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 Wills, a Washington, D.C. native was a record promoter who worked with everyone from Al Green to Doug E. Fresh.
Wills’ entrée into the business was via Green, first as his girlfriend (who inspired the song “Love and Happiness”) then as his personal secretary.
In 1974, Jet Magazine reported that Wills alleged 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 of three who later committed suicide. Wills’ case was settled out of court.
Despite that drama, Wills went on to a successful career as a 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 company promised them one thing and wind up giving them something else, locking them into 4 and 5 album deals they couldn’t deliver on.”
Wills also worked with Teddy Pendergrass as his road 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 comes to the radio station and sits down with the program director to paint a picture of the record’s success in other markets; in order to get 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.”
Wills’ memoir touches upon a time that has mostly passed 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. Wills 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.”
And certainly the music has changed as well. Hip-hop has become the top genre in Black music and in many ways has contributed to the downfall of modern R&B.
“Some of the hip-hop lyrics are appalling and the messages are not fit for our youth,” Wills says.
Though Wills likes Pharell’s music as well as that of current artists Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Sam Smith and others, she says she was one of the first promoters willing to work with hip-hop artists. She enjoyed working with Salt N Pepa, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee and Tupac, among others, because of the positive message in their music. But she believes hip-hop’s contemporary incarnation has just gone too far.
“I believe it’s the devil’s workshop,” she says. “There is a message in every song. There is a message and there is a story. Your subliminal mind takes in what it hears and people act upon what they hear. We are programmed by the things we eat, touch, hear and taste, whether we think we are or not.”
Wills, who continues her career as a personal manager for several gospel artists, says that her 40-year history in the record business should be a heads up for others who want to follow her lead. She says it’s a great business in some respects, but it does have a down side.
“The biggest surprise was the drug abuse, [and] all the women. I thought everything was just glamorous but there’s a dark side. You put these artists on a pedestal because you can relate to one of their songs, but you find out that a lot of them are not what they actually sing about. A lot of them are not happy people. A lot of them are not educated. They just have a gift to be able to sing.
A lot of them let people come into their space. They get influenced by the wrong people. They wind up being in trouble. They are like children in a candy store. They want everything and a lot of what they want are just not good for them.”
For more information on Linda Wills and her book The Great Record Promoter click HERE.
(All photos courtesy of Linda Wills)