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Major new Motown book sheds light on the "backroom believers"

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Monday, September 12, 2016

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The Motown story has been told from virtually all angles over the years -- from inside and outside, by performers, executives, analysts, even company founder Berry Gordy Jr. himself.

But Adam White and Barney Ales have found a new perspective with their comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book "Motown...The Sound of Young America" (Thames & Hudson), which publishes in the U.S. on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

In their 400 pages, White, a journalist and onetime Billboard editor, and Ales, Motown's de facto No. 2 during two stints as an executive vice-president and general manager, shine a spotlight on the mostly untold business side of Motown, the promotion, sales and marketing departments that got the records played and sold -- and that the company was properly compensated. Names like Irv Biegel, Gordon Prince and Tommy Schlesinger aren't as familiar as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the rest, but as far as the authors are concerned their accomplishments were as crucial to Detroit-founded label's success as anything that happened in Hitville USA's Studio A.

"There was a competition between Berry and myself," says Ales, 82, a onetime Farmington Hills resident, says by phone from his current home in Malibu. "He thought his artists and producers were the most important part of the company. I thought my sales department and marketing departments were the most important thing.

"So we had a great combination between the two of us. I never wanted to go in the studio and he never wanted to talk to distributors. Berry was involved with making the records; I was involved in making them hits. We really complemented each other."

White, 67 -- who met Ales nearly 50 years ago in London, where White was a record store clerk and Motown fanboy -- has written extensively about Motown before, including books about the label and the Holland/Dozier/Holland writing team. He's read most of the vast amount of literature about Motown. And that's what fueled him to find a fresh direction for this outing.

"I was keen for us to not repeat all of the other books that had been written about Motown," White -- who spent a considerable amount of time in Detroit researching the book and spoke extensively with Motown's principals and other employees -- explains by phone from London. "I didn't want to tell the same stories and same things we all know and rather focus on what I call the backroom believers, the people that aren't really know in the Motown story -- like Barney. If he hadn't got the records played and the company paid, not much would've happened.

"Most of all I wanted to add to the sum of knowledge of Motown, the people and what it accomplished. There is so much out there, but very little of it has looked at the mechanics of the business. So I felt it was their time to get recognition."

Ales, who was prominant enough to be portrayed in "Motown: The Musical" says he and his colleagues certainly bear no grudge over being eclipsed by Motown's many hitmakers. But he is happy to have a chance to tell the stories from his side of the operation, including the struggles overcoming institutional racism in the music business as well as a system rigged to challenge, if not outright cheat, the smaller independent companies.

"Black artists, black producers and owned by a black guy, that's what people know about it," Ales says. "They don't realize it was a record company, just like CBS, RCA and Capitol. We weren't looking for one-hit artists and then on to the next one; We wanted to develop the artists to have careers and longevity.

"And we built that together. It was a company that was built with love. I get carried away sometimes, but it was a fantastic company."

"Motown...The Sound of Young America" will be published on Sept. 13, with a foreword by Andrew Loog Oldham. Retail price is $60.

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