Barney Ales, a natural-born salesman whose charisma and aggressive instincts helped turn Motown Records into a music-industry powerhouse, died Friday of natural causes in Malibu, California, his family said. He was 85.
Though he wasn’t a household name, the white executive was a pivotal figure at the black-owned label, helping penetrate key power corridors of the industry establishment while overseeing Motown’s sales division in the 1960s. He later served three years as company president.
Born Baldassare Ales, he grew up in northwest Detroit, the son of a Sicilian-native father and a mother from northern Michigan. Having started as a stock boy with Capitol Records, he eventually rose to manage that company’s Detroit branch, and was running his own record-distribution firm in 1961 when he was tapped by Berry Gordy Jr. to head up sales and promotion for the fledgling Motown.
The street-savvy wheeler-and-dealer proved critical to crossover success for Motown, which had already run up a string of hits on the R&B charts: Within months of his arrival, Motown landed its first No. 1 pop hit, the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”
Assembling a diverse staff of Detroit music-biz veterans, Ales gave Motown an entree to the industry establishment — the white-dominated record distributors and radio promoters behind the scenes who could quietly make or break a mainstream hit.
His efforts helped Motown’s black artists — figures such as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson — become some of the biggest pop stars of the era.
“I just thought Barney was the greatest salesperson in the world, and he had, like, the United Nations in his sales department,” Gordy said. “When he came in, he said he would build me a great team. I wanted to sell music to all people: whites, blacks, Jews, gentiles, the cops and the robbers.”
In its early years, Motown was a scrappy newcomer in an industry with its share of shady players — including distributors inclined to blow off payments to small independent labels. Ales was commissioned by Gordy to enforce collections and shore up Motown’s revenue stream, and the imposing sales chief did just that, threatening to withhold the label’s newest hot records until bills were paid in full.
Ales remained a close confidante of Gordy through the decades, although he was among the Detroit-based personnel who initially resisted the company’s move to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He did eventually settle in Southern California and went on to serve as Motown Records president from 1975 through 1978 — a tenure marked by Stevie Wonder’s commercial and critical blockbuster “Songs in the Key of Life.”
In 2016, Ales teamed with British writer Adam White for “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” a 400-page book documenting the Motown saga with insights from Ales and rare images from his archives. The Free Press interviewed Ales at the time, and that story is republished here:
Barney Ales and author Adam White on ‘Motown: The Sound of Young America’
(By Brian McCollum. Originally published in the Detroit Free Press Sept. 10, 2016.)
The story of Motown has proved dependably compelling through the decades — a rags-to-riches tale regularly revisited in documentaries, books, even a Broadway musical.
Through it all, one important voice was rarely heard: that of Barney Ales, the Detroit-born sales chief and Berry Gordy confidante who helped propel Motown’s music onto the mainstream airwaves and record shelves.
Ales’ memories from behind the scenes are now the heart of “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” a visually rich, 400-page volume set to hit stores on Tuesday, several months after its U.K. release.
Written by veteran English music journalist Adam White — tight with Ales thanks to his long tenure at the industry magazine Billboard — the book recounts the familiar Motown saga but with a savvy eye to the wheeling-and-dealing that made the machine run.
White’s own encyclopedic Motown knowledge was supplemented by 18 months of transatlantic phone conversations with Ales, whose “ability to recall detail and stories just motivated me all the more.”
“The challenge for Barney and I was not to tell the same old stories,” says White. “I felt the one thing that wasn’t out there — and maybe this reflected my background as a trade journalist — was the backroom believers, the people who made things happen, the people who got the records played and the company paid.”
Ales, raised in northwest Detroit by a Sicilian-born father and Cheboygan-born mother, was a guy made for the old-school record business: tough and street-smart, sociable and charismatic. It was a combo that helped him quickly rise from stock boy at Capitol Records to head of its Detroit branch before launching his own record-distribution company, where he crossed paths with the young, aspiring Gordy.
They were kindred spirits in both business and social affairs, two guys who “could charm the birds right out of the trees,” as Ales says in the book.
Ales and the white sales team he assembled at Motown’s West Grand Boulevard headquarters were the key to unlocking doors to the record-biz establishment — the national network of distributors and promoters who could make or break the label’s product.
“It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a well thought-out philosophy that we had,” says Ales. “Motown was a music company. It wasn’t an R&B company. It wasn’t a soul company. It was the same as Capitol Records or CBS: a company devoted to making music.”
Hitsville’s record covers may have been emblazoned with names such as the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, but the staffers assembled by Ales — figures such as Irv Biegel, Gordon Prince, Phil Jones — were Motown stars in their own right.
“It was a great combination that was put together for marketing and sales, and it wouldn’t have worked anyplace else in the country,” says Ales. “That’s what Motown developed: not only the artists, but the record company and the (staff) that we had.”
Race, naturally, is a recurring theme in “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” which opens amid the smoke of the 1967 Detroit riot before flashing back to unfurl the tale of the self-described “colorblind” company that achieved unprecedented crossover success.
White cites one of the book’s telling scenes: an evening when Ales and Gordy arrived for dinner at Detroit’s London Chop House.
“The woman at the desk said, ‘We don’t serve colored people.’ And Barney shot back, ‘Good, because I don’t eat them,’” White says. “It sounds like a music-hall line or something. But it’s very real, and it tells you something about the time. I found that those kinds of anecdotes, those little snippets, were almost as illuminating as anything else.”
For all its focus on the business side, the book is no drab account: Indeed, the full-color volume boasts what is certainly the most comprehensive collection of Motown images assembled between two covers. About 1,000 images are featured and, by White’s estimation, at least one-third of them have never before been published or widely disseminated.
They include many candid shots from Ales’ archives, scanned by a photographer during two days at the retired exec’s Malibu home. It’s a rich cache of behind-the-scenes shots from industry conventions, Motown get-togethers and other events, picturing some of the key but often overlooked figures from Motown’s business operations.
“That sort of personal stuff made all the difference,” Ales says.
White — described affectionately by Ales as “a Motown freak” — tapped his own lifelong network of connections to round up other photos, many from private collectors and the archives of Universal Music, where he spent a decade as head of communications for the company’s international division.
Ales has lived in California since the mid-‘70s, but he and his family remain Detroit partisans, catching Tigers and Red Wings games on TV and donning University of Michigan gear. Ales was among those who initially resisted Motown’s move to the West Coast, though he eventually relented to become the company’s president from 1975 to 1978.
“Los Angeles altered Motown completely,” he says in the book. “The amount of business done in California could have been done from Detroit. The expense of being in California was absurd.”
For Ales, 82, the Saturday afternoon Skype chats with White helped “make me back alive,” a chance to revisit a period that was as emotionally rewarding as it was hectic.
“It was a great time in life,” Ales says. “I wouldn’t have changed it for anything in the world. The only thing I’d do is take my time a little bit and enjoy it more. But I loved what I was doing.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
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