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Motown pioneer, longtime La Prensa contributor passes away

Al Abrams: 1941-2015

By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent


Alan Abrams, who promoted many of Motown’s earliest musical acts, and served for many years as a writer for the Toledo Blade (The Blade Runner), LaPrensa, and Sojourner’s Truth passed away over the weekend at his home near Findlay, Ohio. He was 74.


According to his wife Nancy, Abrams was diagnosed with inoperable cancer three weeks ago during a routine colonoscopy. He died Saturday morning Oct. 3, 2015 at home.

Al Abrams: 1941-2015


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 “white 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 told.”


Abrams 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 days.

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 universe.”

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 masterpieces.”


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 granddaughters Margot Emery Abrams-Reiter and Luca Elianna Cecilia Hutka. A memorial service will be held Thursday, Oct. 8, 1:30 p.m. at Dorfman Chapel in Farmington Hills. There will be no public burial. Memorial contributions can be made by PayPal (account motownblack.white@gmail.com) or mailed to P.O. Box 207, Tontogany, Ohio, 43565, in care of Nancy Abrams. 


On the Internet:  Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/music/brian-mccollum/2015/10/03/al-abrams-early-motown-publicist-dies-obituary/73283738/







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Revised: 10/09/15 07:14:08 -0700.




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