As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Gladys Knight and The Pips cook on, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, the great Norman Whitfield’s stunning production that recalls the days of my childhood in Soul City—a childhood made infinitely more colorful through listening to the programming of the legendary hit-picking PD of WBLS-FM. Drive time in the New York metro area was appointment listening. The voice, personality, and programming of “The Wood” the shortened nickname of Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker made it so. “Hollywood” was his handle because of his larger than life image and lifestyle.
FRANKIE CROCKER (an unidentified friend) AND LEGENDARY CROONER BILLY “MR. B” ECKSTINE (courtesy of Ed Eckstein)
Frankie’s was not just a radio show, it was aural theater practiced by a master of the medium. For a young kid he offered a peak into a world of grown folks’ music, wit, style and sophistication. He was a symbol of afro-centricity, hipness and colorless Manhattan chic. He seamlessly presented MFSB, Curtis Mayfield, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Kendricks and Frank Sinatra as parts of a whole he eventually called, Urban. He was the star who played the music of stars. A study of Frankie’s get down was a primer on the game. Once the game came calling, I was ready to heed.
In the summer of ’82 I was a young aspiring executive in the promotion department of the pioneering hip hop label, Sugar Hill Records. Home to the Sugar Hill Gang, The Treacherous 3, Busy Bee, and Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five. At the time, it had been a hot little diskery that had built it’s billing on the taste of the emerging hip hop audience. Owned by Joe & Sylvia Robinson, a couple who’d had a great deal of success in a previous incarnation as the proprietors of the soul music label, All Platinum. They’d recorded classics by, The Moments, The Whatnots, Spoon Bread and Linda Jones, Sugar Hill was an important, black owned independent.
Their previous label, All Platinum missed the disco craze and had fallen on fallow times, and by the late seventie they were looking for something new. Their oldest son Joey was a frequent patron of two important early hip hop clubs, The Disco Fever in The Boogie Down, and Manhattan’s Harlem World. He heard and saw live performances by the seminal Cold Crush amongst others, and reported the shift in the wind that was about to happen to his parents. This resulted in the master conceptualist, Sylvia scooping three guys off the streets of Soul City and turning them into, The Sugar Hill Gang.
THE SUGAR HILL GANG
By the time I joined Sugar Hill, they’d already had a string of smash party records to their credit. Sylvia had the ear. Joe was the operator. He talked to the distributors and radio. Sylvia was the queen of the studio. It was instructional to watch them both do their thing. In the early summer of ’82 things were about to get serious. I stepped into a company that was about to release, The Message. The record by Flash and ’em that signaled the social significance of hip hop to the uninitiated. The black radio community jumped on the record with two feet, but Crocker played it first. The acid test for a national smash.
In late ’82 Crocker had a birthday that was celebrated in five different New York clubs simultaneously. I attended the editions held at Xenon and The Underground, he was a big thinker, and tireless self promoter. Later that winter in early ’83, he would exhibit visionary thinking by organizing, Frankie Crocker’s Big Apple Awards. An awards show taping that he held at The Savoy theater, and produced and hosted himself.
The music business participated en masse. We all came to kiss the ring, bold print names, and comers too; Tommy Mottola, Hall & Oates, Earth Wind & Fire, Nile Rogers, David Bowie, Earl Monroe, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Chaka, Bruce Lundvall, George Benson, and the promotion staff of Sugar Hill Records to name a few. The power of Frankie Crocker was on full display that night. The show was shot on spec, didn’t attract a syndicator, and was never seen. It was a gloriously glamorous affair that presaged Don Cornelius’, Soul Train Awards.
HALL & OATES
In the fall of 1990 I was a young A & R man in the employ of Irving Azoff’s Giant/Warner Brothers Records. I was in LA to get a sneak preview of Mario Van Peeble’s film, New Jack City. I was a key reason that the film’s producers, George Jackson & Doug McHenry had chosen Azoff’s start up to release their soundtrack to the film. I accompanied white hot, new jack producers, Dr. Freeze and Stanley Brown to the screening. It was obvious that Barry Michael Cooper’s screenplay, Wesley Sipes’ performance, and supporting turns by Ice-T, and a young comedian named Chris Rock would combine to make cinematic history. Remembering the music of the blaxploitation soundtracks of my youth that I’d first heard on Crocker’s program, made it much easier to pick hits that resulted in 5 million units sold.
I had an invitation to attend a party to celebrate the 25th birthday of Teddy Riley that was happening after the screening. Teddy was the man! He’d given the whole game a new direction with what Barry Michael Cooper had dubbed the “new jack swing.” Labels in business with Teddy scored big. MCA had won when he gave them, My Prerogative for Bobby Brown. Motown had jumped off with Teddy produced, Soul City quartet, Today. Vintertainment/Elektrta crushed when Teddy blessed them with the essential, Make It Last Forever by Keith Sweat. Uptown/MCA was built on Teddy’s jams. All of this had gone down before he turned 25. The platinum reign of the new jack boy king was the subtext for the party. The atmosphere promised to be festive.
The party was to be held on a yacht that was paid for by Teddy’s then manager, Harvey Alston and the head of Uptown/MCA, Andre Harrell. I was late. After the screening, I had stopped by my hotel to change. I’d appeared at the dock with Freeze and Brown in tow. The boat hadn’t sailed without us but the boarding plank had been raised, and it seemed that the capacity had been reached already.
On the dock was a throng of LA scensters that included, the legendary “Chief Rocker” and Jackson 5 cousin, Stony Jackson. Crocker was between stints at BLS and it didn’t appear as though anyone was concerned about him getting on the boat. In fact, you would have had difficulty proving to me that there was anyone on that dock who recognized him aside from me.
Andre Harrell’s young A & R exec Sean Combs appeared on the deck of the boat, and took a message to Harrell that we were still on land. The boarding plank was put down and my party, and I were admitted. I don’t recall Crocker getting on the boat
THE BIRTHDAY BOY
In the mid nineties New York’s music scene was in transition. Young Sean Combs was beginning to blaze with his Badboy/Arista imprint. His discovery, Biggie and he had made history with, Ready To Die. Andre Harrell had left the helm of Uptown/MCA to head up a directionless Motown. I’d signed a young artist with potential named D’Angelo, and his debut record was released in ’95. Crocker returned to BLS and was playing, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar like it was the national anthem.
The watering hole of the moment for the fabulous, creative, hot, and warming up was New York nitelife overlords, Eric Goode and Serge Becker’s restaurant, The Bowery Bar. It was the latest example of downtown fabulousness. On it’s premises, I’d sat and discussed the merits of Walter Mosley with Laurence Fishburne, and politics with Quincy Jones and Veronica Webb. I’d seen Uma Thurman squired by, Quinten Tarantino. I’d talked theater with Annabela Sciorra, met Richard Branson, and met a future business partner, billionaire, Ted Field. I tried to never miss a Thursday night.
Of course, Crocker found his way into this mix, and one night we were seated together for dinner. Our companions were independent promo don, Joey Bonner and Russell “Rush” Simmons. Crocker had been playing a jawn that LL Cool J had done with Boyz II Men and as the principal of Def Jam, Simmons was paying homage. During the course of dinner the fact that I’d signed, D’Angelo came up and Frankie, always the cutting edge tastemaker was visibly impressed. But why not? He was looking at an extension of his own taste when he was looking at me.
Shouts to Joey Robinson Jr., Fred Buggs, Marie Sellers, Boo Frazier, Pam Hall, RIP Joey Bonner, Frankie Crocker and Joe Robinson Sr.