The rights of every songwriter were in jeopardy. At stake was the very
soundtrack of modern life. Capitol Hill wasn’t budging. Then, out of this
chorus of confusion a voice that couldn’t carry a tune …spoke up.
In the history of the music industry only one woman has risen from the mailroom to the top chair of the international boardroom. It is unlikely that there will ever be another leader with the same rare mix of confidence, insight, grit and grace as Frances Williams Preston.
A student’s summer adventure, as an insurance company ‘mail girl’, led Frances to the receptionist desk of famed 1940’s-50’s clear-channel radio station WSM. There, her natural skills put the 22 year old on a first name basis with the on-air entertainers of the day; Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and the entire cast of the original ‘Grand Ole Opry’.
She couldn’t type a letter, but she knew how to correspond. And in no time The Receptionist became the ‘Go-To Girl’ – centrally located at the intersection of American Music’s multiple crossroads – WSM’s lobby desk.
Her affection for the plight of ‘The Writer’ – and her motivational talents behind the scenes were eventually noticed by the powers-that-be. And, in the male-dominated world of the late 50’s, Frances was offered the unprecedented task of opening BMI’s first regional office in Nashville, Tennessee.
It was a challenge…
From her parents’ dining room table in the Civil Rights South, this young white girl assembled a team that literally kicked opened the door of opportunity for rising writer-performers like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. And over the following five decades of Civil Rights, Equal Rights, Human Rights and Copyrights, the efforts of this singular woman shattered the glass ceiling for both song writers and women-in-the-workplace everywhere.
“I have a friend named Frances Preston…. She started out as a mailroom messenger, then a receptionist at a Nashville radio station. She worked her way up. At each level she demonstrated a superior ability to master every task that was given to her. She made every office that she worked in just hum …She was rewarded, and gradually climbed up the ladder and is now the head of the huge organization Broadcast Music, Incorporated; one of the largest entertainment corporations representing writers, with offices around the world. She is a fantastic chief executive officer …”
Vice President Al Gore
a speech to Pentagon employees
“…It All Begins With A Song.”
She never played a piano or picked up a guitar. She couldn’t even carry a tune. Nevertheless, Frances Preston made music every day. Her singular talent was recognizing the talent in others. Her skill was being instrumental in the corporate orchestration of countless compositions.
Her famous quote, “It all begins with a song,” was not just referring to the melody, harmony and rhythms that we mindlessly stream every day; Preston’s words were her way of reminding us all that — at every song’s beginning there’s a Mind, a Composer – a Writer..
From her first days at BMI, Frances noticed this obvious ‘lack of notice,’ and when she took the time to care, it changed everything. Focusing her attention on the foundation of the music industry, the ‘genesis of a song’, Preston marveled at how a composer’s art painted pictures with words; how their lyrical stories moved an audience, and transported every listener to places both real and imagined.
“It is ironic,” she observed, “the most valuable, insightful among us have frequently gone unnoticed, unappreciated. Though their music has enriched our lives – not to mention the pockets of promoters – the songwriter has gone unsung – and has been for too long poorly compensated.”
Seeing the problem clearly, Frances decided to fix it.
From that day on, Preston’s morning alarm became a ringing reminder of her lifelong mission; …to right every wrong, and secure every right for The Writers.
To that end her professional world was a constant square dance of symphony halls, boardrooms, cocktail parties and courtrooms. Her only respite was the occasional private slow dance of romance and regret.
Ultimately, the life of Frances Preston was a rare unmixed, multi-track recording of lyrical stories that managed to change – everything. It moved an audience of Congressmen to do what was ‘right’, and eventually transported every unsung writer to a place once only imagined.
“She’s the guardian angel of all songwriters,” Kris Kristofferson grinned, “and that’s why we love her back.”
When her finest accomplishment was finally realized, it was decided that, like her mission, her life-long efforts should not go unsung. So to fix that, a book was conceived; And as the unraveling of her unmixed, multi-track life of lyrical stories commenced, Frances once more recognized the value of…. A Writer.
When I was handpicked for the task of putting this extraordinary life into words, I chose to do so in First Person. Some thought the decision was daring, others considered the move to channel her memories, “brave.” Frances simply glanced up from reading the first few pages and grinned, “You write the way I think.”
From that moment on we were a duet, effortlessly connected.
Our scheduled interviews slowly evolved into long lunches, which led to even longer, more frequent dinners. Eventually our conversations transported us to the backyard of her Green Hills home, where we chatted by the pool, reminisced under the shade trees and relived her professional progress and private pain on the veranda of her ‘Pool house,’ where she invited me to stay.
Those conversations in the backyard, (where Bob Hope once taped a TV Special), became our meeting place. Though the bustle of Nashville’s traffic could be heard from the mansion’s front steps, the high, vine-covered wall that enclosed the estate’s back third made our get-togethers as quiet and intimate as a walk in the forest. In that solitude Frances would lean back in her lawn chair, close her eyes …and reminisce:
“I love it here. There’s nothing like the backyard…”
After a pause, she squinted one eye open in my direction and chuckled, “Actually the backyard is where it all started… Lying on beach towels in the grass behind my parents’ house, a few gal pals and I were gossiping, listening to Elvis on the radio. Suddenly Dad was standing over me, blocking the sun. ‘I’m not giving you any money, this summer’ he said. ‘It’s time to get up and get a job.’ ”
With that backyard story about the back yard, Frances and I set off on an adventure…of a lifetime.
~ Barton Green
Barton Green was first published at the age of ten. Seven years later he earned first place in the C.O.G. International Writing Competition with just 14 paragraphs. His diversity of award winning works range from the short story, ‘Alone In Times Square,’ to the Mother Theresa documentary, ‘A Pencil in the
Hand of God.’
Bart’s literary skill has been employed by such heavyweights as five-time boxing champ Evander Holyfield, platinum recording artist Steven Curtis Chapman, “Heartbreak Hotel” composer, Mae Boren Axton, Italian film star Isabelle Adriani, British diplomat Sir Lionel Luckhoo, and the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis I.
Having moonlighted as a musician most of his days, Green is intimately familiar with the world of music. In fact he is the author of the insightful volume, ‘Between The Lines & Spaces,’ which recounts, in prose, the birth of 19 iconic songs, using the composer’s own lyrics to weave each tale.
The topics this writer has tackled are as varied as his collaborators. From the book, ‘Prepared’ with NFL running back Reggie Kelly, to master magician Harris III’s ‘The Illusion of More,’ Barton Green is a chameleon composer with two keyboards – a piano… and a laptop.
On his collaboration with Frances Preston….
“…The more I listened to Frances recount her life, the more I realized how much her life counted. There was prose in her practicality, lyrics in every lesson. The more I learned about her the more I wrote… and the more wrote, the more I learned.”
“I just call her, Mama.”
“Meet me in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel…”
That was the gist of my phone conversation with Memphis musician, Phineas Newborn, Jr. It seemed that the famed Jazz pianist’s contract was up for renewal, and it was my job to get him re-signed. There was just one problem…
Memphis, in the 1960’s was no haven for a black man. There were only few places in town where ‘negros’ were ‘allowed’ and a public restaurant (my usual out-of-town office), was not one of them. Given such boundaries, there was only one alternative; a hotel lobby. And the renowned Peabody had one of the best in town.
Tall, thin and stylishly dressed, Phineas walked through the lobby doors looking every bit the picture of a Mississippi musician. As we shook hands he seemed a little skittish, but I chalked it up to the usual let’s-get-this-business-meeting –over-with jitters.
After a little small talk, I spread out the BMI contract on the lobby’s coffee table and started going over the usual fine points. But just as I was hitting my stride, we were interrupted by an extremely loud, rude voice.
“Nigger! What are you doing in here!? You know better!” Turning my head towards the blast, I saw that the angry words were not coming from some uneducated cave-dweller, but from a clean-cut gentleman with a lapel insignia reading, MANAGER.
I quickly spoke up. “I’m sorry it’s my fault. We’re signing a contract and we’ll be out of here.”
The red-faced man squinted at me and sternly shook his finger at Phineas. “This nigger knows better than to come in here. And you,” he turned his finger in my direction, “you should know better than to be in here with him!”
I just stared up at the fuming man in absolute awe. It looked as if all the hate in the world was steaming out of his pink, vibrating ears.
“Are you staying here in the hotel?”
“Yes, yes I am.” It was hard to hold my tongue.
“Well, get your bags and get out. We don’t want your kind in here!” And he waved me off, like a cowboy shooing cattle.
Looking over at Phineas, I could tell he was rattled, cowering. The man looked as if all dignity had been stripped from him. It was as if the manager had torn off all Newborn’s clothes and left him naked and helpless in that beautiful lobby.
As for me, I was rattled, too. But also aggravated, angry and shocked that one human being could treat another with such blatant disregard.
As we crossed the lobby for the front doors, passing through a gauntlet of stares, the jazz pianist’s hands were shaking. And in his teary eyes were a world of questions neither of us could answer.
When I got back to Nashville, I immediately called both the mayor and the governor and told them, in great detail, about the hospitality of the Peabody Hotel. And it wasn’t long before that Memphis manager was stripped of his insignia and told to pack his bags.
Yes, the man was fired. But it didn’t erase the injustice, the pain, the public humiliation of a man that many considered gifted. Even Jazz critic Leonard Feather said that Newborn, ”…in his prime, was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum.”
Sadly, after we parted that day, I never heard from Phineas again. But his fans got to hear him, in such far away concert halls as Stockholm and Rome.
But eventually, back in America, Phineas walked into one too many Peabody hotels. The results were emotional problems so devastating that, ironically, he had to check into a mental hospital for a time.
When he died, in Memphis, Phineas was only 57.
It’s a shame that a man with a name like ‘Newborn’ was forced to live his life dying a little, every day.
“…None of us had any money,
till Frances showed up.”
The life of BMI president Frances Preston is a rare multi-track mix of lyrical stories that, in her time, changed everything. From the landscape of ‘Music City’ Nashville, to the world map of successful composers everywhere, the grit and grace of ‘The Chairman of The Board’ will not go unsung.
Douse the house lights and ready the orchestra, for the curtain is about to rise on the musical life of a true mover and shaker.
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“She’s the guardian angel of songwriters…
and that’s why we love her back.”