Former Motown Records President & Sales Chief Barney Ales Dies at 85

Courtesy Motown Archives

Motown founder Berry Gordy with label sales exec Barney Ales.

Baldassare "Barney" Ales, the charismatic sales chief who helped turn Motown Records into a music industry powerhouse as Berry Gordy's right-hand man, died of natural causes Friday in Malibu, Calif. He was 85.

Born in Detroit on May 13, 1934, Ales attended the city's Cooley High, where he met his future wife, Eileen "Mitzi" Cauley. His career in music began at just 21 years old, when he joined the stockroom of Capitol Records' local branch, advancing over the next four years to posts in sales and promotion before joining Warner Bros. Records in 1959 as its Detroit branch manager. The following year, Ales met Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr., who offered him the job of national sales manager and promotion director at the then-fledgling company.

From there, Ales played a key role in growing Motown from a young upstart to the frontline of the record industry, helping break nationwide hits by The Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and The Supremes -- who scored five consecutive Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits in 1964-65. In 1969, Ales was promoted to executive VP and general manager, and in 1970, Motown scored seven more No. 1 hits on the Hot 100, an annual record for the independent company.

When Motown moved its headquarters to California in 1972, Ales stayed in Detroit to launch his own label, Prodigal Records -- but by 1975, Gordy brought him back as executive VP of Motown in Los Angeles, where Ales later rose to its president. Under Ales' leadership, Motown achieved another eight Hot 100 chart-topping singles, and a 14-week reign atop the Billboard 200 for Wonder's blockbuster Songs In The Key of Life album.

Those who knew Ales said that his business savvy and personal charm were crucial for helping Motown artists cross over to mainstream radio.

"It was a privilege to know Barney," says music journalist and former Billboard editor-in-chief Adam White, who collaborated with Ales to write the 2016 book Motown: The Sound of Young America. "He was truly a charismatic man and a 'people person,' which helped get the records played -- and to get Motown paid! And if you had told the 19-year-old Motown fan who first met him after a Gladys Knight & the Pips show in London in 1967 that we would eventually collaborate to tell that story, I wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- have believed it."

Smokey Robinson, who was such a key member of Motown as an artist and songwriter that he even served as the label's vice president, told Billboard that “All news of the death of a loved one is bad. Sometimes it’s devastating. The news of Barney Ales’ passing is devastating to me. I loved him so much. Condolences to all of us in his Motown family and his immediate family.”

GAB Archives/Redferns
Marvin Gaye and Motown's Barney Ales pose with gold discs of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" circa 1969.

After departing Motown in 1979, Ales headed several independent labels -- including Elton John’s Rocket Records, Bob Guccione’s Penthouse Records and Norman Granz’s Pablo Records -- before retiring at the end of the century. In his private life, he enjoyed sports, cars and classic movies and once owned one of the largest private collections of the works of Charles Dickens. Last year, Motown Records celebrated its 60th anniversary with a special tribute following the Grammy Awards.

Ales is survived by his wife Eileen; children Steven, Barney, Shelley, Brett and Cristina; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. No funeral is planned, and in lieu of flowers being sent to his home, the family is requesting donations be made to the Detroit Sound Conservancy.

“Thank you, Dad, for you helped many people throughout their life to aspire to your favorite quote: 'Live, Laugh, Love,'” the family said in a statement. "R.I.P., and we all will be together soon.”