‘MO­TOWN BLACK & WHITE’

New ex­hibit ex­plores con­nec­tion be­tween ri­val soul la­bels — Mem­phis’ Stax Records and Detroit’s Mo­town Records

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - FRONT PAGE - By Bob Mehr mehr@com­mer­cialap­peal.com 901-529-2517

Stax ex­hibit high­lights link be­tween soul la­bels

Mem­phis’ Stax Records has long been seen as the grit­tier South­ern cousin to Detroit’s Mo­town Records. While both turned out hits in the ’60s and ’70s that would de­fine soul mu­sic and re­de­fine pop, the aes­thetic and cul­tural dis­tance be­tween the two la­bels has lin­gered. This week, how­ever, a key con­nec­tion be­tween the la­bels will be high­lighted as the Stax Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Soul Mu­sic un­veils a new ex­hibit, “Mo­town Black & White.”

The ex­hibit is based on the pri­vate col­lec­tion of the late Al Abrams, who was Mo­town’s first em­ployee, hired back in 1959. “He was their head of PR,” says Stax Mu­seum di­rec­tor Jeff Kol­lath. “Af­ter he left Mo­town in 1966, he did some in­de­pen­dent con­sult­ing, and one of his clients was Stax Records.”

Abrams con­sulted with Stax in ’66 and ’67, help­ing train the la­bel’s fu­ture pub­lic­ity ma­jor­domo, Deanie Parker. “I wanted to be­come a pub­li­cist for Stax,” says Parker. “For­tu­nately (Stax co-own­ers) Jim Ste­wart and Estelle Ax­ton de­ter­mined I had the po­ten­tial and could be so much bet­ter if I had some­one who could men­tor and tu­tor me. And Al Abrams was that per­son.”

Parker re­calls learn­ing the ropes of the PR biz from Abrams long-dis­tance. “Al Abrams be­came my on-the-job trainer via USPS and ATT,” says Parker, chuck­ling. “He would show me how to write a news re­lease, would cri­tique what we were do­ing, and from him I un­der­stood how to rec­og­nize a pub­lic­ity op­por­tu­nity. That’s how I learned pub­lic­ity 101 — it was from Al Abrams.

“When I think back, with­out Al Abrams, cer­tainly with­out some­one as pa­tient, we would not have got­ten any­where in pub­li­ciz­ing (Stax) and its artists,” says Parker. “At the time, nei­ther The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal nor the Press-scim­i­tar ac­knowl­edged we even ex­isted. We were able, with Al Abrams’ help, to get first press from pub­li­ca­tions out­side Mem­phis, and that fi­nally caused Mem­phis to take no­tice.”

Adds Kol­lath: “Abrams was not just show­ing how to pro­mote records but how to get sto­ries in news­pa­pers and really try and pro­mote the la­bel be­yond the mu­sic, and talk about the peo­ple mak­ing it. From his time work­ing with Deanie, (Abrams) al­ways had a fond­ness for Stax.”

In 2011, Abrams pub­lished a book called “Hype & Soul: Be­hind the Scenes at Mo­town.” The vol­ume, an in­sider ac­count of the com­pany’s early

years, in­cluded a se­lec­tion of doc­u­ments Abrams saved and pho­tos he shot of the la­bel’s stars. In the wake of the book’s re­lease, Abrams put to­gether an ex­hibit that would even­tu­ally pre­miere at the Muham­mad Ali Cen­ter in Louisville.

Around that time, Abrams re­con­nected with Stax through Soulsville pub­li­cist Tim Samp­son. When Kol­lath took over as mu­seum head last year, talks be­gan in earnest about bring­ing an ex­hibit of Abrams’ ma­te­rial to Mem­phis.

“He was work­ing with us and putting it to­gether,” says Kol­lath. “But, sadly, he passed way last fall from can­cer — it was a very short ill­ness. Since then, we’ve been work­ing with his widow, Nancy, to se­cure the items for the ex­hibit.”

Since its de­but in 2013, “Mo­town Black & White” has been dis­played in sev­eral other cities in­clud­ing Detroit, and it will head next year to Tel Aviv, Is­rael, though not be­fore a scaled-down ver­sion of it comes to Stax.

The ex­hibit, which opens Fri­day and runs through Nov. 8, fea­tures 20 large-for­mat im­ages of the Temp­ta­tions, the Supremes, Martha and the Van­del­las, the Mir­a­cles, and Marvin Gaye, among oth­ers.

“There’s also t wo good-size dis­play cases with ar­ti­facts, as well as some Mo­town artists’ cos­tumes,” says Kol­lath. “And there’s also a func­tional juke­box that plays Mo­town hits.”

A free pub­lic re­cep­tion will be held at 6 p.m. Fri­day evening. Abrams’ widow, Nancy, and his one­time pro­tégé Deanie Parker are set to at­tend. “This ex­hibit is really per­sonal for me,” says Parker.

“It’s strange, but in all the years that I knew Al Abrams, if we met each other face to face one time, I can’t re­mem­ber when it was. My lessons from Al were by mail and phone, but in that short pe­riod of time, I learned so much. What­ever suc­cess I had in mar­ket­ing or pub­lic­ity, it’s a credit to Al Abrams, be­lieve me. So it means a lot to have his legacy given its place at Stax.”

As part of the Abrams ex­hibit, the Stax Mu­seum will also of­fer some com­ple­men­tary pro­gram­ming.

The sec­ond edi­tion of its Soul Cinema se­ries will be de­voted to Mo­town-re­lated movies. The pro­gram kicks off Aug. 29 with “Stand­ing in the Shad­ows of Mo­town,” di­rec­tor Paul Just­man’s 2002 film ex­am­in­ing the ori­gins, ca­reers and lega­cies of the stu­dio mu­si­cians known as “the Funk Broth­ers.”

Kol­lath says the Abrams ex­hibit will wrap up just as Stax’s plans for 2017 ramp-up.

Next year will mark the 60th an­niver­sary of the la­bel’s launch (ini­tially as Satel­lite Records), as well the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 Stax-volt Euro­pean tour, 50 years since Otis Red­ding’s death, and the 100th birth­day of la­bel leg­end Ru­fus Thomas. “We’re still fi­nal­iz­ing our plans,” says Kol­lath, “but we ex­pect a year­long ef­fort to com­mem­o­rate all those events and an­niver­saries.”

The Stax Musuem will be cel­e­brat­ing the his­tory of an­other iconic soul la­bel with the ex­hibit “Mo­town Black & White,” fea­tur­ing im­ages (this one of Marvin Gaye) from the col­lec­tion of the late Al Abrams, who was Mo­town’s first em­ployee and its pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor.

Al Abrams, who died of can­cer last fall, was men­tor to Deanie Parker, a Stax pub­li­cist who said, “What­ever suc­cess I had in mar­ket­ing or pub­lic­ity, it’s a credit to Al Abrams, be­lieve me.”

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