Al Abrams, the founding press officer and publicist at Motown Records and the man who created the legendary label’s slogan “The Sound on Young America,” passed away Saturday at his home in Findlay, Ohio following a cancer battle. Abrams was 74. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. hired Abrams in 1959 to work at his nascent record label before the label was even established. The publicist would eventually help guide the careers of Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Miracles and Marvin Gaye, The Associated Press reports.
“His greatest accomplishment at Motown was actually starting at the age of 18. It kind of snowballed. He knew what he wanted to do with his life at that point,” his wife Nancy Abrams told AP. Singer Martha Reeves, whose Vandellas was signed to the Motown imprint Gordy, told the Detroit Free Press that she and her label mates credited Abrams with helping to get their music played on the radio.
“He worked like a partner to Berry Gordy. In those very first days, when music was always getting categorized — R&B or pop, black or white — Al was the one who broke down a lot of doors,” Reeves said. “He was very, very important in our progress. It was his efforts that got us through the doors that were always shut to us.”
In 1965, Abrams spread word that Bob Dylan had championed Motown’s Smokey Robinson as “America’s greatest living poet.” Abrams later admitted he and Dylan friend Al Aronowitz concocted that quote. Abrams himself said one of his greatest accomplishments was landing the Supremes on the cover of an issue of TV Magazine in 1965 in the middle of the civil rights movement.
“It really opened the doors (with editors) everywhere else — ‘Hey, we can put black people on a cover that will sit in people’s living rooms for a week, and they won’t cancel their subscriptions,'” Abrams told the Free Press in 2011. “So we saw every magazine cover, every front-page article, not just as a breakthrough for the Supremes or the Temptations or whoever, but as a breakthrough in the civil rights struggle.”
Abrams left Motown in 1967 and formed his own public relations firm, where some of his clients included James Brown, Stax Records, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus Records and more. Abrams also worked as a journalist and author, and co-wrote the musical Memories of Motown. Always a PR man, though, Abrams also laid out the details for his own obituary.
“The minute he heard his cancer was inoperable, he was making lists for me: ‘You need to say this, do this, here are some contacts, here are some photos. And I want them to mention my cats,’ ” Nancy Abrams told the Detroit Free Press Saturday. “That’s Al. Very proactive. He wanted to shape the best perception, just like he did for Motown and Stax and all the entertainers.”