Phone interview conducted August 5, 2013
Kenn Reynolds has been involved with the entertainment industry since his late teens when he moved from Chicago to New York. His amazing journey has seen him working with TV icons Merv Griffin and David Frost through to being on the road with the group Labelle during their breakthrough years, on to stints with major record companies like CBS, Polydor and Arista . As a successful independent publicist in Los Angeles for over two decades, Kenn's skills, knowledge - and his memorable parties! - have ensured his status as an entertainment industry pioneer.
In this compelling Giving R-E-S-P-E-C-T feature with David Nathan (who first met him in 1974), he shares just a few of the highlights of his illustrious career...
David: As those of you who follow SoulMusic.com know, every now and again we do one of our Giving R-E-S-P-E-C-T features. It is really [an opportunity] to talk to people who have been in the music industry for a considerable amount of time and who have really been pioneers in one way or another and really created a foundation for what we affectionately call soul music. So, they have worked in different capacities at different times doing different things.
The gentleman I’m about to introduce, the very first time I met him, I actually remember vividly. So, I’m just going to include that in the story before we actually get going and before I actually formally introduce him. I had arrived in New York in October of 1974 on my first ever trip to the United States, and I was on holiday, and [John Abbey] the editor of Blues and Soul, which is a magazine that I was writing for at the time, said ‘well, while you’re on holiday, you might as well do a couple of interviews’ and said, ‘why don’t you pick who you want to talk to?’ I picked two acts, and he said, ‘well, I want you to talk to Millie Jackson.’ So that was his choice. And my two choices were Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Labelle. I happened to know that Labelle at that time was managed by someone I had met many many years ago, Vicki Wickham, who was the producer of [the British TV show] “Ready Steady Go!,” and so I got in touch with Vicki, and I remember going up to her office on West 57th street, and there was sitting the gentleman I’m about to introduce. He at that time was working with Vicki and with Labelle, and over the many decades since - at that point I didn’t even know I was going to live in New York - but subsequently within a few months, February of ’75, I was living there, and over many many years, we worked together in all kinds of capacities.
He worked as a publicist at different record labels, and of course in later years we both found ourselves living in Los Angeles, where we continues our association and our friendship, and so it’s really quite funny for me to be doing an interview with this gentleman because I don’t think we’ve ever done a formal interview. What we’re going to do is we’re going to trace his career in the music industry. We’re going to use songs every now and again to punctuate that. But, it’s really quite - I don’t even know the right word to find to say [since]I never thought we would be doing an interview for SoulMusic.com, but it’s really an honor. Honor is the right word, to bring to SoulMusic.com, Mr. Kenneth Reynolds.
Kenn: Well, David, actually I’ve got a couple of things to say here. First of all, it’s an honor that you should even ask me to be interviewed because I listened to your introduction and when you talk about the people that you have selected previously, I think ‘wow, I think of people that are real legends in this industry that came before me,’ and hardly can I place myself in a category with people like Larkin Arnold and Logan Westbrooks and George Butler and people who came before me and it’s kind of flattering to think that you would place me in that category. The other amazing thing is your memory is impeccable because that is exactly how I remember you too, and I knew you were going to blow it when you said you came to the office, and I said, ‘he’s never going to remember what street it was on, ‘but it was on West 57th Street. So, I’m amazed and it’s interesting also, what you said as many times as I sat in and watched you interview my artists, and sometimes I called, some I had to beg you to do. I’d say, ‘David, you’ve got to talk to this artist for me.’ To sit there and watch you do, or be a part of that interview, to now be on the other end of the interview. As I said, I was a little nervous – like, ‘oh my God, what is he going to ask me? Are you going to ask me questions ahead of time? Am I going to get a chance to rehearse?’ So, this is a very interesting situation for me to be in as well.
David: It is, great. Well, what we’re going to do, Kenn, as I said in the introduction, is basically trace your career in the music industry and entertainment industry because I know that, while I have known you primarily working in the music industry, I know that certainly since you’ve lived in Los Angeles, you’ve done many things with people who are not necessarily musicians or recording artists. So, I think it would be more accurate to describe you as an entertainment industry public relations guru. You just got elevated to the status of guru!
Kenn: That’s absolutely perfect because I am working on my memoirs, which are called, the working title is “I Came Here to Live Out Loud: the Confessions of a PR Guru”. So, you’re right in sync.
David: There you go. How would I know that?
Kenn: How would you know that? Because I’ve shared that with nobody. So, you really didn’t know that yet. So, this is the first time I’ve even mentioned the title.
David: Ok, cool. So, let’s start. Give us a little background, where you were born, where you grew up, and how music first became part of your life.
Kenn: I grew up in Chicago, in a very non-musical family. For someone who loves music as much as I do all my life, I was plagued with the fact that I cannot sing. I remember trying out for the choir in high school, and I was told that my voice was changing and to come back the next year. I came back the next year and I was told the same thing. I came back the following year, and I was told the same thing, and it finally sank in, ‘okay, you can’t sing. ‘ The passion for music, and the love of music never left even though I could not be a part of the choir. It was just a thing I remember at an early age, I bought this record, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Your Precious Love.” I loved this record and I sat in my room and I think that summer I played it over and over and over, and this is just an indication of how long ago it was because my mother came in my room one day and she gave me a dollar. I said, ‘what is that for?’ And she said, ‘would you please go buy another record?’ She says, ‘I can’t take it anymore. Buy another record. ‘
I don’t know where it came from because, although my mother could sing, she was never a singer. She would sing around the house and I recall now, she could really sing. She of course sang her spiritual songs, but she was also a big Sly and the Family Stone fan. She sang Arthur Prysock. As she would walk around the house, she would sing all the time. But no one else in the family can sing, and no one else even in my extended family has any musical talent. It was just something that I had a passion for. I think that you might recall, I came to New York originally because I wanted to be a disc jockey. I grew up in Chicago with my mother and two sisters. I had a very interesting childhood. My mother and I went to college together. My mother started out as - she was what you would call - a short order cook in little local restaurants and then she elevated to C class restaurants, then B class restaurants. Then I remember… she was a cook at a restaurant called, well it’s a nightclub called the Chez Paris, which is where Sammy Davis performed and Dean Martin performed and Vicki Lawrence and people like that. I remember when she came home with an autographed photograph of Sammy Davis Jr. because he had come to the kitchen to tell her what a great meal that he had. I wanted to know, ‘did he give you any money?’
When I started college, my mother also went to the same college I went to and studied, it was a food course, and she became a dietician. So, at that point, she was no longer cooking for other people, but was preparing them at institutions for thousands of people a day, several times a day. It was shortly after that that I went to New York and went to Columbia Broadcasting School because I thought I wanted to be, what was called at that time a disc jockey. I finished the course, I got my third class FCC license and I came home back to Chicago and I made my demo tapes and I sent them to all the secondary and tertiary markets as we were instructed to, and of course I got that routine letter, ‘oh call us when you’ve got some experience.’ I thought ‘okay, this is really a catch-22 situation. I’m not going to get any experience; nobody will hire me.‘
I had a friend who worked on the Merv Griffin Show who I’d met in school. He kept insisting that I should move to New York. I was 18 at the time. I thought, ‘what the hell? What am I going to do? Why not?’ So, I packed up all of my Diana Ross and Supremes albums, and my little portable record player, and I had 50 dollars saved after I bought my airline ticket. And I moved to New York, like a blundering idiot kid, I spent 25 dollars on a cab from Kennedy Airport to the Little Theater. The Little Theater was right next to Sardi’s on 44th street. Also, right next door to the Little Theater, where the Merv Griffin Show taped, was an all black cast of Hello Dolly starring Pearl Bailey. I had no conception of Broadway. I had never seen a Broadway show before, let alone a Broadway show with all black people. Here I am also at the Merv Griffin Show, and Sardi’s is right next door. A whole world had opened up to me in a matter of five minutes.
I went in to watch the Merv Griffin Show, and as he ended the show, my friend introduced me to the guy who ran the box office. He said, ‘this is my friend, he just moved here from Chicago,’ and the guy said to me, ‘would you like a job?’ I’m like, ‘well, it’s a job. I have 25 dollars, yes, I would like the job.’ He says, ‘can you be here tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock?’I remember being a smart ass saying, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll be here at a quarter to nine.’ My second day in New York, I started to work on the Merv Griffin Show as a page at a quarter to nine!
I was relieved. Of course, I stayed with my friend. He had invited me to stay with him, but he neglected to tell me that he lived in a studio apartment and had a roommate. So, now it’s three of us living in a studio apartment on 78th and Riverside. Okay, this isn’t really going to work here. I was like, ‘okay, let me get my first paycheck, and I got to do something.’ But, the other guy who lived there was the very sane and logical person who decided well, ‘if we’re going to live together, why don’t we just move to a one-bedroom apartment in the same building because it’s a great building.’ He orchestrated that and I don’t remember how long it took, but within a matter of months, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the building.
Also within a matter of months, one of the producer’s secretaries at the Merv Griffin show called downstairs and wanted to know if there was a page who knew how to type. I could type ninety words a minute. She called me upstairs to do some filing and typing work that was getting backlogged that actually my roommate was supposed to be doing. He had just gotten a promotion and he wasn’t doing his job and the show was behind in these forms. One was a music clearance form, which you were probably aware of and the other one was the cue-and-timing sheet and this was the old days when you had to manually submit them every day. And they were like 40 or 50 shows behind.
They used me to catch them up. The secretaries found out that I had a little knack for this and I could type and I knew two types of short hand and I knew how to answer the telephone. So, they started taking advantage of me. So, they thought. Because when no one was around, the secretaries would stay out for lunch two and three hours because they knew I could handle it. I could take messages; I could answer the phone. I actually loved it because I didn’t have to stand out on 42nd and Broadway and pass out tickets, telling people to come see the Merv Griffin show. So, they thought they were taking advantage of me. I loved it because then they would also buy me lunch; they would let me put extra hours on my time sheet. So, it was a win-win situation for everybody until the day that Merv had a temp secretary and he asked the temp secretary to get him William Morris on the telephone, which of course William Morris is an amazing talent agency. The poor temp went back into his office and said, ‘Mr. Griffin I don’t know how to tell you this, but William Morris has been dead for years.’ Needless to say, she was ousted on the spot. And I was told, I had to go answer Merv’s telephone, and I was absolutely petrified. I had met the man one time since I’d been there maybe three months. Linda Stinton, who is the producer of The View today, was Bob Shank’s secretary at the time, who was the producer of the Merv Griffin Show. She was like, ‘you know Kenn, you’ve got to do it. Merv does not even want to see another temp.’
Begrudgingly, I went up the elevator to the penthouse and became Merv’s assistant for the day. Well, we got along famously and Merv’s secretary, she was very ill at the time and she was out a lot. I became his regular temp, and we formed a great relationship. When he moved, the show moved from New York to go to Los Angeles, he called me up and he said unfortunately they were only going to take a limited number of people because it was a major move, but if he could do anything to help me with a job situation that to please don’t be afraid to ask him, but before I could even ask, I landed a job with your countryman, David Frost. Then, I was a production supervisor. I was in charge of scheduling all the cameramen, scheduling all the stagehands and that whole industrial area, but I still wanted to work in talent. You let me know if I’m talking too much, David.
David: Actually, I want to stop you for a moment. What I want to do is find out what music we can include that would really be a, give us some flavor. The music growing up, the music that affected you, that had you really interested in being involved with the entertainment industry at all.
Kenn: Indulge me for just a second because when I was production supervisor, I really wanted to be a talent coordinator. I used to sneak around and try to do things to become a talent coordinator. I got this album by Valerie Simpson. It was called EXPOSED. David Frost used to love to do singer/songwriters: James Taylor, Carole King, Carole Bayer Sager. He loved those types of artists. They did not really know Valerie Simpson at the time, and I went and I pitched and I pitched and I pitched them Valerie Simpson, even though I was not a talent coordinator and the producer told me, ‘listen, go do some research. Bring me something back and we’ll see.’ Well, I did, and they agreed to put Valerie Simpson on the show. She was the first interview that I ever did. Of course, Valerie’s people called me and said, ‘you know, Valerie’s appearing with Nick Ashford, how about getting them both on?’ And it’s like, if you knew how hard it was to get Valerie on this show…. And at that point, this was in 1969, I think. But, that began my professional side of music because after Valerie, I was allowed to produce the 90 minute segment David did with Aretha Franklin, and as you know, two of my songs are Ashford and Simpson and Aretha Franklin.
David: Okay, well, what we can do is - I know you did already pick an Ashford and Simpson song.
Kenn: I did.
David: But, I’m going to ask you if there’s anything that you remember from, and I know this is not exactly how we planned it, but is there a Valerie Simpson track from the album, EXPOSED, that you particularly remember?
Kenn: Oh my God, are you kidding? “Silly, Wasn’t I?”
David: Okay, so would you mind if we played that instead of the Ashford and Simpson one? Is that okay?
Kenn: I do not mind at all!
David: That’s because it helps to illustrate the story. Then, you mentioned Aretha. So, is there an Aretha song from that same time period that we could play back to back?
Kenn: From that time period?
David: Yeah. It may not be.
Kenn: Okay, there is an Aretha song from that time period that she sang on that show that day. She sang her version of “Soul Serenade”, the old Gloria Lynne song… and that just blew me away, okay?
David: Okay, then let’s do that. Let’s play those two back to back, and then we’ll have you continue the story of you and David Frost and then onward from there. So, let’s start out with Valerie Simpson, a really great song, “Silly Wasn’t I?” and then we’ll play Aretha’s version of “Soul Serenade”, which was actually on her very first Atlantic album, I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU. So, here we go.
David: Okay. Those were Kenn’s first choices and they were, in succession that was Valerie Simpson, “Silly, Wasn’t I?” from the album EXPOSED and Aretha Franklin’s “Soul Serenade” from I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVED YOU. Alright, so moving on, so you’re at the David Frost Show, and what happens?
Kenn: And then I proved myself as capable of being a talent coordinator and they let me extend my responsibilities. I remember one of the most exciting things was interviewing Lucille Ball, and there just like you interview people when a guest appears on a talk show like that, there’s a pre-interview. You go and speak to them and find out what they want to talk about, what they don’t want to talk about, etcetera. By this time, I was 19 and I had booked Lucille Ball on the show and I went to her suite at the Plaza Hotel and I remember wearing a little suit and tie and being very professional. I had read everything about her. I was so prepared because I was absolutely nervous because I was going to meet “I Love Lucy.” I walk in the suite and her manager or agent, I don’t remember who the character was at the time, he was very pleasant. They said, ‘oh she’ll be with you in a moment.’ I’m sitting there with my notes, and I’m sweating under my arms. Sweat is really dripping under my arms at this moment. These double doors open a la Loretta Young, out walks Lucille Ball in a sweeping gown, her hair up and it’s like, ‘oh my God, this is ‘I Love Lucy,’ and I’m sitting just feet away from her. I jumped to my feet and she gestures for me not to get up and she walks up and she goes, ‘Mr. Reynolds, how nice to meet you.’
I think no one has ever said anything to me that blew me away more than her saying, ‘Mr. Reynolds, nice to meet you.’ Because no one had introduced us yet. So, she knew who I was. She had been prepped and she knew who I was. I was like speechless for a moment, but I grabbed my composure really quickly, and proceeded to be the professional that I was imitating. She offered me a drink and I told her I would like a gin and tonic and she made the drink for me and then she went to hand me the drink and she looked at me and …she had a little scowl on her face and she goes, ‘how old are you?’ I go, ‘I’m 19.’ And she goes, ‘oh no, you can’t have this.’I said, ‘oh no no, it’s okay. This is New York, the drinking age is 18.’ She says, ‘it may be 18 in New York, but in my suite, it’s 21!’ She said, ‘would you like a pop?’ In case you don’t know, pop is a Midwestern term for soda. She would not give me the drink, and gave me a Coca Cola instead!
That was some time in 1969. I will remember that day until the day I die. That was really fortunate because after that, I worked on David’s 90 minute specials with Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, The Four Tops, of course one of my personal favorite ultimately The Supremes, unfortunately without Diana Ross. Then, certainly after that I got this great idea that I wanted to experience the world and I packed up my bag and I moved to Europe. I moved to Barcelona. I stayed in Barcelona for nine months. I did absolutely nothing music- related. In fact, I ended up teaching English at the University of Barcelona, and working at a boutique called Blue Jeans, which believe it or not, sold every different kind of blue jeans you can imagine.
It was after that that I came back to New York and I met Ellis Hazlip who had a TV show called “Soul on PBS.” He was about to do a series called “Soul at the Center.” It was two weeks of black-oriented music specials. It was Ike & Tina Turner, Margie Joseph, The Stylistics, The Spinners, Jerry Butler, and on Sundays it was Minister Farrakhan and James Cleveland. It was an amazing two week festival. Well, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx came to host one evening because Patti LaBelle had just had a baby and she wasn’t capable of coming out. And Sarah and I and Nona, we just bonded and had a great time and they went back and recommended me as a stage manager, and I got a phone call from your friend and mine, the lovely, lovely, Vicki Wickham saying that they were looking for a stage manager for weekend gigs because at that time Labelle only had weekend gigs and they were neighboring weekend gigs.
I was like, ‘wow, I’m very interested.’ So, during the week, I worked at Channel 13, and on the weekends I went out on the road with Labelle, and then I got the infamous phone call, ‘hey, we just signed a deal with CBS Records. Labelle’s going to showcase in front of 15,000 worldwide CBS employees in Los Angeles. We need you to come and put the team together.’ And I came to Los Angeles, and of course they were a big hit. As a bonus, they flew me to New Orleans, and this part is going to get embarrassing because I go to New Orleans, and they were recording with Allen Toussaint, the NIGHTBIRDS album and I get to the hotel and I take a cab straight to the studio, and when I get there, the pandemonium, the excitement was just amazing. Everybody was so excited. It was like, ‘what’s happening?’ ‘Oh boy, we finally got a hit record. Wait until you hear this. We’ve got a hit record.’ So, I sit down and they play this record for me. And I’m embarrassed to say that I’m sitting there saying, ‘oh my God, this is the dumbest record I have ever heard in my life. I said, ‘okay, they’ve really been at this too long because I’m not hearing this. This gichie giche yaya mocha choca latta. This song doesn’t even have any words, okay?’ Needless to say, 35-40 years later, I’m still eating those words, okay?
David: That is really funny.
Kenn: They came to me, Vicki, Pat, Sarah and Nona. They said ‘listen, we’re sure we have a hit record. Now, we want you to come and be our road manager. You’re going to have to leave here with the job.’ I thought about this and I said, ‘you know, I’ve never been a road manager before. I don’t know. It sounds exciting, but I don’t know how to set up drums. I don’t know how to change guitar strings.’ They’re like, ‘no, you’re confusing that with a roadie. You’ll have people to do that for you.’ I said, ‘oh, okay. Well, I kind of like this. I had always wanted a job where I could travel.’ My dreams were answered. Thus, I started to work with them the day they recorded “Lady Marmalade” and the next day, David, I started working with them until they decided to go their separate ways.
David: I have a question for you, related to that. So, when you first started working with them at weekends, they were obviously not – they were still, I guess you could say, in a sense underground, in terms that they didn’t have mass appeal. So, what kind of gigs were they doing? What kind of audiences did they have?
Kenn: We were doing a lot of colleges and a lot of clubs. The audiences…was very much a cult audience. It was fans that - it amazed me, because I was just becoming familiar with the group Labelle - but these people in the audiences, they knew all of their songs. They knew all of their records. They knew them personally. This was before they were getting any massive airplay. This was, like I said, before “Lady Marmalade”. They were totally underground. The audience was, I think I’m safe to say 90% gay and 75% white.
Kenn: Exactly. It wasn’t until “Lady Marmalade” that they broke out into incorporate an R&B audience.
David: Wow, interesting. Well, let’s do this. Obviously, at this juncture, it seems appropriate to play the song that you thought was kind of dumb.
Kenn: Go ahead and remind me, okay. I’m reminded every time I turn on the radio because no matter what city, country I’m in, to this day, I still hear “Lady Marmalade”.
David: Of course. So, here it is. LaBelle, from NIGHTBIRDS… Here it is.
David: Okay. That was Labelle, Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, which is from the album NIGHTBIRDS, “Lady Marmalade”. It’s still a classic song. Okay, Kenn. So, you’re on the road now with Labelle. As you point out, you’re on the road with them until they decide it’s time to go their separate ways. So, what did you do?
Kenn: I pondered a lot. While I was pondering, a couple of things came up that were interesting. I was offered a gig to go out with a group called Television. They were a punk band. Tom Verlaine was the leader of the group. It was Tom Verlaine, Billy Smith on drums. Richard Lloyd on guitar; Tom Verlaine on guitar. And there was a fourth member; I can’t remember his name right now. We toured with Peter Gabriel. The U.S. Then, when that tour was over, I went out with Nona Hendryx and Peter Gabriel, but this time we went to Europe and played secondary markets in Europe, and one of the most exciting things we did was a French communist rally near the south of France. I don’t remember the name of the city, but that was a very interesting tour. Then when I came back, a friend who you probably know, Irene Gandy –
David: Oh, yes.
Kenn: Who had been somewhat of a mentor, a person in my life who had given me advice, told me that this firm was looking for a black publicist. So, I told her, ‘well, I’ve never been a publicist. What do they do?’ And Irene as you know is very flippant. Her response to me was, ‘well, you’re black, so you have half the qualifications.’ So, me, like an idiot, I called the man and they agreed to see me, but I was also not a complete idiot because I called another friend, Pat Costello, who had been Labelle’s publicist and I told her, ‘I have an interview to be a publicist.’ I said, ‘you have to tell me what a publicist does.’ She took me to a long three-hour lunch and she told me things to say, like ‘use words like pitch and angle and long lead time.’ She schooled me in three hours on what to say. So, I go into this interview, all prepared with my new dictionary of vocabulary, but what I didn’t realize, my strength was having traveled with Labelle, having traveled with Television, Nona Hendryx and Peter Gabriel. As road and tour manager, one of my responsibilities was to always make sure they did their interviews.
I had met practically every journalist around the country. I’m sitting in the office, and I’m hearing these names. I’m hearing all the publicists because he had his office set up, all of his publicists sat like in a bullpen and everybody could hear everybody and that was his way of everybody learning from everybody. As I’m sitting there in the interview with him, I’m hearing them talk to John Johnson at Jet, I’m hearing them talk to Dennis Hunt at the Los Angeles Times, I’m hearing them talk to Pete at the Dallas Morning News. I’m hearing them talk to Abe at the Chicago Sun Times. It’s like, ‘hey, I know these people. I’ve met these people’ and I had such an advantage because most publicists in the office had only talked to them on the telephone. I’d actually met them two or three times. I toured America with Labelle four times. So, each time, we met these same journalists because they don’t change. I sort of dropped that tidbit without realizing how valuable it was, and I was told, ‘hey, we’ll give you a call.’ And, by the time I got home, they called me and offered me this job doing PR for the Howard Bloom Organization.
My first clients were Al Green, who was having a resurgence in his career, a little white boy from Chicago named Peter Brown who had a huge record, “Do You Want to Get Funky With Me?”, an Irish rock and roll band called Horse Lips, a jazz fusion group called Spyro Gyra, a recording artist by the name of Melanie, and it was a jazz flautist by the name of Bobbi Humphrey that brought me to the attention of CBS Records. They really liked the job that I did on Bobbi and they called me at CBS. I got a call from Win Wilford one day, and called me up and offered me the job of east coast director of publicity for CBS Records. It’s like, ‘oh my God, I’ve arrived because all my life I wanted to work for CBS.’ I remember when Merv Griffin left to go to Los Angeles, I had written the head of personnel. I discovered her name and became very aggressive and I wrote this woman a letter. I’ll never forget, her name was Joan Showalter. She was very nice and very kind to me because I was like 18-years old. She interviewed me, ‘oh we don’t have anything for you, but we will keep your name on file.’ I always remembered that and here it is like 10, 11, 12 years later, and I’m working for CBS Records as east coast director of publicity. Of course, it was some real long drawn out title, ‘associate director of press, publicity information for black music marketing CBS Records.’ It took up half a page, the title. The title was longer than the paycheck!
But, I felt like I had arrived and I was in seventh heaven. And, the interesting thing was I was working with Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash because all three had individual deals that were either distributed by the label or directly on one of the labels. And other people like Gladys Knight and Herbie Hancock and Barry White, and it was just an amazing roster of people. And, again, it was a totally different environment for me because, you know, it was now very corporate. I got an office based on my title. My expense account was based on my title. I was able to travel based on my title. Bill, his name was William Carlson, he was the entertainment editor at the Daily News at the time. He called me and says, ‘hey, congratulations. Are there any new exciting projects there?’ I said, ‘well, there’s a woman here that everybody’s raving about. Her name is Cheryl Lynn.’ I said, ‘I actually met her a year ago when I’d gone to California and my friend Gerry Griffiths invited me to a listening party for this woman, and they had just signed her. And now it’s nine months later and the record has come out. I said, ‘there’s a big buzz here in the company about her. ‘He said ‘send me the record; I’d like to hear it.’
Well, I send him the record, not aware of the policies of CBS that I was black publicity and I was only supposed to deal with the black newspapers and black writers and this was a general markets paper. So, coming from a PR firm, our goal was to get press everywhere and anywhere. So, I sent him the record. He loved the record, and the next day or two, he wrote a full page story about it, which you would think would have been a great thing, but there was such a flurry around the company – ‘how did this happen? Who did this?’ And of course, they called him and said, ‘how did you do this? Why did you do this?’ Instead of calling the man and thanking him. He said, ‘well, my buddy Kenn Reynolds sent me the record. .
I remember Hope Anthony who was vice president of publicity for Columbia, because Cheryl was on Columbia, she came to me with the article in her hand and very gingerly approached me and said that this was absolutely wonderful what I had done, but explained to me the policies of the company. That my role was to deal with the black publications and the black press and there was a pop department that would deal with the general market. She didn’t reprimand me. She cited me for what I did, but she did very clearly explain to me that this was the way things worked.
Susan Blond, who was head of publicity on the Epic side, was a bit more of a rebel, you would call her. If you remember, she was a friend of Andy Warhol’s. We were in a marketing meeting one day, and we were going around the marketing meeting and the head of the department would go around the room, and the black department would give their report: black publicity, black sales, black marketing etcetera. Then the pop, the general marketing department would go around the room and do the same thing, and are talking about the same artists, and it got to publicity and I gave my R&B reports, or black report or whatever it was called at the time on the artists. And it got time to do the pop report on the artists.
And Susan Blond stood up, and she goes through this whole lecture about, well, as many of you know, we have Kenn Reynolds here working in the publicity department, who comes from Howard Bloom. He has a very illustrious background. He’s worked with Horse Lips and Melanie and Al Green, and you could see these heads getting a little impatient, saying, ‘what’s your point?’ And she says, ‘well, he has enough experience that he from now on has the total publicity report.’ It was like you could hear a pin drop in the room and I remember Jack Craigo, he was head of the marketing department. He looked like, ‘how dare you defy me, woman, in the meeting in front of everybody?’ He was called out in front of everybody and he turns his head to me and says, ‘okay, well give me the report.’ That sort of broke a trend. I think at that point, I was the first black publicist that broke that little chain. Now, everybody could talk to everybody and anybody. And it was all because of Cheryl Lynn. So, clearly, Cheryl Lynn is a very instrumental part of my career.
David: Let’s play the record that became the center of that article, and really launched her career and is still probably one of the most played tracks from that time in films, television, commercials, I mean, I don’t have to say anything else. Here’s “Got to Be Real”.
David: That was Cheryl Lynn with “Got to Be Real”. So, here we are. You’re at CBS and what happens next?
Kenn: The axe fell on my on June 29th, 1979. 749 people, including me, got laid off. I was devastated, but not for long. I guess I have some sort of buoyance, thank God, or a guardian angel. Because, when I got back, I was called into the vice president’s office and told that my job had been eliminated, and to turn in my American Express credit card, which hurt me dearly. I think that hurt me more than anything else! And my CBS ID, and to be out of the building by 5 o’clock. I thought, ‘wow, this is the corporate world, huh?’ It wasn’t personal, and by the time I walked back to my office – now, here’s the interesting thing - we knew that ‘black Friday June 29th’ was coming for weeks. We knew it was coming, but it was a big secret as to which jobs were going to be eliminated. I had a feeling that my job had been vacant for nine months before I was hired, so it’s like, okay, any accountant is going to say, ‘if this job was empty for nine months, we can do without this job.’ So I had a strong suspicion that I would be eliminated. So, I was not that surprised. Nonetheless, I was devastated, but by the time I walked back to my office from the vice president’s office and, by the way, the vice president went to California and made all the phone calls from California to everybody instead of telling everybody face-to-face in New York.
It took me maybe a minute to walk from his office back to mine, I get this phone call from a woman by the name of Carole McNichol at Polydor Records telling me she’s sorry to hear that I lost my job. I’m like, ‘okay, wait a minute. How do you know at another record company? It just happened 30 seconds ago’. But, she wants to offer me a job as east coast director of publicity for Polydor Records. I fell to my knees and said a quick prayer. Then the obnoxious side of me, the aggressive side of me came out, because she announced that they were going to Bermuda for a company meeting and that she would call me when they came back.
David: I know what you said!.
Kenn: [After] she told me, David. I said ‘I think that you really should make the decision now so that if you hire me, I can go to Bermuda and meet everybody all at once.’ And she was like, ‘no, we’ll call you when we come back.’ And she kept her word, and she called me when they came back and I started to work at Polydor. As you know, I got Gloria Gaynor and Roy Ayers and Latoya Jackson and Peaches & Herb, and of course one of my personal favorites, Isaac Hayes, and it was really a great run there.
And, again, they started to feel the pressure of cutbacks in the music industry and Polydor was owned by PolyGram, which also owned Mercury and Casablanca, and the rumor started about the three labels merging and I thought, oh God, here we go again. ‘If the three labels merge, there’s a publicist at Casablanca, there’s a publicist at Polydor, there’s a publicist at Mercury. Two people are going to be out of a job. I am the newbie; it’s going to be me again.’ And I started panicking to a certain degree, but always being very faithful and confident that everything was going to work out, and as it turned out, it was the other two publicists who lost their jobs, and I became the reigning publicist for all three labels when they merged and made it PolyGram Records. So, now I had Kool & The Gang, Cameo, Bar-Kays, George Clinton, Lipps Inc. and one Donna Summer album, and that was when the advent of the whole video era started and it was really a great five years. It was around the time I thought, ‘I’m really bored with doing publicity. I’m tried of doing publicity. I wish I could do something else.’ Then, miraculously, I get a phone call from my friend Gerry Griffiths who had been at CBS who was now at Arista telling me that Arista was looking for a project manager and would I be interesting in the job.
I was like, ‘yes, I’m very interested.’ But I was very arrogant and cocky at the time. I was on my way to London to hang out with two groups, actually four groups: Level 42, Shakatak, a guy named Junior, and a group called Central Line. I’d done a lot of work with them. The head of the English company had given me a bonus of a trip to come to London for two weeks. So, it’s like, ‘hey, I’m on my way to London for two weeks. So, if you guys want to talk to me, you’ve got to talk to me now.’ Because I was very confident in my job now. But, also very interested. Of course, they snuck me into the backdoor, which should have told me that ‘okay, you’re not going to like this company because of the way that they’re handling and treating you already. They’ve got to sneak you in because they don’t want the other person to know.’ I had just never done anything on that level, but then I guess I’d never had a job of this calibre, and maybe that’s the way things worked at that level, but that wasn’t me. That wasn’t my make up, but nonetheless, I went in for the interview and I met with the head of artist development and then I met with Clive [Davis], and they offered me the job of project manager. Of course, my first thing was to write a marketing plan for a brand new artist, and I kind of pat myself on the back and say that artist went on to become one of the top selling recording artists in the history of the music business, and you may say, ‘she’s not on your list of favorite songs,’ but the artist of course was Whitney Houston.
David: Well, before you do that. I just want to see if there’s any song or recording from the time period when you were working first at Polydor and then with all those many artists, which were part of the Mercury, Casablanca, and Polydor family. Is there any record from that time period that you would like to, that is special to you for any reason?
Kenn: You know? It was such an under-the-radar record that when I think about that time period, that I absolutely cherish and love that you’re going to be surprised, but it was a song called “Tokyo” by Donna Summer.
David: I’ve never heard it, but that’s okay.
Kenn: This is one of my all time favorite songs.
David: These are your choices. So, I’m fine with that. We will find “Tokyo” by Donna Summer and we will play it. So, okay.
Kenn: There were a lot of great songs, of course. There was “Celebration”, there was “I Will Survive”, there was “Shake Your Groove Thing”, but personal favorite, that song “Tokyo”, something about it just struck my heart. It has always been a personal favorite.
David: Alright. Well, especially in honor of Donna Summer, who I know played an important role in the lives of many people, including me, I’m always happy because of the fact that she suddenly is no longer with us…
Kenn: I ran into her years later, when I was living here in California, and I was working on a TV special called “Celebrate the Dance: the Beat is Back” and it was about 80’s dance music. She was on the show and I reminded her that we worked together at PolyGram and she shared some stories with me about how she was having a hard time, and at one time she was not certain about her future. She was living I think in Nashville or Memphis or somewhere in Tennessee.
Kenn: Okay, and she was eating some sunflower seeds, and she threw the seeds out of her kitchen window. When she came back from tour, she had these beautiful sunflower seeds, and God spoke to her through the sunflower seeds, and told her that everything was going to be okay. I have a poster that she autographed for me and all she wrote on it was ‘Remember the sunflowers, love Donna.’ I still have it to this day.
David: Alright. Well, let’s play “Tokyo” by Donna Summer.
David: Okay, that was Donna Summer with “Tokyo” from SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY. Okay, so now, you’re at Arista. You are working on the marketing plan for an artist who’s about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world, Whitney Houston. So, tell us about your Arista years.
Kenn: The Arista years, unfortunately, took the fun out of the music business for me. The music business at Arista no longer became fun, and I think that working in publicity, publicity was a lot of fun. It was being creative, it was being innovative. And just doing a lot of exciting things. Being a project manager at Arista, a lot of that creativity was gone and it was very business. It was very ‘step, step, do this, do this, do this.’ Everything for the success of the record, without a lot of emotion put into it. I’m a very emotional person. I would sit in meetings and hear things that were very disturbing, like ‘send the record back because it sounded too black,’ even though it was by a black artist. And these were probably things that were always there, but because, being in publicity, we were not privy to this. We weren’t in those marketing meetings and everyone just became innate objects. It was about the music; it had nothing to do with the person, and I just saw a lot of things that I really didn’t like and I wasn’t very happy there.
Arista was a small company, and there probably wasn’t any more treachery or backstabbing there than at any other company, but at the larger companies, and again working in publicity, you didn’t experience that. But, now, you’re right in the middle of it. It wasn’t a really happy time for me. I wasn’t particularly keen on any of the artists that I worked with, except Aretha. I’ll never forget, one day I get a phone call, and again, this is the type of thing that was very typical of Arista. I get a phone call from Clive, telling me to call Aretha, to tell her the sequencing or how the songs are going to go, in what order on her record. I got the phone call and I thought, ‘okay, well this is a little odd. Me telling Aretha how to put the songs on her album?’
David: That’s a little strange, yeah.
Kenn: I’m not very comfortable doing this, but I was told I had to do this. So, I picked up the phone and I called Aretha, and I had met Aretha before because, as you know I’d mentioned I’d interviewed her on the David Frost Show [and then] when I worked with the Four Tops at PolyGram, at Radio City [Music Hall], she sang with Levi.
David: She sure did, I remember that.
Kenn: When I worked with Ellis Hazlip, she hosted a telethon for research on sickle cell anaemia. So, I’d met her a couple of times. So, I pick up the phone and I call her, and I’m like, ‘Miss Franklin, this is Kenn Reynolds at Arista blah blah blah’. I said, ‘So listen, Clive wanted me to call you to give you the sequencing of the songs on your FREEWAY OF LOVE album.’ She says, ‘okay.’ So, I go down the list, and she says - again it’s so funny, because she says to me – ‘okay, sweetie, that sounds really nice, but you got a pencil?’ She says, ‘okay, you write this down because this is the way the songs are going to be on my album.’ And she gave me a totally different order of songs, okay? Now I’m in the middle, but they knew this would happen. So, now I have to call Clive back and tell him that ‘well, I gave her your message, and the message from her is that this is the way she wants the songs on her album.’ Needless to say, the songs ended up the way she wanted them on the album. There was a lot of that kind of stuff at Arista.
David: So, how long did you stay there?
Kenn: Three years. I wrote the first marketing plan for Whitney, and I actually took Whitney out on the first tour. It was when we were introducing her and…what a lot of people don’t know is that we had great success in a lot of markets, and then in some markets, we had problems. I remember, the D.C. market was the first place we went – it was just phenomenal. The reception was absolutely just amazing. Chicago was amazing. In Chicago it was funny because things, again it was all very new. We were just starting out, and I remember I had to call a friend in Chicago to come and do her hair and dress her, because like I said again everything was very early at the time, but the funniest was my buddy attorney here in Los Angeles, Gary Watson loves this story because the party here in Los Angeles was getting poor reception.
People were not RSVPing to the party, and Clive was coming to the part in LA, and I’m like ‘oh shit, this is going to be my head if I don’t get people at this party because I’m going to be blamed for this.’ So, I called my friend Gary, who like I said is an entertainment attorney here in Los Angeles, and I said, ‘Gary, you’ve got to find me like 20 or 30 people who look like they’re somebody and get them to come to this party. I have got to have bodies in there, and they’ve got to look like they are somebody.’ He rounded up about 20 or 30 people to come to the party, but then of course, at the last minute – typical Los Angeles – people started RSVPing and the parting was absolutely packed and it turned out to be one of the more successful parties. But, it was touch and go for a minute and it was so typical of LA. I don’t know what it is with people here who don’t like to RSVP. I remember one celebrity told me that they don’t like people to know that they’re coming. That’s so Hollywood!
David: Okay, so you spent two years at Arista, and then what?
Kenn: Then I got kind of fed up with the music industry, and I had some personal issues that I had to deal with, and I left and I moved to D.C. and I was reunited with my old friend Cathy Hughes. At that time, I met Cathy who was the general manager for WHUR, which was a premiere radio station in Washington D.C., but now she owns four stations. I hung out down there for two years and I did odd jobs with Cathy. I did some promotion with her in the station, and I helped her with something for the Kennedy Honors and just sort of fudged around like, ‘what am I going to do?’ Came back to New York, and realized that I did not like New York anymore. I had a friend, Anna Maria Horsford, who I’d known since the days of Channel 13, who was now on a hit TV show called ‘Amen’ with Sherman Helmsley and she invited me to California. I came to California and it surprised me that I really liked it because I’d never liked California before. It was okay for a couple of days, but I said, ‘oh, I really like this place.’ And I made a couple trips back, and then my friend Denise Coleman, who had been a secretary at PolyGram was now Vice-President at EMI asked me to come out with Arrested Development; they were nominated for a Grammy, to travel with them.
I traveled with Arrested Development out here to California and I met the film director Bill Duke. I got invited to a birthday party at The Four Seasons [hotel]. Like I said, I’ve always been a lover of music and all different types of music. I’m sitting at this table and I’m sitting next to this gentleman, and he introduces himself to me, and I’m thinking, ‘oh my God, is this who he said he is? Maybe it’s somebody else who has that same name.’ I didn’t want to embarrass myself so I’m like, ‘let me just wait a minute to find out if this is who he is because I knew his name, but I had no idea what he looked like’. Finally, Bill Duke said something about scoring his next movie, and I’m like ;holy shit, this is really Elmer Bernstein and I’m sitting next to him, having dinner with him. Oh my God, it’s like, this is Hollywood.’ And, Jeff Goldblum was there and Diane Ladd was there and Morgan Freeman was there. And meanwhile, I’ve travelled with all the music people from Labelle, I’ve met… Diana Ross and Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, and Mick Jagger, but Hollywood people, this was something new and different and this was very exciting to me and that night I decided to move back to Los Angeles. So, I came home to New York, and I stayed for a month and I moved back here to Los Angeles, and that was like 20 years ago.
The music industry has taken a totally different twist now. This was very hip-hop, it was very rap, and it was not a music that I loved. Also, I was getting older and people were not really interested in hiring me. So, my value was, I guess, gone in that genre, but I discovered something new. The Hollywood people embraced me and they liked the diversity that I brought to them. So, I got to do a lot of different things, as you know I’ve done a lot of different things in that branch. I started doing a lot of non for profit work, which I actually love, the Thurgood Marshal Scholarship Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Then, I got this reputation for being a celebrity wrangler. It’s amazing what people pay, institutions and corporations and organizations pay to have celebrities at their events.
Kenn: You probably are aware, I became known as the person to go to. So, that’s really sustained my business a lot. I still do some PR. I’m working with a really exciting guy who now, you may remember him, Charles Wright. Charles had the song “Express Yourself” and “Love Land”.
David: The 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
Kenn: Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, exactly. You do remember. That’s been a delightful experience. We’ve been working together for a few months. I just picked up a new project, the “Give Love Tour,” which is Frankie Beverly and Maze, Howard Hewett, the Whispers, and Ledisi. So, I dibble and dabble in the music industry. My friend, Denise Nicholas, who was one of the first black actresses to star in her own TV show, Room 222, wrote a book about the civil rights movement Freshwater Road, which has been optioned for a movie, and I am the casting director and the associate producer for that. I’ve casted for a couple of small independent films. You’re right, I am still working very much in the entertainment industry, not exclusively in music anymore. It’s been a nice diversity.
David: Good, so how long have you been in LA now?
Kenn: I cannot believe it; it’s been 20 years. I remember the first day I got here like it was yesterday. These 20 years have gone by so fast. I remember the day I arrived. I remember what I had on. I remember stopping at the 7/11 and getting a hot dog. I remember it so clearly.
David: And here we are 20 years later.
Kenn: And I’ve known you, what? 40 years?
David: Well, let’s see…
Kenn: David, 1974, or 73, or something like that?
David: ’74, so, 39 years. I think.
Kenn: You can’t get much closer to 40 years than 39.
David: Well, you can, when we get to 2014!
Kenn: That’s a long time.
David: It’s a very long time. Amazing.
Kenn: it’s interesting, when Denise Nicholas first wrote her book, I set up these parties for her around the country in like 10 major markets. I didn’t go to every market with her. I sent her out, and when she came back she said, ‘it’s absolutely amazing. I met all your friends and you’ve known them all for 25, 30, 35 years. I said, yeah. ‘
David: It’s amazing. It’s really a testament.
Kenn: I’ve been lucky that I’ve maintained some good relationships with people like that.
David: It’s amazing after all those years. It really is. Well, I’ll tell you what, we’re going to conclude. I know there are some songs that you sent me as possible choices for this feature, and I know we haven’t used them all. So, I’m going to ask you which of the songs that we didn’t focus on, that we didn’t include, is there a couple of those that you would like to now include to finalize our Giving R-E-S-P-E-C-T feature? So, I have the list. We have used a few of these, but not many of them, in fact. So, is there a couple of songs that you would kind of like to include?
Kenn: Well, the conversation sort of took another course….
David: Yes, which conversations frequently do….
Kenn: Exactly. I think that, well there’s one song that I want to use because it is so meaningful to me because it represents a real turn around in my life. As I mentioned to you before we started the interview, that I had some health challenges, okay? They were very serious at one point because there were several doctors that I saw that had actually written me off. I remember one doctor told me I was going to be dead by Monday. That was three years ago. I think that because of my conviction and my new belief in faith -I was somewhat agnostic - but I think after listening to things that doctors told me, and the lack of belief that they had, and what they thought about my situation and how it totally turned around that obviously, I was wrong. There is something here greater than I’m realizing, and Aretha’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is definitely a song that I have adopted as my mantra. I’m the living proof of it at this point.
David: We’ll play that. That’s from AMAZING GRACE, of course.
Kenn: From the AMAZING GRACE album, yes.
David: So, here it is. Here’s Aretha Franklin with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.
David: Okay, that was Aretha Franklin from AMAZING GRACE with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. Now, I know that I asked you to pick something, but I’m looking at your list, and I’m going to suggest something. We don’t have to play it, but-
Kenn: David, who knows more about music than you do? I tell people all the time, ‘I have a friend who knows more about music than anybody,’ and that would be you. So, I would take whatever you suggest.
David: Well, I’m going to suggest this, but not for the reasons that you would think. I’m going to suggest this because I remember very vividly when I was writing a book, “The Soulful Divas,” and you are one of the people I spoke to. And I asked you because I was very curious, why so many people have a problem, actually what I asked you very specifically, was why so many African American people that I spoke to have a problem with this particular singer/entertainer, and you told me that your opinion was that this particular individual had left a very world renowned group at a very important juncture in its development and had gone solo, but that was a reason a lot of people had an attitude about her. So, I’m going to ask if it’s okay with you –
Kenn: You’re going to play a Diana Ross song. Hey, that’s right on my list. You know that.
David: I think that that was a very important conversation for me in trying to understand why people felt however they felt about Diana Ross. Now, I’m clear that people have whatever opinions they have – it clearly hasn’t stopped Diana Ross from being amongst the world’s greatest entertainers, and regardless of what any group of people thing, she will be definitely put into the history of popular music. So, I think it’s probably fitting, if it’s okay with you, that we end our session with you today with a Diana Ross track. Now, it doesn’t have to be “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.
Kenn: No, I think that is so appropriate because that song, as you know, is on my original list because that song has a lot of meaning for me. It also came at a very pivotal turning point in my life. When I left home, I left home with Diana Ross and The Supremes records. That, the stereo, and 50 dollars. I think that makes some points about how I feel about Diana Ross.
David: And the kind of life you’ve had. That you went from that to all the amazing things that have happened.
Kenn: Exactly. That is such an appropriate song.
David: Well, let’s play that. So, here’s Diana Ross with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.
David: Alright, I don’t really have to say what that was, but if there’s anybody who’s listening to this interview who doesn’t know that was Diana Ross and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. So, Kenn Reynolds, is there anything you’d like to say to conclude our interview session today?
Kenn: I don’t know, David. I have talked so much. Is there anything left to say? I just want to say thank you again. I am so honored and so flattered that you would choose me to be part of this R-E-S-P-E-C-T series.
David: Yes! Thank you for giving it its correct name. I think Giving Respect is easier to say, but it really is called Giving R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Well, I think I can speak for those who are going to be listening to this that it’s really been a pleasure speaking with you today. And looking at the accomplishments, the people that you’ve worked with, all the things that you’ve done, and I think we could have played, there’s another record that comes to mind that we could have played, but only because of the title, not because of the lyrical content. We could have played Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. But, that’s okay. We didn’t. But, seriously, thank you for giving your time today, and sharing with us about your life.
Kenn: Again, my sincere thanks to you guys for allowing me to be apart of this with your listening audience.
Kenn Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
His website is:
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.