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Key Motown executive Barney Ales passes away at 85

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, April 20, 2020

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Berry Gordy Jr. is the name, and face, of Motown Records and its great success.

But those who know recognize Barney Ales as the company's solid No. 2.

"Berry was involved with the artists and the records that came out, I was involved with making the records hits, and we built it together," Ales, who directed Motown's sales and promotion departments, said several years ago. The Detroit native passed away on Friday, April 17, from natural causes in Malibu, Calif. at the age of 85.

His death was announced on Sunday, April 19.

"There wasn't anyone as important to Motown on the business side as Barney," says Adam White, a former Billboard editor who co-authored the 2016 book "Motown...The Sound of Young America" with Ales. "His gregarious personality was a winner at pop radio stations as Motown created a sound perfect for the airwaves, and he was also forceful in ensuring that it was paid by its distributors nationwide. "As the company grew, he recruited a dynamic sales and promotion team, which helped to drive it further to the forefront of the industry.

"He was also fully aware of the importance of the international market, another strong factor in the company's growth and influence. Backroom believers didn't come any better than Barney."

Gordy, meanwhile, never minimized Ales' contributions to Motown. "Barney was integral to our success," he noted during the company's 50th anniversary celebrations. "He took the music we made and sold it to the world. He was my great partner in this enterprise."

Ales, who resided for a time in Farmington Hills, was one of four children and attended Detroit's Cooley High School, where he met and later married Eileen (Mitzi) Cauley. He worked at a time for Chrysler's Dodge Main auto plant, then took a job in the stockroom of Capitol Records' Detroit branch, eventually moving into sales and promotions posts there and at Warner Bros. Records. He became the Detroit branch manager for the latter a year before meeting Gordy, who lured Ales away to take over sales and promotion for the then-upstart Motown.

Ales' initial run with Motown ran from 1961-72, where he helped break worldwide hits by the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and many more. "Barney was...the first of many whites to help us in our struggle to succeed," Motown star and fellow vice-president Smokey Robinson wrote of Ales in his memoir "Smokey: Inside My life." "We wanted and needed to be an integrated company. Made no apologies about it."

Ales, meanwhile, sold Motown on the quality of the music more than anything else.

"Black artists, black producers and owned by a black guy, that's what people know about it," Ales said. "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.

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

Ales, who was portrayed in "Motown: The Musical," stayed in Detroit when the company moved to Hollywood in 1972, launching his own Prodigal Records label. But Gordy convinced him to come west and rejoin Motown in 1975, and Ales went on to become its president until he left again in 1979. After that Ales worked led several other labels, including Elton John's Rocket Records and Bob Guccione's Penthouse Records. Ales retired in 1999, enjoying sports, cars and classic movies as well as accumulating one of the world's largest private collections of the works of Charles Dickens.

Ales is survived by wife, five children (Steven, Barney, Shelley, Brett and Cristina), nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren. The family is directing memorial contributions to the Detroit Sound Conservancy (www.detroitsound.org).

Web Site: www.detroitsound.org

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