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Archive for September, 2009

In the early ’80’s before the term Urban became in vogue, I was a radio DJ at then funk/soul, commercial outlet WQMG-FM Greensboro. I had an extremely enjoyable time spinning hits by Change, Slave, Roger Troutman, The Gap Band, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross and an occasional release in a new and emerging genre called rap.

Before I was hired, I’d walked into the station’s control room on a bright and sunny summer’s day and asked the guy on air if he was the PD, and if he wasn’t where could I find him. As it turned out, the forward thinking young man who was on the air wasn’t the PD for QMG, but he was the program director at jazz outlet WNAAA-FM the college/public station for North Carolina A & T University.

He offered me an on air, mid-day slot four days a week, smoothed my transition into a new community, and ultimately made it possible for me to be hired at the 50,000 watt commercial outlet a few months earlier. His name is Tony Johnson.

Johnson is now a communications executive in the NY area and married with kids. He still gets around town a bit and recently caught the premiere of the new LeBron James documentary, “More Than A Game.” Please find below his account of the evening and the film.

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NIKE SPONSORED ’03 ST. VINCENT-ST. MARY CHAMPS

“More Than a Game” is a documentary film directed by Kristopher Belman that follows the real life hoops dream of Akron Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school basketball team’s championship season; and the drive, determination, and unity that is required to live one. It is not only a coming of age story, but one of dedication to a common goal as well. In contrast to our “me” driven culture, the film examines the camaraderie and sacrifice that it takes for a group to succeed by shining a light on 5 young black men who stayed in school, and out of trouble.

Belman dramatically captures the story narrated by head coach Dru Joyce II, and weaves a tale that uses the words of the 5 key players. Coach Joyce is my wife’s uncle and he graciously invited us to the NYC premiere of the film. The School of Visual Arts Theater is where the screening was held, and a Q & A session followed immediately after.

When we arrived, we could see that the school’s walls were covered with larger than life posters of the high school team that displayed the corporate logo of Nike- the team’s athletic wear sponsor. One of Nike’s most important endorsers was a member of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s cagers, NBA MVP LeBron James. James’ well documented jump from high school into the professional ranks gives this story it’s hook.

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WILLIE McGEE COACH DRU JOYCE II LeBRON JAMES

The posters were well apportioned with the unmistakable Nike swoosh. I suspected that such overt branding might lend itself to, “More Than a Game” becoming a long form commercial for Nike and the brand that is LeBron. That wasn’t quite the case though. The movie isn’t fully about LeBron alone, nor is it explicitly about the Nike brand, or the technical X’s and O’s of basketball. “More Than a Game” is an uncorrupted look from the camera of director Kristopher Belman.

Belman began the film as a film class project while he attended the University of Akron. “I was simply trying to get an A,” he told the room of kids, and teenagers who stayed for the post film Q & A. Several rows in the theater were also reserved by and filled with Nike (funding), Interscope (soundtrack), and Lionsgate (distributor) execs, as well as friends and family for the premier.

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KRISTOPHER BELMAN

In a addition to original footage, Belman ended up gathering still-pictures and footage directly from the players, their families, ESPN, and local TV coverage. The movie chronicles the early lives of the boys who came together at a Salvation Army gym on Maple Street in Akron, OH. That team would put Akron on the map, create a National basketball powerhouse, and produce one of the most talented players of our time.

Family members attest that Coach Joyce never asked anything of his team other than to play hard. Articles have alluded to his personal involvement and questioned his reasons. From the beginning this was about helping his son play basketball. It grew to being about his team his “boys” and never about his own personal gain; regardless of what was said to him personally or in the press.

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PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS WIFE, THE AUTHOR

Men, especially black men should take notice to what is possible if you just stay active in your child’s life. Many of the male figures in the team members lives were not around. Joyce’s commitment shows what can happen when someone stays, and is still there. He keeps in touch with all of them to this day. He also led St Vincent St Mary’s to the 2008-2009 Ohio State Championship. His former players continue to have productive post high school careers and lives; LeBron James – NBA, Dru Joyce III – European Basketball League – Poland, Romeo Travis – European Basketball League – Germany, Sian Cotton – former defensive tackle for Ohio State University, Willie McGee – Graduate School – University of Akron.

Tony Johnson

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Whitney Houston was a young woman who was blessed with looks, youth, drive, opportunity and one of the great voices of the 20th century. About 25 years ago, she dropped her debut release on Arista Records and it quickly became apparent that nothing would be quite the same for her (or us) ever again. She burst on the stage with a flourish and amidst a marketplace that was dominated by MTV-supported success, she cut through it all with a sweetly angelic voice and a virginal persona, and smashed with “Saving All My Love For You.”

One executive had the vision that projected the thin former model as a worldwide diamond-level success, A&R legend, Gerry Griffith. He discovered her and signed her to the label and then as a result of corporate politics, had the credit for his discovery given to others. What follows is his tale of how he found the great Whitney Houston. Oh yeah, her new CD “I Look To You,” her first new studio collection in a decade, debuted at No. 1 and currently sits at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 200 Chart.

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Most people in the music business see an A&R executive as someone endowed with special powers who is able to pull talented artists out of the water like fish on a line. Yes, it does happen, but timing and luck play a larger part in the discovery of the truly gifted artist. Sometimes you drop into a club and there they are, on stage singing or playing their heads off. Or sometimes, you might find yourself surprised by a tape or CD. And other times, the phone rings. In the case of Whitney Houston, two of the above happened to me.

Richard Smith, head of R&B promotion at Arista Records and I were attending a performance of one of our artists, GRP/Arista jazz man, Dave Valentine. He was playing in Greenwich Village at the legendary nightspot, The Bottom Line. Sweet Inspiration, Cissy Houston was the opening act. Because an A&R executive is constantly looking for hits, I would drop in from time to time on music publisher Love Zager to scout new song material for Arista artists. I knew Cissy through this. The set began, and Cissy was as captivating as ever, the audience enjoyed every moment. After about three or four songs, Cissy’s beautiful, wiry 15 year old daughter stepped out to sing; I had never seen or heard her sing before. After a song or two, Richard poked me in my side and said, “Man, you should sign that girl.”

My response was, “Yeah, for such a young singer she’s really good, and as professional as she is, I don’t feel she needs a bit more seasoning.“ Or something to that effect. Richard was pissed with my response, but that’s normal for record promotion guys, so I let it go and continued to enjoy the show.

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Close to a year later, I received a call from my friend Fran who was not in the music business. She asked if I knew Whitney Houston. I said yes and related the Bottom Line story. Fran thought that I’d better make some fast moves because she had recently seen Whitney perform at a private party for two wealthy lady friends who wanted to secure a recording deal and manage the beautiful young artist and model. She suggested to her friends that they should consider Arista Records, and wondered if I would meet with them. I agreed even though the ladies had no prior management experience. Additionally, I knew that Whitney had management but they were prepared to buy her out of her existing management deal.

What I heard next from Fran freaked me out! Bruce Lundvall, who was then President of Elektra Records was interested in signing her. I thought that I had blown it and that I should have listened to Richard. I also thought that if my boss Clive Davis found out that he’d be pissed. Crazy shit like that was going through my mind. In the A&R game, we don’t get many chances to sign the special ones.

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BRUCE LUNDVALL

As a courtesy I met with the two ladies, made no promises, thanked them and split. “So, OK, now what?” I asked myself. The answer: call Deidre O’Hara at the publishing company for Whitney’s manager’s telephone numbers. Got it. I called Gene Harvey, introduced myself, and in a joyful accepting voice Gene said, “Arista, oh yeah, Clive Davis.”

I accepted what all Arista executives have had to tolerate: the fact that the boss always upstaged us. I asked if I could see Whitney perform again before they made a decision about a label for her. Gene said no decision had been made, and that she was performing on the upcoming weekend with Cissy at Seventh Ave South. Thanking Jesus and thinking I needed a drink, I left with a smile.

Seventh Avenue South was a cool small bar owned by the Brecker Brothers and was appropriately named since it was located on the southern edge of the West Village on 7th avenue. It was around the corner from the best dance club in New York, The Paradise Garage.

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THE SWEET INSPIRATION

I didn’t have time to meet Whitney before the performance, so I chilled with a Heineken and a smoke before the show started. While the band assembled, Whitney, her brother Gary and the other background singers took their place on stage. Since the previous time that I’d seen her, she had matured and seemed taller. The band began to play and Cissy appeared to the audiences’ applause…little did I know that history was in the making.

Cissy sang three or four songs, then Whitney stepped out for her contribution, which was stunning, especially her version of “Home,” the Stephanie Mills hit. I was totally amazed how she had grown vocally and stylistically. Whitney had the natural ability to take a song and recreate it with the vocal prowess and command that I hadn’t heard since a young Aretha. She was powerful, present, fearless, yet so young and innocent.

I met with her after the show and told her how amazed I was at her stage presence and vocal talent, and that I wanted to set up a showcase for Clive. Now you must understand, that growing up the music I was exposed to was Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Included among the artists I had worked with were Aretha, Dionne, Phyllis Hymen, Jennifer Holiday, and Minnie Riperton. This young lady had the potential to join this illustrious crew. OK, so now it was time to get Clive on board.

The next day, I boldly walked into his office and asked for a meeting. I sat down and told him that I heard an amazingly talented young singer that we must sign and that I wanted to showcase her for him within a week. He said “OK, set it up.” Damn, that was easy!

Using Cissy’s band and background singers, we rehearsed for five days. At around 6:30 or 7:00 the night of the showcase, I went to Clive’s office to take him to the gig, and to my surprise he asked me if we could move the audition to another time since he had a difficult day and thought it best if he didn’t attend this night. I was silently pissed, but I refused to back down and calmly explained that Whitney had worked very hard to give him a great thirty minute show that promised to be lively. Clive acquiesced, and we took the elevator down to 57th Street where his car was waiting. It was a fifteen minute drive to the rehearsal space on 35th and 8th Avenue.

It was a funky joint on the sixth floor, that was used by many well known bands and performers. We walked in and were met enthusiastically by Gene Harvey, Cissy came over to say hello to Clive, and after basic pleasantries we all sat down. Showtime!

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ARISTA FOUNDER CLIVE DAVIS, A YOUNG DIVA & THE AUTHOR

Whitney approached the mike. She was young, beautiful and confident. Confidence: that professional quality she had learned from a very young age singing in the church, at private affairs, and on the road…for those of us who had experienced her glorious gifts, we were nervous yet joyful. Young Whitney had that “wow” factor that keeps you on the edge of your seat anticipating the first downbeat. She choose all the songs, but I insisted that she close the set with “Home.” Clive was cool, showing little emotion during the performance until the last song. I had worked with him for almost three years, and I had a natural feel for what made him pay attention…the big melodious ballads with strong hooks. I also knew that her version of “Home” would get his attention. After the show, he expressed how impressed he was to Whitney, and said we would talk at the office tomorrow and let them know his thoughts. Clive left and we all congratulated Whitney on a great performance. Cissy and Gene were both very confident she would get the deal…me too.

I met with Clive the following day, and to my surprise he was not impressed enough to sign her. What the hell went wrong? Whitney gave a killer professional performance. I refused to let this lady get away from us, so I continued to explain that if we don’t do this Bruce Lundvall would sign her in a moment once he finds out about the showcase. Well nothing worked until Clive took a few of his friends to another of Cissy’s shows where his friends told him that he was crazy not to sign this talent. So we did sign her, but to a three song development deal with our option for a complete album once the three songs were accepted…now I went to work looking for producers and song material… So why didn’t Bruce sign her when he had the chance?

to be continued…..

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NBA insider David Aldridge has been commissioned by NBA.com to do a piece in observance of Michael Jordan’s induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame next week. He has decided to compile an oral history that he has asked me to contribute to. Please find a few of my observations below.

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DAVID ALDRIDGE

I am a music business veteran who grew up in New York with family ties in North Carolina, and I now live in Charlotte. When it comes to Michael Jordan, I am a particularly schizophrenic basketball fan. I am a lifelong die-hard Knicks fan and a UNC Tar Heel supporter since my teens. It pleases me to see that two of my cut ’em and they’ll bleed blue friends, Jewel Love & Kenny Smith have been invited to contribute as well.

Michael Jordan’s play as an undergrad in Dean Smith’s system was a joy to behold, and contributed significantly to my overall appreciation of Chapel Hill tradition. During the ’81-’82 NCCA basketball season, I was a DJ at WQMG-FM Greensboro and caught most of the UNC schedule on TV. Chapel Hill’s season was one long highlight package. I especially remember an offensive rebound and put back that Ralph Sampson was on the business end of, during the second regular season UNC vs. Virginia game. Having followed his exploits the entire year, I was not surprised to see Michael cash one for all the marbles in New Orleans later that year. It would prove to be a harbinger of the frustration that Pat Ewing (and I) would experience as a result of Michael’s competitive instincts and unbridled need to win.

Once Michael became a pro, the pride that I felt because of the success of a favored son of my mother and father’s home state began to turn into something else; to me, he justifiably became the enemy, as a result of earning the right to be called the greatest Knick killer of all time. He was a disruptive figure and an obstacle to all that was good from my mid 20’s to my mid 30’s. If one’s greatness is determined by the greatness of one’s enemies, then I am one of the greatest basketball fans in the country. I hated that guy with a passion.

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THE KNICK KILLER

I’ve met Michael three times. We have a few friends and many acquaintances in common. Most recently, I ran into him last year on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend here in Charlotte. My old friend Q-Tip was in town to do a show in support of his latest release. We ran into MJ as we were going to the show. The Celtics had played his Bobcats earlier that evening and I asked if they had won. He graciously replied “No.” It’s interesting to see how he has had to learn how to handle losing later in life, as he’d helped to teach me earlier, through his consistent mistreatment of my beloved Knicks.

The second time we met, I was having dinner at New York’s Coffee Shop with the noted journalist and screenplay writer Barry Michael Cooper. It was early November of ’93. The leaves had fallen and you could smell basketball in the air. It was the beginning of his first retirement. We were seated in a banquette in the back and Michael was in a booth in the front. I walked up to his table to remind him that we’d met in the same restaurant the previous year when he was with Spike Lee and Charles Oakley (a great Knick). I told him that I didn’t want to interrupt his meal but I was dining with the author of “New Jack City” and that I would bring him over to introduce them to each other in a bit. Less than 20 minute later, the most famous athlete of our era made his way over to our table through a packed joint and introduced himself. He was thoughtful, polite and humble with a mild exception; he threatened to come out of retirement by the end of the season and crush my dreams of a Knick title one more time.

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FILMMAKER/JOURNALIST BARRY MICHAEL COOPER

The first time we met, I was at the Coffee Shop in May of ’92 having brunch with Russell Simmons, Christy Turlington and a date. It was a gorgeous spring afternoon and we’d caught a playoff matinée earlier that day at the Garden. One of the partners in the restaurant came over to tell us that Spike would be bringing Michael and some friends by. I was in full Knick regalia; a blue windbreaker, new blue Nikes, Gap jeans and shirt, and a fresh, crispy, blue, orange and white Knick baseball cap. At the time, Chicago was defending their first of the Jordan/Pippen/Jackson titles and they were riding high. First year Knick coach Pat Riley had led his team into Chicago and stolen the series opener and he would have gotten the second one too, if not for some late game heroics from BJ Armstrong.

An impromptu table was improvised for the Jordan/Lee party. Michael was at the head of one end of the table. Russell, Christy and my date went and spoke to His Airness, I kept it moving and went down to the other end of the table to speak to Oak. I felt the need to stress the importance of hitting his free throws to him. I also spoke to Spike and his old partner Monty Ross. I was just about to leave when Michael made a huge smile, extended his hand toward me and said. “Hi, I’m Michael Jordan. Don’t be mad.”

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MY BRUNCH COMPANIONS

Here is the link to David’s entire piece on MJ @NBA.com

http://www.nba.com/2009/news/features/09/03/aldridge.jordan/index.html

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