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SOUL SURVIVOR: How I Became the First and Last White R&B Editor of Billboard Magazine

I was 22 in 1967 when I hired as a cub reporter by Billboard magazine, “the bible of the music business,” in New York City. While I had greater aspirations as a writer than writing for Billboard, Billboard was my best opportunity for a job after many failed attempts upon graduating college and waiting anxiously for months for the Billboard job to finally materialize.

Despite the rock music explosion that dominated Billboard’s famous Hot 100 hit record charts at the time, my role was far removed from the music. I didn’t mind that several editors gave me stacks of press releases to edit and rewrite every week and copy to proofread, but every time I was sent out to interview someone in the jukebox business­—jukeboxes bought most of the single records then, which drove the music industry—or write about the tiny toys and gum balls in vending machines, which Billboard covered back then, I was miserable. And after going through a tough time adapting to different deadlines, a roomful of quirky bosses and off-beat assignments I couldn’t stomach, I began to worry I might be let go.

Part of my discomfort stemmed from never having worked in an office before and not quite knowing how to deal with some of the off-putting and outright strange personalities in the office as well as in the business. I was green out of Syracuse University and wasn’t fitting easily into the musty big-city, old-school, theater-district entertainment-trade magazine culture. The No. 2 newspaper in New York, The Herald-Tribune, had recently folded, and I knew Billboard could find a more experienced reporter, someone with a wife and kids who desperately needed the job, willing to catch on for very little.

The thing was, I desperately needed the job, too. But I was struggling to find my niche.

So I was sweating a bit when then Editor-in-Chief Lee Zhito called me into his office. A sharp, experienced newsman of Russian descent (born in Kiev, actually), Lee was no fool, and I was sure he saw and knew everything I knew, and was keenly aware my situation was rapidly reaching critical mass.

I had no idea what I would say to Lee when he pointed out the obvious to me. I was so anxious about flunking out of Billboard all I could think of saying to him was, “Please give me another chance. There must be something else I can do for you.”

I had no way of knowing he already had other plans for me, and was about to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He was light years ahead of me, maybe too far ahead.

“What do you know about rhythm and blues?” he asked. My ears perked up. Those were musical words.

He obviously had done some serious thinking, because he started off by telling me confidential information about one of Billboard’s employees. He confided that the man covering rhythm and blues music for Billboard at that time, a black man, was also an ad salesman for the magazine and, according to Lee, “on the take”—meaning he was taking money and gifts from record companies to push their records up Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Singles chart.

Lee told me he couldn’t trust the guy any longer but was afraid to fire him. Instead he would separate editorial from sales, as it should be, hire an R&B editor and limit the itchy-fingered salesman to sales. It wasn’t as easy as that, though. Lee said he was uncomfortable hiring another black to cover R&B music for fear that he, too, would eventually go on the take, as if they were all on the take and he couldn’t tell them apart. This paranoid comment set off alarm bells in my head. What was he thinking? Was he paying attention? It was the peak of the ’60s Civil Rights movement in America. Now more than ever, Billboard needed to join the march of history and hire a black music editor, or they would be the joke of the business.

Billboard was then owned by the Littleford family of Cincinnati. Bill Littleford, who ran Billboard, was about as white-bread, conservative Middle America as you could get. Billboard thought nothing of waltzing with the white jukebox mafia, but hiring a black editor to cover black music in the middle of an historic black cultural revolution was something they didn’t want to touch! So Lee looked around the staff and by process of elimination turned to me. Incredibly, he wanted me to be the new rhythm & blues editor. In an instant, fear of losing my job turned to new hope and then fear for my life. The business had its militant wing, and Billboard was inviting charges of institutional racism and gross neglect by naming me R&B editor. It was an absolutely outrageous idea, an embarrassing and dangerous proposition smelling of a massive future backfire. I wanted to scream: “Hello! I’m the WRONG COLOR! Don’t you see? Don’t you get it?”

How would a 22-year-old white rhythm & blues editor play with an aggressive black music business looking for long-overdue credit for propping up a sagging industry with steady, solid sales? How big a bull’s-eye would I have on my back then? I could see how it might go down in the R&B business and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

One of the strongest cornerstones of the industry, R&B was exploding with new passion and purpose reflected in the parallel rise of the Civil Rights movement. Black power was a real force to be reckoned with in the business, and brazenly denying the job of black music editor to a qualified black at the leading music trade publication would be surely construed by black music leaders as a gross insult and morally unacceptable. Such a blatant act of cultural ignorance and political incorrectness could cause the black music industry to boycott Billboard altogether, dealing the magazine a crippling blow. I later learned that some black industry executives, already feeling under-represented on Billboard’s charts, had loosely talked amongst themselves about just such a boycott. All that was needed to light the fuse was Billboard doing exactly what it was thinking of doing; it could have sealed their fate. Billboard couldn’t succeed by only being the music publication of the white music industry based in just country and rock. One would have thought it was in Billboard’s best economic interests, and their responsibility to this burgeoning industry, to conduct an earnest search for a black writer.

I shivered to think that Billboard would stoop so low as to imagine it could substitute me for the real thing and get away with it. All I had to do was turn it down… and I was finished at Billboard.

Lee told me to think fast. He said had to make a move within 24 hours. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but it had an edge of urgency to it. I knew it was crazy for me to even think about doing it. I could see he was in a bind in his mind. I didn’t think it should be a big deal to hire a black writer; in fact, it would be a timely opportunity for the magazine to join the ’60s before the ’70s dawned. But I could see Lee wasn’t going to budge from his comfort zone. He’d made up his mind not to put an ad in the magazine and go through the process of interviewing black writers. It was a vivid illustration of the white establishment raised on Broadway and carnivals failing to come to terms with the rise of black entertainment and its impact on whites and blacks alike. The music business was supposed to be the liberal front lines of cultural change, yet here goes Billboard hurtling headlong in the opposite direction, clinging to the past.

Lee appeared genuinely lost. At that moment that he placed his faith and trust in me, and I saw the opportunity to respond to that trust and seal our relationship for good. I didn’t want to say no to him. If I went back to him one more time and told him I couldn’t handle it, or at least give it a try, I was sure he would let me go. I didn’t want to quit and I didn’t want to lose the job I struggled so hard to get. I felt I had little choice.

With all my bridges burning and nowhere else to turn, the next day I told Lee I would do it—until he found a suitable replacement, and he agreed knowing full well he wouldn’t comply. I could tell by his relief that he had completed his “search” for the only candidate for the job. My probationary period at Billboard was suddenly over and my salary was now $275 a week. The subject of a black black music editor was never mentioned again.

Lee’s worries were over but mine were just beginning. I asked myself over and over again: How can I pull this off—and for how long? And what would happen to me once I was found out? This would take some serious strategizing.

I decided on a basic approach of keeping a no-to-low profile and letting my work speak for itself. I didn’t need to step out and show the world how white I was! Because I was the “wrong color,” I felt I had to speak loudly for black music, identify more deeply with black audiences, black causes and issues. More than speaking loudly, I needed to be a leading voice, the cutting edge, a lightning rod for a black music industry bristling with black pride and, yes, resentment toward established white-owned companies like, yes, Billboard, that turned a deaf ear toward the black music business.

Sure, I was as big a fan of R&B as any suburban white kid, but representing R&B would be a huge challenge for me, and I knew there would be consequences no matter what. I figured that my best protection against well-deserved criticism toward myself and Billboard was to do the best job I could, and I only hoped by the time word got around and it was known that I was white, at the end of the day people in the black music business wouldn’t have much to say except, “The kid’s good.” And then I’ll have at least acquitted myself through my dedication to promoting black music and done my small part to elevate awareness of black music’s many shining successes.

I noticed most of the major sections of Billboard were anchored by a column, and I decided the centerpiece of a rejuvenated R&B section would be a new column. After doing some research, I borrowed the title of a Cal Tjader jazz composition, “Soul Sauce,” for the name of my column. “Soul Sauce” had a simple structure: a brief headline topic; some news and trends of the week; a breakdown of the hottest new records and fastest movers; and a “Best New Record of the Week.” The subjects were broken up into radio-friendly subheads such as “Fillets of Soul,” “Soul Slices” and “Tid-Grits.” And the column always ended with the same signature statement and question based on correspondence from a VIP reader in the business: “So-and-so reads Soul Sauce. Do you?” I hoped that in a couple of months people would take to “Soul Sauce” as if it had been there all along, get in the habit of reading it every week, and start writing in. Anyway, that was “the plan.” The launch of “Soul Sauce” went off without a hitch because nobody really expected very much. Weeks passed with little reaction.

Then I began to get letters from people in the R&B business, letters that included the words: “I read Soul Sauce.”

I stuck to the plan and stayed out of view, which suited me just fine. Eventually, though, as “Soul Sauce” gained some traction simply by showing up week in and week out in Billboard, people in the business in New York, record promotion men in particular, wanted to meet me to hype their records. They wanted to be in the column because deejays were reading “Soul Sauce.” The good news was that I could now listen to the new records every week and pick out the winners as soon as they came out. The bad news was that I would be flushed out from behind my desk when I was trying to keep a lid on my personal profile as long as I possibly could. I felt some pressure to surface a bit, and I didn’t quite know how to do that in degrees, since as soon as I poked up my skinny white neck, word would get out and there would no way to take it back.

All the activity was a sign that “Soul Sauce” was sinking in—and about to hitch a ride with the Soul Revolution.

“Billboard has established many innovations in their music trade coverage. Their ‘Soul Sauce’ column gained popularity immediately and is no doubt the music widely read R&B feature each week.”
                                 —Jim Stewart, President, Stax/Volt Records

******

As a middle-class kid coming of age in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I had no prejudice toward any music that caught my ear—rock ‘n’ roll, pop, county, R&B. It was all just music to me, and I loved music. I needed no introduction to the R&B hits that all white kids heard on white pop radio at the time, the ones that poured out of the hit factories of Motown, Stax/Volt, Gamble-Huff, Atlantic, Chess-Checker and others. But with the responsibility of representing Black Music to a wider world now resting on my shoulders, I needed to know much, much more about the R&B that black audiences loyally followed, the R&B that white audiences rarely heard unless they listened to black radio, went to black clubs and black shows, and listened to every album track of the artists that black audiences so faithfully followed. Heck, at some point, I knew I had to go to church to learn what R&B was all about, and spend time in the deep south, where white people don’t usually go, and find what was playing on jukeboxes in clubs and bars down there; I had to find out what the real hits were, not necessarily what appeared on Billboard’s charts, but the records people played over and over again, to begin to understand where the music was coming from and where it was going.

Many of the top R&B artists were nowhere to be found on Billboard’s pop charts, only on the R&B charts, because only black radio stations played the music black audiences wanted to hear. Many of these artists, primarily from the South, were complete unknowns to Northern white audiences raised to a smoother brand of R&B, but they consistently played to packed clubs in the South. They almost never reached the pop top-40 songs played on pop radio—despite that fact that they sold a ton of records—because their record sales went unreported to the retail chains that reported their sales to Billboard. Billboard’s R&B charts were no more than a guesstimate of radio play—notoriously manipulated by payola and drugola—plus record sales gathered from the same big-city radio and record chains. Sales from independent black retail outlets in smaller towns and cities, where most black music was purchased, weren’t captured for the charts. The system that determined the hits and the misses was broken and badly needed to be fixed for black music to assume its rightful place.

I knew going in it was an impossible task, but I still needed to be fortified with as much knowledge as I could absorb as fast as I could absorb it. I badly didn’t want to embarrass myself as young, white and stupid. That would have been the worst-case scenario, to be exposed and run out of the business overnight. I didn’t want to misspell a name or get a title wrong. I had an awful lot to learn, more than I could ever make up for musically and culturally, and worlds of experience to make up for than time allowed, but my education began in earnest nevertheless.

In 1967 a new R&B queen appeared on the scene, Aretha Franklin, a rare songstress combining such overwhelming power, vulnerability and raw emotion that the entire R&B genre began to move to her beat. Aretha’s producer was the late Jerry Wexler, one of the principals of Atlantic Records. Wexler was credited with coining the term Rhythm & Blues. He recorded Ray Charles, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown in the ’50s, Aretha and other soul greats in the ’60s, and Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt in the ’70s and ’80s. His productions included Aretha’s “Respect,” Percy Sledge’s “A Man and a Woman” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” He produced 16 albums for Aretha. After returning from World War II, Wexler secured a job at Billboard while attending college and studying journalism. He got the magazine to drop the chart term “race records” and replace it with Rhythm & Blues.

He also wrote a piece for the New Yorker and had a literary sensibility, and watching his success with Atlantic and Aretha helped me embrace my time at Billboard. Though my dreams as a writer lay beyond Billboard, I was finding my way, however clumsily at first. Wherever it was going to lead me, knowing Jerry had gone from Billboard to become one of the greatest record producers of all time, gave me hope that better days were yet to come for me. It was through Wexler that I interviewed Aretha. That interview ended abruptly when Aretha and then husband Ted White starting trading punches, and the only thing separating them was me.

Through “Soul Sauce” I met many talented R&B artists and executives, but as I began to gain some recognition for my efforts, I also began to receive the anticipated criticism. Understandably, not everyone was happy about my role, regardless of how hard I worked, and though I accepted and embraced it for what it was, it still stung, as it should.

Through his attorney, R&B pioneer Jerry Butler wrote Billboard and demanded I never use in name in “Soul Sauce.” That was disappointing, but nothing compared to the pulverizing, in-person tongue-lashing I received from music/film legend Melvin Van Peebles, who turned around an interview on me and verbally lambasted me for being what I was, a white suburban kid who couldn’t possibly understand where he, black people and their music were coming from. As hard as his tirade was to bear at the moment, I remained calm and respectful and took it all because he was an artist, a poet, and I appreciated the elegant, blunt education he was taking the time to give me. However it singed my lily-white ears, it didn’t keep me from enjoying and promoting his groundbreaking album and film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.

Even that dramatic “teaching moment” took a backseat to being kidnapped in an elevator of the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami in 1970 during a black radio association convention, when I was involuntarily escorted from the elevator to a room by people I actually knew—including the irked black Billboard salesman I displaced—accompanied by a couple of thugs with what clearly appeared to be guns bulging in their shirts­. Once in the room I listened concerned while they debated throwing me out an 11th floor window. A revered black New York promotion lady intervened and said, “Oh he’s alright,” and they let me go. In a strange way I considered that experience an initiation.

[UPDATE: In a June 2014 email exchange with former Billboard editor-in-chief and UK music executive Adam White, he asked me: “Who was the promo lady who gave you the seal of approval?” His question pushed me to do some long-overdue research. Following is my response to Adam, who has since written a book about Motown:

“The promo lady who bailed me out of trouble at the NATRA convention was Effie Smith. When researching this question I was stunned to discover who Effie Smith was. This is what I found online:

Born Effie Mae Bly, 10 April 1914, Pittsburgh County, Oklahoma
Died 11 February 1977, Los Angeles, California

Part of the ground-zero explosion of black entertainment that occurred on the West Coast of America in the early 1940s, leading to a mushrooming of independent record labels and the birth of the R&B record industry, California was notable as the starting place for the recording careers of a host of strong, talented women performers, among whom was Effie Smith, a singer and comedienne whose show business career stretched from the early 1930s until the early 1970s.

Born Effie Bly, in Oklahoma in 1914, little is known of her early biography; although she obviously married someone called Smith at a very young age in the early 1930s, and she has been reported as working as a vocalist with The Three Shades of Rhythm and Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra in the same decade. The marriage to “Smith” soon foundered and she married songwriter John L Criner (1914-1992), who, himself originally a comedian, had starred in the 1939 Spencer Williams comedy thriller Midnight Shadow before forming his own Sunset Boulevard-based Royal Record Co., sporting the G&G and Gem labels, in the mid 1940s. During WWII Effie Smith had been featured on several AFRS “Jubilee” radio transcriptions and, after touring with Benny Carter’s Orchestra in early 1945, her own solo recording career began with those same G&G and Gem labels, with small bands organised by Johnny Otis. Criner, too, recorded a couple of releases on his labels, one side of which Sugar Mama Blues, was a regional hit and was licensed by Miltone Records for re-release backed with Effie’s Wee Baby Brother Blues.

Effie Smith went on to record for Aladdin, with Buddy Harper’s band, Miltone again, with Roy Milton’s group, an unissued session for Modern, and then Decca with Ike Carpenter’s Orchestra. A one-off release in 1954 teamed Effie and John on Mambo Blues, while the advent of rock ‘n’ roll persuaded her to make several records with a vocal group called The Squires for Vita Records (Smith and Criner can effectively take the credit for discovering Don and Dewey, who sang with The Squires and were used on a couple of 45s backing Effie and John in 1956 on their own Shade and Spot labels, before Don and Dewey went to Specialty Records). Effie’s son, Fred Sledge Smith, born in 1933, went on to become an important R&B/soul producer and songwriter in Los Angeles, particularly with The Olympics of Western Movies fame.a group managed by his step-father, John Criner!

In spite of her long career in the entertainment industry and her three-decade recording career, Effie Smith herself did not get the merest whiff of Billboard R&B chart action until the 1960s, when two of her own, self-produced comedy records made the charts: the two-part Dial That Telephone – a remake of her 1953 Aladdin release – was issued on another Criner/Smith label, Duo Disc (#36 in 1965) and – an answer to Jeannie C Riley’s huge cross-over country hit – Harper Valley PTA Gossip was released on Eee Cee (Effie Criner?) (#43 in 1968). During the late 1960s and early 1970s she was employed by Stax Records to handle promotion work, behind the scenes, until her premature death in 1977 in Los Angeles, from cancer.
Recommended listening:

Effie Smith 1945-53 (Classics 5116)
This important CD is, unbelievably, the first reissue of Effie Smith’s classic material in ANY format, featuring her earliest work for G&G/Gem, Aladdin, Miltone, Decca and Dynamic, including her first stab at her own song Dial That Telephone, which proved a hit a decade later, and her impressive debut Effie’s Blues, which she reworked in 1959, like Dial That Telephone, for her own Spot Records.

All these years, I didn’t have a clue who my “savior” was… until now! Incredible.”]

******

Despite the uphill climb, “Soul Sauce” conquered all. Almost.

In 1969 I suggested changing the name of the R&B charts to the Soul charts, and Billboard made the change. In 1971 I was honored by the National Association of Television & Radio Announcers for my contributions to black music. I flew to Houston to receive a plaque. Keynoting NATRA’s convention’s awards ceremony, Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a fiery speech about “Jonah and the Whale,” how Jonah, the black man, was being swallowed up in the belly of the great white whale. The crowd of 1,000 roared as one. I was supposed to stand up and be recognized right after his speech. With the crowd stirred up, to say the least, I decided the time wasn’t right for me to stand up and be white. So I didn’t hang around to hear my name called. I checked out and flew home. That same year I concurrently became New York editor of SOUL newspaper and Rock & Soul magazine, on a freelance basis, and was also made an honorary member of the first R&B Hall of Fame. I wrote the liner notes for Smokey Robinson’s Greatest Hits, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits, among others.

For me it was always about the music. My best times with “Soul Sauce” were interviewing musical giants like Van Peebles, Lou Rawls, James Cleveland, Nina Simone and Elvin Jones. Many impressed me, but these giants stand out. They were the cherries in my personal soul sauce. Getting close to the music, escaping jukebox row, plastic bubble toys and gum ball hell was a thrill, and I’ll always be grateful to Lee Zhito for his support and that third or fourth chance to succeed at Billboard. As a result of the trust he invested in me, “Soul Sauce” created a more prominent platform for black music in Billboard than it ever had before, and it continued on at a high level into the early ’90s.

From 1967 to 1972, I doubled as Billboard’s rock critic. Billboard’s publisher at the time, Mort Nasatir, asked me if I could duplicate my success with “Soul Sauce” in rock music. With that I launched the rock column “Tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” and “Soul Sauce” were the most widely read columns in the music business for more than four years, until I left Billboard in 1971. The R&B editors that succeeded me kept “Soul Sauce” alive for 10 more years before Soul fell out of fashion. And yes, thankfully, those editors were black.

Covering the rise of the Soul Music Revolution in Billboard was a truly unique and meaningful experience for me, enhanced perhaps by the odds against me and the struggle to prove my worth to a deeply, rightfully skeptical audience. As R&B Editor for four-plus exciting years, I tried my best to communicate to readers the excitement in the music with all my heart and soul—and I’d like to think I have a good dose of each. I was white then, still am, but it changed me on the inside. I only mention this because during those formative years I was gifted with a priceless education in black music and culture that very few whites are ever privileged to receive, an education not for sale at any institution of higher learning in America.

A white black music editor at a major publication in the music business? It never happened before and it will never happen again.

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P.S.  I returned to Billboard in 1982 as Assistant Special Issues Editor in L.A., later becoming Editorial Director of Specials Issues, a position I held until 1991. When I joined Billboard the second time I knew a lot more about the music business and writing for Billboard than I did the first time around.

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