A little music history: Back when records were still the primary way people heard music, you needed people who could go to the radio station to promote a new song and help convince a radio program director to make it a hit. Those promoters made great money forging relationships with artists, record labels and radio stations and helped bring many of the classic songs we all know to the public.
They’ve been immortalized in movies like Ray, Cadillac Records and Dreamgirls because of their importance to the industry but most of their stories go untold. Until now. Linda Willis, a Washington, D.C. native was a record promoter who worked with everyone from Al Green to Doug E. Fresh.
Willis’s entrée into the business was via Green, who she worked with as his tour secretary until she sued him in federal court for assault and battery in 1974, her second such suit against the singer. (The first was dismissed in state court due to conflicting testimony.)
She alleged that Green beat her and threw her through a glass door after an argument over her salary. This happened the same year that Green was burned by hot grits by Mary Woodson, a married mother with three who later committed suicide. Willis’ case was settled out of court.
Despite that drama, Willis went on to a successful career as promoter. She says her new book, The Great Record Promoter provides a glimpse of music history as well as few cautionary tales for those who believe the glittering bright lights of the entertainment industry mean everything is perfect beyond them.
“When I worked with Al Green, I got an opportunity to see how artists operate and to see how things that they go through with the record companies, with management companies and with concert promoters. A lot of them have gotten bad checks from concert promoters. Or the record industry promised them one thing and winds up giving them something else.”
Green also worked with Teddy Pendergrass as his tour secretary, so she got a chance to work with two artists at their artistic peaks. She says that most people don’t realize how much work was put into making sure that what are now considered classic hits actually made it to the public.
“There has to be a person who came to the radio station and sat down with the program director to paint a picture of the record in order to give the program director to add your record to the playlist. People may not know about us, but in order for the artist to move ahead you have to have people that know about your product.”
Willis’ memoir touches upon a time that has mostly passed in in the music business. Although record promoters still exist in much smaller numbers, radio (and record stores, which promoters also worked) now play far less into an artist’s success than it ever has. Technology has allowed artists to promote and sell their music more directly through social media and the Internet. Willis doesn’t necessarily think it’s an improvement, as it means there’s much less of a chance to build relationships.
“It was more personable when you had promotion people. A lot of time we took the artists with us and they got a chance to meet the program director. Now everything is so mechanical. You don’t have those personal touches anymore. We contributed to Black history and I think the way we did it in the past is better than the way they’re doing it now.”
Record Promoter Linda Willis Shares Music History In New Book was originally published on blackamericaweb.com