Famed wordsmith Bob Dylan was once quoted referring to up-and-coming Motown singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson as “America’s greatest living poet.” But where and when Dylan actually said those words is almost impossible to figure out — because Dylan never actually said them.

An Afternoon with Al Abrams, author of “Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown”

Today at 3 p.m.
Bentley Historical Library
Free


Motown Records’s first employee and National Promotion Director Al Abrams fabricated the famous “greatest poet” quote as a stunt to gain attention for Robinson’s latest album.

In his new book, “Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown,” Abrams recounts these and other clever marketing ploys as he tells the story of Motown’s early years. He describes the genesis of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s Motown Record Corporation from his own point of view as the company’s first PR consultant.

Abrams will discuss his book and his experiences promoting Motown artists like The Supremes, The Marvelletes, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson at a book signing at the University’s Bentley Historical Library today from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Much of the material for Abrams’s book, including his original press releases, photographs and personal scrapbook, are in the Bentley archives where Abrams first began submitting his Motown memorabilia in 1998. The Bentley is committed to documenting the history of the state of Michigan — a pursuit Abrams has come to admire as a contributor to the library’s Motown history collection.

“I wanted my material to be available to all kinds of scholars and researchers,” Abrams said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “Other people had contacted me (about acquiring documents), such as the Hard Rock Cafe, but I couldn’t envision some of these great documents up on a wall in a restaurant covered in spaghetti sauce. The Bentley is really the best place for all of my stuff to be.”

According to Abrams, the job of a promotional director in the 1960s was much more laborious than it is now. Abrams said he envies today’s PR personnel in the music industry, who have the Internet at their disposal. He explained the complicated process album promotion used to involve, which included the now-defunct manual typewriter and the uncertainty of whether a press release would make it to its intended recipient on time.

However difficult the job may have been, Abrams succeeded from the start. It was a combination of boldness, tenacity and a little foolishness that won Berry Gordy, Jr.’s attention. When Abrams, a young Jewish boy from Detroit, first came to Motown’s mostly black recording studio in 1959, Gordy presented him with the challenge of getting an unknown artist named Mike Powers on the air.

Abrams took Powers’s record directly to a radio station and persistently asked the DJ to play it. After refusing Abrams for five hours, the DJ finally played the record and, as luck would have it, Gordy had his car radio tuned to the station playing Mike Powers’s song.

Gordy offered Abrams the job the next day, thinking he must be “a promotion genius,” as Abrams put it.

Abrams knew it was simply a lucky break.

“The reason I probably succeeded in getting records on the air at first is that I didn’t know what could be done and what couldn’t,” Abrams said. “I was just too naïve to know the difference.”

Abrams still enjoys listening to the music of Motown, but he doesn’t actively seek out the songs he helped get on the air. He doesn’t need to — Motown tunes can be heard everywhere, from the radio to the grocery store.

“Music is global and Motown is global, too,” Abrams said. “You can’t get away from it, but that’s not a bad thing.”

For Abrams, every Motown hit brings back a memory. This is a sentiment fans all over the world can relate to, whether they were involved in the music industry or were just avid listeners.

“There’s that phrase of Motown being the ‘soundtrack of our lives,’ and it’s completely true,” Abrams said.

Despite sounding like a publicist’s slogan for a new Motown “golden oldies” collection, “the soundtrack of our lives” is one Motown-related slogan — unlike the Dylan quotation — that Abrams didn’t fabricate.

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Mike Powers.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.