Barney Who?

The other night I watched a Showtime documentary on Motown, that fantastic sound that came out of Detroit in the 1960s and launched an African American industry.

The man who started it all was Berry Gordy, a Black musician and composer who during the Showtime interview gave inspirational credit to Booker T. Washington, the man who founded the Tuskegee Institute in post-Civil War Alabama. It was Booker T who put southern Blacks on the path to vocational training and self-employment.  He is now considered controversial within the African American community because he wasn’t confrontational with White America and envisioned equality as more self-improvement than protest.  (Booker’s real surname was Taliaferro, hence the T, and he was definitely of mixed race.)  But, in Gordy’s family Booker’s philosophy made sense.

Gordy’s goal was to create a new sound that would appeal to all races – not the traditional Blues or Jazz of his people – but one that enhanced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  He set up shop in a private home he named Hitsville in a Black neighborhood of Detroit where he gathered together musicians, singers, and composers. His other inspiration was Henry Ford, the man who invented the assembly line.  Gordy worked at a Ford factory and applied the assembly line to his new music company.  Rooms were set aside to compose music, to train vocalists, to arrange and add layers to each song, to record them, and to teach singers and groups how to perform on stage – from posture to hand gestures.  We all saw the results of Gordy’s assembly line on television with Motown groups like The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, and many others.  No question, Gordy is a genius.

But another name surfaced during the documentary – Barney Ales (as in beer). It was Ales who came to Motown as its promoter and distributor.  It’s one thing to create the product, but another to sell it.  Ales is White, and Barney is short for Baldassare.  Turns out, Ales has a Sicilian background and I’ll guess his surname is Alessi, but I haven’t been able to confirm that.  In any event, Ales and Gordie were a perfect match.  It was Ales who was the face of Motown to countless DJs around the country as he marketed Gordy’s product.  Would Motown have reached White baby boomers without Ales?  Gordy’s vision needed a Euro-American facilitator, I believe.

Barney Ales was also Detroit-born, and he and Gordy hit it off socially as well (see the photo below). Gordy relates how the two entered a restaurant and Ales was told Blacks were not seated.  Ales recalls that the rebuff “got his Sicilian up” and he demanded seating for all, which they got.  Gordy’s lighthearted explanation was that Ales ‘looked like a mobster” and might have intimidated the restaurant owner.  Actually, with a name like Barney Ales and his collegiate good looks and manners, I believe this is yet another gratuitous stereotype.  Yet, there is an undercurrent in explaining how Ales held such a prominent position at Motown and was so successful in bringing it mainstream, that a “mafia angle” satisfies any skeptic.  In 1975, Ales became president of Motown Records, holding the post until 1979.

Ales (l), Gordy (r). They switched wives for the photo.

To make Motown a worldwide phenomenon, Ales arranged for a European tour in 1965 with the help of British singing star Dusty Springfield. He brought over Mary Wells (“My Guy”), The Temptations, The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Supremes. Motown conquered Europe!

Barney Ales published his story in 2016, Motown: the Sound of Young America.  Ales will join the other unsung Italian American heroes who partnered with Black musicians to bring down racial barriers over the decades. You can find their stories, written by our Senior Analyst Bill Dal Cerro of Chicago, in The Italic Way on our website (italic.org/PROGRAMS/ issues XXVI & XXVII – “Italians in Jazz”).

Although we think of the musical side of our community in terms of singers and composers, there was so much else we did behind the scenes and for others. -JLM

2 thoughts on “Barney Who?”

  1. Visiting the Motown Museum and original studios in Detroit was a gratifying experience for this baby boomer. What struck me most and which dovetails into John’s report, was the fact that the whole operation was additionally a from of schooling for these young performers. Every one of these Motown groups was slated to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. I learned that they were all groomed in protocol at Motown studios as to how to comport themselves on that show. Yes, a very multi-layered operation.

    1. Yet another “invisible” Italian American who had a significant effect on American culture (see one of my previous blogs).

      Over-all, one wonders if Motown’s “assembly-line” approach to musicality also squashed any creativity or independence within its artists, much like Hollywood’s studio system did to its actors and writers from the 1920s through the 1960s; still, one also has to look at the end results—a literal constellation of singers and songwriters who composed timeless American music for the ages.

      Today’s black “artists” (rappers) could certainly do with a bit of Gordy’s coaching on how to conduct themselves both publicly and creatively. Tutorials on how to actually sing would also be welcome.

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