “My Guy”: Raynoma Gordy, the second (and estranged) wife of the boss. Ales didn’t get to go to “Funny Girl,” but instead he had to help Levy shut down Raynoma’s business and make a difficult call to her soon to be ex in Detroit with the bad news.
Pop star Tommy James wrote in his 2010 memoir “Me, the Mob and the Music”(Scribner) that Levy would take a baseball bat when he went out to confront bootleggers.
“He didn’t need a baseball bat,” Ales said.
The book “Motown” features many other fascinating tales of the wild and woolly early ’60s music scene.
■In 1961, Ales and Gordy were just looking for a meal, but they ended up integrating Detroit’s exclusive London Chop House. Told they “didn’t serve colored people,” Ales retorted, “Well that’s good, we don’t eat them.” The restaurant’s owner, Les Gruber, was called at home, and the Gordy-Ales party was seated. Once inside, “Everybody turned around to look at us,” Ales said. “Joey Nederlander (Detroit theater impresario) was at a nearby table, laughing like crazy. He sent champagne over. Joey would have known that blacks couldn’t get into the Chop House; we were friends.”
■A British EMI executive once complained to Gordy that there were “too many tambourines” on Motown records. “Berry went berserk,” Ales recalled. The tambourines stayed.
■The Beatles played a part of Motown’s success, talking up the Detroit label wherever they went and covering several Motown songs early on, including “Money” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
■Ales was tough on his sales crew. He was determined that a Rare Earth record reach No. 1 in the charts. One week, on the day chart positions were announced, it hadn’t made No. 1, so Motown salesman Joe Summers retreated to Carl’s Chop House. Ales tracked him down, calling him at the restaurant to ask, “Are you celebrating your No. 2 record?”
■Ales did not make the move to California; he ran the label from Detroit for several years. He believed moving there “ruined” some, especially Marvin Gaye. Others thrived. “Stevie (Wonder) had a great background as far as his family. Smokey (Robinson) never changed.”
The company could have promoted its later hits out of Detroit, Ales was convinced, but “Berry wanted to be in the movies.”
■While Motown’s black artists famously crossed over to the pop charts, it also worked the other way. Rock group Rare Earth first earned sales via black record buyers, when Ales’ team helped make “Get Ready” a hit on R&B radio. When the new group showed up to play a gig in Washington, D.C., the black audience was stunned to see five long-haired white guys. All recovered, and the gig was a success.
For White, the challenge in writing “Motown” was to not repeat too-familiar anecdotes. With Ales talking, he also got to shoot down some Motown myths long accepted as fact.
One is that the story that the early Motown album covers did not feature photos of its young stars because black faces might offend or limit sales to pop audiences.
“There are so many stories about Motown like that. The album covers were terrible in the beginning, but it was because we didn’t have an art department, it was just one guy.”
He points to records of the era by black artists including Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and James Brown featuring their faces, that were in the stores.
The bond Ales and Gordy forged in the early ’60s is still intact. Ales finally saw “Motown: The Musical” when it played Los Angeles, and his only gripe was that George Clooney didn’t play him.
That Detroit was integral to Motown’s success is clear. For White, the geography was part of the romance of Motown when he first heard “Heatwave” by Martha & the Vandellas at age 15, and was hooked.
“I barely knew where Detroit was, let alone what it was,” White recalled. “If it’s something you can’t get your hands on, it’s got some sort of magic, and distance makes you want it all the more.
White believes that Motown’s great feat, achieved out of Detroit, was that “it woke the rest of the world up to the power of R&B and crossover music. Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (of CBS’ soul king Philadelphia International Records) were the beneficiaries of that.”
For Ales, it’s a story that defied the racial politics of the time and then transcended it. “I always figured that Motown was a record company, not a black company, not an R&B company. It was music for everybody.”
Susan Whitall is a music writer, author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.