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I was already writing “Soul Sauce,” the No. 1 R&B music column in the business, when the publisher of Billboard asked me if I could write a rock music column. Duh! I didn’t even have to think about that one! That’s what I really wanted to do – I just had to get a handle on how to do it, what approach to take.
Looking back, I think it’s fair to say I didn’t know what I was doing at first, picking up where I left off writing a lifestyle column for the college paper, with highly personal style and content based around my internalized perceptions and observations. More “mad poet” than journalist. I was also fiercely anti-war and early on tried to weave my anti-war sentiments into my rock columns. (Anticipating and entering the draft had a huge impact on me, leading up to receiving a deferment, even after.) The war, in fact, was also a big part of the music. However, I couldn’t fully grasp I was writing for a business magazine, not The New Yorker, and the early results were mixed, with a few people still asking me 10 years later why I wrote about the war in my columns in Billboard. Eventually I found I could write for the business – without mentioning the war — and still be creative.
“Tomorrow” was unique in part because the artistic focus of my columns seemed out of place (i.e. “stuck out like a sore thumb”) in the leading music industry trade publication more concerned about records shipped, going double platinum, and dollars made than the music itself.
But that’s exactly what they wanted and what they got. Billboard management saw the potential – talent buys ads through their record companies. Artists read Billboard anyway to see where they were on the charts. “Tomorrow” gave them something else to read, something as unique and creative as the music itself, and music lovers in the business picked up on it.
“We don’t always understand what you write,” Garth Hudson of The Band told me, “but we dig it.” I had to think about that one awhile.
When I wrote a brief, bitter farewell to the late Janis Joplin, who had just passed away, rock impresario Bill Graham, owner and operator of Fillmore East, challenged me to a debate on radio, claiming I had basically accused him of playing a part in Joplin’s demise. I declined, explaining I had written everything I wanted to say in my column and stand by it. Besides, Graham could get belligerent, and frankly I was shocked by his reaction. “I’m not debating Mr. Ochs on how he wrote his column, because it’s obviously well written,” he said on the radio, “only that I disagree with what he’s written here, and look forward to his next column in Billboard.”
Billboard ran a large Talent section every week, covering all genres of music, but rock music was taking off and grabbing all the headlines. Billboard was just trying to hitch their wagon to the talent revolution in full swing. Like the concert reviews, the columns reflect some of the key talent and trends of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. With “Tomorrow” Billboard was building a Rock section of the magazine anchored by the column and charts, just as it had done with “Soul Sauce” and Soul charts, sectioning off the magazine by genres, a format familiar to Billboard readers for years to come.
Some months after joining Billboard in New York in 1967 I was asked by the editor if I would take over the R&B section of the magazine. Being white I saw this as a big problem because the job obviously should go to a black writer, not an inexperienced white kid just out of college.
Bringing my concerns to the editor, I could clearly see by the glazed look in his eye that he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t going to hire a black writer no matter what. The last R&B writer was black and he was fired for being “on the take.” Billboard, a white-bread company to begin with, felt burned and didn’t trust itself at that moment to hire another black writer. In desperation the editor turned to me. Yet he had to know I’d probably crash and burn.
The editor was very grateful when I said yes (the editor, Lee Zhito, would become publisher). If I said no to this direct request from the boss I might never get another chance. I also realized that sooner or later it would become known that the R&B editor of Billboard was white and I would have to face the barbs and arrows of the black music community, which at that time was in the full throes of the Civil Rights Movement and Soul Music Revolution and would rightfully perceive Billboard’s decision to hire a white editor to cover black music as a huge insult. I had just agreed to wear a blinking neon target on my back.
I calculated that my only chance for survival under these conditions would be to dedicate myself to staying on top of the music, promoting the best new music, fighting for black music’s rightful share of the pop spotlight and for broader recognition for all black artists, from gospel to R&B to rap. What I had going for me was a tremendous built-in love and respect for black music — I knew my heart was in the right place, even if my body was in the wrong place as an example of white tokenism to black culture. To stay focused I told myself, “Speak up for black music. Just try not to make any stupid mistakes and embarrass yourself in print, and learn the business as fast as you can!”
The first thing I did was create a weekly column I named “Soul Sauce” (after a Cal Tjader jazz instrumental) to anchor the section. Then I changed the name of the R&B charts to the Soul charts to bring them up to date. Then I started cranking out a tightly formatted column with a “Best New Record of the Week,” a strong pro-black music opening comment, and gossipy little subheads like “Filets of Soul,” “Soul Slices” and “Tid-Grits” filled with radio-friendly news bits and tips for deejays. The column always ended with “I read Soul Sauce. Do you?” and well-known people in the business wrote in to say “I read Soul Sauce!” I kept a low-profile, head down, ears open, and kept pounding away at the column week after week until it started taking off.
This is what was said about “Soul Sauce” at the time:
“Billboard has established many innovations in their music trade coverage. Their ‘Soul Sauce’ column gained popularity immediately and is no doubt the most widely read feature each week.”
–Stax/Volt Newsletter, Executive Message
“I enjoy your column and find myself in total agreement with your philosophy of jazz and soul music (artists) on the entertainment scene today. It is refreshing to know we have a persistent and articulate ally on this point. Keep up the good work as spokesman for those of us who have no public forum.”
–Atlantic soul artist Donny Hathaway
“Ed Ochs’ article on Del Shields in ‘Soul Sauce’ is one of the most important articles since the 1954 Supreme Court decision. All should read it.”
–Jazz at Home Club
Yes, it took a while but of course it got out that I was white, and yes, some in the more militant wing of the black music community were upset, and some personally gave me the hard time I always expected all along including an education I won’t forget (thank you Melvin Van Peebles, in particular). But by then it didn’t matter. “Soul Sauce” had become the beacon and most embraced it — it was simply too late for the few grumblers to deny otherwise, my color having become a non-issue, the column speaking for itself.
“Soul Sauce” ran every week for four years in Billboard, and for six years after that – under black R&B editors. Since Billboard was the No. 1 music trade publication, “Soul Sauce” was the most widely read R&B/Soul music column in the business for years. In 1969 I was elected an honorary member of the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. In 1970 I received an honorary award from the National Assn. of Television & Radio Announcers for “Soul Sauce” and my contributions to black music.