‘MOTOWN BLACK & WHITE’
New exhibit explores connection between rival soul labels — Memphis’ Stax Records and Detroit’s Motown Records
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.”