The Fairplay Committee

Mitch Mitchell recounts the legacy of the Fairplay Committee, a group aiming to improve the conditions of black workers in the music industry.

Aretha Franklin (seated on the left) and Jerry Wexler (standing on the right, leaning over)
Aretha Franklin and Jerry Wexler.

In August 1968, record company bigwigs (and some smallwigs), promotion men and disc jockeys were assembling in Miami for a junket, a common occurrence in the music business year. The venue was the Sheraton Four Ambassadors Hotel in downtown Miami.

Usually, these conventions were an excuse to eat and drink at other people’s expense, do deals and swap stories. This one had been assembled by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (NATRA) and had been designed to promote contact between black radio announcers and the rest of the industry.

However, subsequent events led this convention to change the music business forever and were, indeed extremely traumatic for all concerned, in differing ways.

There was a large contingent from Atlantic records attending including Jerry Wexler and people from their promotions department. It’s worth pointing out that Atlantic was founded by the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Neshui, sons of the Turkish ambassador to the USA, in the 1940s. Initially, they had intended the label to be an outlet for jazz music and their first few releases were in that genre. Unfortunately, these tracks never garnered many sales, but in 1948, they had an input of cash from ex-dentist Herb Abrahamson and they hired Jerry Wexler, poaching him from a journalism job at ‘Billboard’ magazine where he had just persuaded the management to change the name of the ‘Race Records’ chart to the ‘Rhythm and Blues’ chart.

Their first charting hit came in 1948 when Sticks McGhee, brother of Brownie, one half of blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, hit the top of the newly renamed R&B chart with ‘Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-dee-o-dee’. The company then changed direction and aimed at the R&B market and later the pop market with its subsidiary ‘Atco’ label. Artists signed included Ruth Brown, The Clovers, The Coasters, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Bobby Darin and many others.

Because of all their success, the label became big players and in 1967 sold to the much larger Warner Seven Arts conglomerate (now Time Warner). Their contingent at the convention included artists signed to the label, Aretha Franklin and King Curtis.

The two largest black-owned record labels were also there and both Stax and Motown were to be holding lavish parties in the evenings.

Also in attendance were leaders of the civil rights movement such as Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, MLK having been assassinated some four months previously. Their interest in the gathering lay in one of the main aims of NATRA, namely to promote jobs for black people in a white-dominated industry which relied on black artists to exist and make their vast profits.

Jackson knew many of the industry’s main players. He had become friendly with the Ertegun brothers when they had organised unsegregated jazz concerts in Washington DC and they had made several heavy donations to Jackson’s charities. Ahmet acknowledged that because his company had so much black talent on its books, it was right and proper to give to charities which helped underprivileged African Americans.

At the first night of the proceedings, Jerry Wexler arrived at the hotel’s Bayfront Auditorium to attend a dinner at which he was to receive two awards for his work as a producer of R&B material at Atlantic. However, before the celebrations could commence, he received an urgent message that a man with a gun had arrived at the hotel’s reception, saying ‘I’m looking for Jerry Wexler’.

Jerry was hustled out of the building by black saxophone player King Curtis and driven to his newly acquired retirement home at Miami Beach, where he and his wife had planned to see out their semi-retirement days fishing and relaxing. His wife, Shirley, remembers him pacing the floor and insisting he should return to the convention hotel to look for Aretha Franklin who had been drinking very heavily and causing Wexler much concern.

There was an even more unpleasant experience for another music business executive called Marshall Sehorn. Sehorn was the first white partner in an otherwise black-owned label called Fury records who were from New York. Fury records had a bit of a reputation for not paying their acts any or all of royalties due to them. A prime example being Lee Dorsey who had two top ten hits in the USA in the 50s. Now in those days, to sell enough to get into the pop top 10 meant a fair old shedload of records shifted. Lee was interviewed in the 60s (when with another label) and said he never received a penny for either of his earlier hit records.

It is very likely that Sehorn was not involved with Fury when the Dorsey rip off took place, but, as I say, his was not the only example.

Sehorn had gone up to his 19th-floor suite to shower and get dressed for dinner. He bolted the suite door and retired to the bathroom for his shower. He had left his gun, which he frequently carried, on a chair in the bedroom in such a position that he could see it from the bathroom while showering.

Suddenly, while washing, he looked at the chair and the gun was gone. As he stepped out of the shower, four men walked into the bathroom. He later described them as ‘looking like big brutes and grizzly bears.’ One of the men told him ‘You have robbed your last black man. We don’t want any more white n***ers.’ With that, another walked up to him, twisted his testicles and said, ‘This is for all the black girls you ever screwed.’ He was then violently beaten and left unconscious on the bathroom floor.

His next memory is of coming to in a hospital bed, having been effectively told his presence at the awards dinner was not required. However, as he lay in bed, the telephone at his bedside rang and someone who Sehorn has only ever described as ‘an anonymous person in New York’ told him there were two men outside his door waiting to accompany him to the awards ceremony.

Several people who knew about all of this at the time suggested the voice on the phone belonged to Maurice Levy, boss of New York’s Roulette Records and someone with very close ties to the mob.  Whoever, it was obviously someone well placed and feared

So, when Sehorn arrived at the ceremony, accompanied by ‘two Italian buddies’ he found people gathering in the auditorium and doing their best to ignore the menacing atmosphere which was building. One of the Atlantic staff at the dinner was Dickie Kline who was a  protege of Wexler. He said that he had tried to avoid eye contact with anyone he didn’t know. He also reported that there was blood on the floor in certain places and that the place was inundated with FBI who had been summoned because of the threats. ‘Security was very heavy.’

As the evening wore on and the atmosphere grew tenser, it appeared that the event had been taken over by a group of African Americans, loosely connected to the music business, and calling themselves the Fairplay Committee. This group had commendable aims, i.e. to get a better deal for blacks in the recording industry, but there were some very intimidating people involved with them.

The whole thing began to degenerate and people were wandering all over the stage. One of Atlantic’s black employees collected Jerry Wexler’s awards, but he was told in no uncertain terms ‘Anyone who works for Atlantic Records is not welcome at any black radio station.’ An effigy of Wexler was then hanged.

The next day, Marshall Sehorn fled back to New Orleans, accompanied by an FBI agent. Al Bell, the genial black owner of Stax records disappeared and was missing for several weeks. All kinds of rumours abounded regarding his whereabouts, but when he did eventually show up, he just said he had been laying low until things quietened down.

Black artists began to get threats also. Booker T. Jones of Booker T & the MGs was told never to play with white musicians again. His band was two white (Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn) and two black (Booker T. and Al Jackson) musicians. Jones ignored the threats.

Rumours flew around as to the motives of the Fairplay Committee. They were gangsters, they were into a new kind of payola. Also, that they were genuine, if a little intimidating, in their desire to improve the conditions of the many African Americans in both the record and radio industries.

There is absolutely no doubt that black artists were frequently exploited by white, and sometimes fellow black, industry moguls. However, one of the upshots was that radio returned somewhat to having ‘black’ and ‘white’ music stations which have disappeared in the late 50s and 60s.

Because of the type of music they generally put out, Atlantic needed exposure on black music stations, so someone, usually Wexler was designated to pass wads of cash over to someone from the Fairplay Committee. It also has to be remembered that 1968 was a year of riots in ghettos in the USA. Watts, Detroit and other areas all had uprisings and younger black people were turning more and more to groups like the Panthers and away from Civil Rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom had to reinvent themselves to retain any credence with younger elements of the struggle.

As for Jerry Wexler, the whole affair hit him very hard. He felt badly done by because he had worked with so many black artists, helping to develop their careers and in many cases led them to stardom. In 1968, his most recent star was Aretha Franklin. He had heard her when she was under contract to Columbia records. They were trying to manipulate her into being a pop/jazz singer in the mould of Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington. Wexler saw her potential for rhythm and blues and, when her contract with Columbia expired, he snapped her up for Atlantic. In later years she many times said how much she owed him.

The Fairplay Committee set up branches in many cities where records were produced. There is absolutely no doubt that things in many areas did look up for black artists and so their rather unusual tactics did change things. There is also no doubt that some of their branches behaved as little more than gangsters with mafia-like tendencies.

Atlantic had sold to a giant corporation, as I said, albeit keeping Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler as consultants. Despite his good-humoured bluster, Al Bell had had enough and shortly afterwards sold Stax to major players. The era of the independent label was coming to an end. Vinyl was disappearing in favour of CDs, which in turn were supplanted by downloads. Ironically, downloads have forced artists back to the position where they get paid hardly anything, if at all, in royalties and so have to hope to make a living by touring. Plus ca change!

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