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BARNEY ALES,
1934-2020

Barney Ales, Berry Gordy’s right-hand man at Motown Records during its heyday and later its president, died Friday of natural causes  in Malibu. He was 85.

Ales joined Motown Records in 1960 as national sales manager and promotion director and over the next 12 years played a central role in the label’s growth and success. He helped break countless hits by The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and The Supremes as the label became the biggest hit-making machine of the era on the pop and R&B charts.

Ales was on a station visit when he first met Gordy. “I was sitting in the waiting area at WQTE, a Detroit pop station, when Berry (Gordy) came in with two big guys. I thought they were security guys,” Ales told Michael Sigman in the first edition of HITSHistory of the Music Biz, published in 2016. “I was there to see disc jockey Tom Clay (a.k.a. Jack the Bellboy). Berry noticed the label on the record in my hands and said, ‘I’m Berry Gordy—would you wait for me afterwards and would you talk to me?’ I didn’t know anything about who he was, but I said sure.

“We talked for a while and he said, ‘I’d like to see you sometime.’”

Ales and Gordy became friends, going out to jazz clubs three or four times a week. After seeing Ales’ clout with radio DJS, Gordy brought him into the fold and he quickly became the face of the company in dealing with the overwhelmingly white world of radio, retail, distribution and one-stops. “A lot of people thought I owned Motown, and that was fine with Berry and me,” Ales said.

In 1969, Ales was promoted to Executive VP and General Manager; the following year, Motown scored seven #1 singles, its highest total in a single year.

“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.”

A Detroit native born Baldassare Ales, his music business career started in the stockroom of Capitol Records’ local branch and he worked his way up the sales and promotion ladder before joining Warner Bros. Records in 1959 as its Detroit branch manager.

More than a decade later, he chose to stay in Detroit when Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles. He formed his own label, Prodigal Records, and released a handful of records.

Gordy brought Ales back to the label in 1975 as EVP, eventually naming him president. Among their successes were the revival of David Ruffin’s career and Stevie Wonder’s chart-topping  Songs in the Key of Life.

Ales left Motown in 1979 headed several independent labels, among them Elton John’s Rocket Records, Bob Guccione’s Penthouse Records and Norman Granz’s Pablo Records. He retired at the end of the 20th century.

“I never had any ideas about going into the studio,” he said in History of the Music Biz. “I played around with the music and wrote some songs, but that wasn’t my forte. My job was running the machine, selling records and making sure we got paid. I made sure the business was taken care of.”

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