The Promotor Perry “PJ” Jones Rockin’ And Rollin’ at the Birth of Rhythm & Blues
Hi, I’m Perry Jones the Promoter. I would like to take you on a musical journey of my climb to the top of the charts with Earth, Wind & Fire and Prince, as well as many other nationally and internationally known musical artists. Ever since I was a youngster, my passion for music propelled me into the world of dance, radio and concerts. Then, as a working man in the record industry, I was recognized for my incredible drive, ear for talent and creative nature that pulled me into the orbit of the top Black artists of the time. With these musical icons, who each produced gold and platinum records, I had the great fortune of sharing an exciting period of Black music history.
I’m actually working on my autobiography right now. That book will include stories about by Midwestern foundations, my introduction to being a drummer, my time as a featured dancer for radio station promotional gigs, producing my first show while serving in the Army in Vietnam, and other stories from my first two and a half decades of life. Plus, I’ll expand upon my life as a promoter, my wonderful time with Earth, Wind & Fire, and my short but monumental time with Prince. Until I get that published (hopefully later this year), here are a few episodes from my wild ride in the music business of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Genesis of PJ The Promoter
With an honorable discharge from the military in 1967, I returned to America, uncertain of my next move but convinced I was still headed for the music business. My radio station mentor, Hal Moore who had hired me to dance at radio promotional events for years, once again set me on the right path. He sent me to Earl Wolf, the owner of Transcontinental Distributing, a new record distributorship for the Rocky Mountain Region. It was the age of LPs (long playing vinyl albums) and eight-track tapes, and the music industry was on fire.
Earl was looking for an additional local promotion man in Denver, Colorado, and I was hired. My job was to meet and greet new artists who came to town, scheduling them for radio and television interviews in advance and placing their products and records for store promotions.
Being a Midwest guy, now transplanted into Colorado, I was more of a rock ’n’ roll hippy even though I was promoting rhythm and blues records. I described myself as a Rocky Mountain hippy meets Super Fly. That was the true, authentic me:tie dyed pants, custom shirts, long maxi coat, and equestrian boots with gold spurs.
In 1970, Warner Brothers wanted to enter into the R&B market. Warner put out feelers across the country to hire their first Afro-American national promotion director for special markets. I got the job and moved out to Los Angeles.
At Warner Brothers, I represented Little Richard, Patti LaBelle, Herbie Hancock, Dionne Warwick, Jimi Hendrix, the Stovall Sisters, Allen Toussaint, and Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. I enjoyed working with Quincy Jones, and got a chance to work with George Benson. I had a lot of fun with all the acts I worked with. But, the first project that Warner Brothers gave me was to promote Earth, Wind & Fire, and they would remain my favorite group to work with ever.
Forces Of Nature
I was just mesmerized by Maurice White, the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire. He truly had a unique perspective on life and spirituality. He really cared about how we as young Black men carried ourselves, and believed in how we were sent to California and the hub of the music industry to have the opportunity to represent the Black community and make a big change by our actions.
I was responsible for helping set up and manage a national promotion tour for Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice gave me list of record promoters and radio DJs he had met when he played with the famed jazz pianist, Ramsey Lewis.
My approach was a lot different than other record promoters of the time who were doing payola, basically paying radio stations to play their records. I was not going along with that. Normally, promoters would line up at radio stations to get their records played. Instead, I would book a hotel suite and bring along a new Sony double-deck tape recorder to play my artists’ tapes on, rather than vinyl. I put the DJs and radio station managers in an environment where I had their full attention.
I also established credit with Warner Brothers for Black record store owners. Most record companies wouldn’t give credit to Black businesses so they weren’t able to buy direct and had to purchase with cash from a place called a one-stop shop.
My 1972 promotional tour with Earth, Wind & Fire was an amazing experience, where we continued to bypass typical promotional methods. The group performed for the DJs at the nightclubs that they owned or were associated with. In Chicago, we arranged a performance at a local version of Soul Train, produced by Don Cornelius, and that was before he went on to produce and host the Soul Train national television show.
Our last stop on the 10-city promotional tour was in Denver. With my roots here, this was the biggest show of the tour and I hired a local band as an opening act, Friends & Love. Three members of that group ended up joining Earth, Wind & Fire before long.
Shortly after returning from the tour, I got in a big dispute with a sales manager at Warner Brothers. He called me a nigger, and I got emotionally caught up in it and left Warner Brothers in 1973.
Fortunately, Maurice was my safety net. He hired me to help him formulate a new band for Earth, Wind & Fire, which I did for about six months before returning to Denver. I re-introduced him to Philip Bailey from Friends & Love, and he ended up becoming a lead vocalist in Earth, Wind & Fire, alongside Maurice and his younger brother, Verdine White. Philip also pulled in his former Denver band’s keyboardist Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk, who played flute, saxophone and percussion.
Back in Colorado, my first project was helping create a record store on wheels for Universal Sound. Ford had just come out with a new box truck, and I turned it into a record store with an incredible sound system that made home deliveries.
Still with connections in Transcontinental, my friends helped me get a radio show on an underground station, KFML. For a year, I was on the air integrating R&B with rock music. It was the first time for Black audiences to be introduced to new rock, and I was the bridge to opening up this market.
When the new Earth, Wind & Fire was on national tour and planning to come to Denver, Maurice called me up to help produce that show. I ended up doing the first 10,000-seat concert for Earth, Wind & Fire in the Denver Coliseum. After that show, their managers, Bob Cavallo and Joseph Ruffalo, realized I should come back to the family, so I became their road manager for the Gratitude tour and that album went triple platinum.
On The Road
My job was to set up the entire Gratitude tour. It all started with the booking agency giving us dates and cities. I would have to call the airlines and figure out a travel schedule for the 16-member band. With no internet at the time, we used to have books called OAGs, operating airline guides, where we would look up flight arrival and departure times. I would call all the hotels and limo services. I was responsible of 11 tractor trailers of equipment and stage sets, and a Lear prop jet to carry our crew of 20 to 30.
I would start at 5:30 in the morning, getting everyone up and down to the limos and all the luggage packed and downstairs, and off to the airport. Once at the airport, I would call the promoter in the next city and make sure all the limos were there to pick us up.
As soon as the band and I got into town, I made sure all the equipment was set up. The equipment always left the night before, right after the show, so it could get there by 7 a.m. I would get into town between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and be at the sound check by 4.
I did that in the U.S., Europe and Asia, wherever we were traveling. I was also emcee for the tour in the U.S. and Europe. At a certain point in the show, I would go to the box office to help count all the tickets, pay off all the expenses, and get paid by the promoter. Sometimes on weekends when banks were closed, I would have $200,000 to $300,000 that I was carrying personally.
Once back at the hotel, it was time to do payroll. I used a 12-page columnar pad to do the spreadsheet of expenses and income, and paid everybody in the band and crew.
Then, I would get on the phone and call the airline and make sure the next flight would be on time, and call the hotels to make sure all the reservations were made, and if we were arriving early let them know we needed the rooms cleaned early.
It would be two or three in the morning before I would get to sleep, I had to be up at five again a few hours later, and I did it all without drugs. Maurice was adamant about his no drug-policy for band members and I followed it, too. You could find drugs with the road crew, but the band and I could not function if we did all that partying. I had way too much responsibility for that – I had to coordinate over 60 people and all these moving parts.
No doubt that dedication to clean, high-functioning minds and bodies was what led to Earth, Wind & Fire’s popular and monetary success; that, and a unique philosophy about bringing together cultures and celebrating creativity. They produced 26 gold and platinum records, including singles and LPs, and they were nominated for 18 Grammy Awards, winning nine including a Lifetime Achievement Award and two Hall of Fame Awards for That’s the Way of the World and Shining Star.
Crowning The Prince Of Pop
Then, in 1979, out of the blue, Cavallo told me that Mo Austin, Warner Brother’s chairman of the board, wanted to speak to me. Cavallo said, ‘He’s got a project you might be able to help him with.’
Mo said, ‘Perry, I have a problem up in Minneapolis. I want you to go and see what you can do.
I have a kid getting ready to sign with Chris Blackwell (the manager for Bob Marley).
That kid was Prince Roger Nelson. Warner Brothers did not want him to be signing a management contract with Blackwell, who had a meeting schedule with Prince that coming Friday. So, I got up there on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning, I had Prince on an airplane back to L.A.
The reason Prince met with me is because Mo Austin’s office called him to notify him I was coming, and when Mo called, any artist paid attention. When I got there, my natural flair for promotion took over but I also could also relate to Prince on other levels.
We were about the same height. We shared the same passion for creating music. I could turn on an air of sophistication when talking about the great opportunities out in California, but I was still street enough to relate to him on both levels. Prince was just a very quiet, introverted person with problems with his family structure: his mom and dad fought all the time. I was like a big brother.
I got him to California in 24 hours, and he lived with me for the next three to four months. He was with me in the hospital when my son was born. I was there for him when he recorded his second Warner Brothers album, titled Prince, and did the photo shoot for the cover art.
I built him a 16-track studio in the house I rented for him overlooking Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, where we recorded Prince. Released in 1979, the album was more commercially successful than his first album. It went gold and then platinum, eventually selling three million copies and peaking at 22 on the U.S. billboard charts. The album’s lead single, “I want to be your lover,” reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart for two weeks.
With the album cover, Prince wanted to strip all the way down to make sure no one could pigeon hole him into R&B music or into being heterosexual or gay. That’s why he is almost nude, except for his underwear (which I helped him cover with a skin tone color for full effect). It was part of the genius of his career that everyone remained uncertain of his sexuality, because he then attracted diverse groups to his music.
Warner Brothers didn’t understand the album cover, and I myself was mystified at the time, but I always worked with my artists to deliver their visions and help their careers progress. I’m basically an artist developer. I’ve been a number of things – record promoter, concert promoter, and record production manager, but more than anything I’ve been an artist developer.
I also came in under budget on the album’s production, pleasing Mo and earning me a $10,000 bonus. But, that was part of the beginning of the end for my time with Prince. He was very upset with my bonus, believing it took away from his royalties. Then, when we got word that the album was going gold and possibly platinum, he decided he didn’t need a Black manager, thinking he would do better with a white guy. Plus, he wanted Cavallo-Ruffalo as managers because they could get him on the Rolling Stones upcoming U.S. tour, and he wanted to perform on it. Prince ended up getting to join a Rolling Stones show, but it was a disaster for him as he was booed off the stage.
With Cavallo taking over, he asked me to give up some part in the record sales. I accepted that at first, but when they wanted to keep even more percentages, I blew up. I freaked out and asked to be bought out of my contract. After 18 months with Prince, I was so fed up that I exiled myself to Africa for two years.
Discovering The Ancestral Lands
My opportunity to go to Africa came about when I was asked to produce a show for Rita Marley and the Wailers in Sierra Leone in 1981. Reggae was really big in Africa along
withe their traditional music. Once I got to Dakar, Senegal, I met with my business partner, an African gentleman who owned a large record store.
Our relationship did not go well because the man, who introduced us, did not explain that I was to be paid first. So, the record store owner got angry and left me in a hotel without money or a passport. I had to go to the American Embassy to get another passport, and they gave me $200. That wasn’t enough for my air tickets and travel, so I basically hitched a ride on Ghana Airlines. They let me fly for free in unreserved seats across two countries.
In Sierra Leone, the concert equipment never arrived, I never got a chance to meet Rita and the band, and the show never happened. It was a big letdown.
I ended up meeting the great granddaughter of Sierra Leone’s president in Freetown. She worked in customs at the fishingport, and was already importing baby food and shoes. We started a company together, because I could help her write a business plan, get a government grant, exchange American money, and get U.S. exporter contacts.
While I was developing that import business, a local hospital was trying to get a power generator but having no luck. I returned to the U.S., acquired a generator and had it shipped to them. To thank me, the government gave me six gold and diamond pits.
I returned to Colorado to purchase two mining dredges from CentralCity, and went to California to find investors. I met up with some young, rich guys in Huntington Beach, and after seeing gold shavings and
ore samples that I brought with me, they jumped at the chance to mine gold and diamonds in Africa.
Back in Sierra Leone, I began digging for gold and had some success, but local and national politics and corruption were always disturbing progress. Finally, when I unintentionally upset a local chief got upset, I knew my time in Africa was coming to an end.
I really missed my family and loved my wife. I knew I really had to getmyself together, and return to them drug-free and on an even keel. My parents hadn’t raised me for such nonsense.
Trying to leave Sierra Leone, I once again got caught at the border. I prayed,‘Lord, if you get me back to Denver, I’ll be the best dad and husband you’ve ever seen.’
I made it back in 1983, and my wife and I have been married 40 years now, mainly because I changed my mindset.Before, it was music first, then family, but as soon as I got back, I turned that around. Since then, it has always been family first, then music… but I had to have music.
Settling Back Into Colorado
For the rest of the ‘80s, I developed my skills as a personal manager, tour manager, demo record producer, production studio manager, artist developer, concert promoter, radio disc jockey, and marketer. All those skills allowed me to continue to work with many nationally known music acts and extended my career through the ‘90s.
Throughout that decade, I gave my time to volunteering with the Mayor’s Office of Youth Initiatives, Toys for Tots, American Red Cross, All-American Soap Box Derby, and many other nonprofit organizations. My internal goal was always to reach out and help people, wherever I can, whether they are music orientated or just music fans. I do it for the love of music.
I’ve been so blessed and lucky through all of my life. Even though I got a raw deal with Prince and a few other situations, I hold no grudge or regret. I’m so lucky to have my name associated with icons like Earth, Wind & Fire and others. And I’ve been fortunate for the friendship and support of great people in my community, from Denver Urban Spectrum Publisher Bee Harris to Hiawatha Davis and Gloria Tanner, who stuck with me the whole way.
At 71 years old, as I reflect on my life, the legacy of the early record industry and Black history, I remember many great musical artists, especially Maurice White. When he passed away on Feb. 4 last year, I lost a man who had been my mentor, my spiritual anchor and my musical director. Though the world grieved Prince’s death last May more intensely, it is the loss of Maurice that I think is so profound to all of us who got his message of peace and brotherly love.
He and I were of the same generation, who came after our parents’ generation, which had experienced World War II and is known as the greatest generation. We tried to elevate ourselves and take advantage of the great foundation that our parents set for us. We have strived to make and take our legacy and pass it on to the next generation. Unfortunately, during the time period of our young adulthood, the American culture changed so drastically that our positive message was often overshadowed by a spotlight on drugs and degrading women.
Our songs were about love and peace. They still spoke to social issues, but always left us with hope and understanding. We could do better for ourselves, represent ourselves in our kids, and lay the foundation for our kids so that all folks could be proud, not just Black folks but all Americans.
Editor’s note: For more information on Perry PJ Jones, visit him on FaceBook.