Al Abrams, who died last week at 74, was just a kid, and a white kid at that, when Berry Gordy Jr. hired him for the nascent Motown machine, and the circumstances are so, so Motownish:
A big fan of the R&B records of the day, Abrams pestered Gordy for a job promoting his music before Motown was even formed. Gordy said he would hire him if he could get a record on Zelman, a vanity label that pressed records for anyone who would pay them $100, played on the radio. Abrams took the challenge, taking the record to a remote by station WCHB and pestering the DJ until he relented and played it on his show. Gordy heard the record being played and made good on his word, hiring Abrams.
And WCHB, despite being a 1-kw daytimer in those days, had clout: it was the major black-owned radio outlet in metro Detroit. So Gordy wasn’t about to try to blow the kid off.
Abrams also apparently invented the slogan “The Sound of Young America,” and manufactured a bogus Dylan quote about Smokey Robinson being “America’s greatest living poet.” Even if Dylan didn’t say it, though, Abrams may well have believed it:
During a Motown tour through the Southern United States, [Nancy Abrams] said, Smokey Robinson of the Miracles came to visit Mr. Abrams at a hotel where blacks were not allowed to stay.
The hotel manager was tipped off, came to Mr. Abrams’s door and asked if a black person was in his room, Nancy Abrams recalled. He replied that it wasn’t “a black person,” it was Smokey Robinson, and both men were kicked out.
“Al went back with Smokey and stayed in the black boardinghouse,” she said. “After that, he never stayed in a hotel again.”
Abrams moved on in the late Sixties, working briefly with Motown expats Holland-Dozier-Holland, and setting up his own PR firm. He was diagnosed with cancer in September; by then, unfortunately, it was too late.