By BARRY MAZOR
Since her death last week at the age of 83, Frances Williams Preston, longtime CEO of the performance-rights company BMI, has been honored for her successes and fondly recalled for her singular grace by songwriters, performers and business people from throughout the popular-music industry—and by those from Nashville in particular. It’s a measure of how effective her personal gifts, tough competitiveness and decades of hard work were in transforming the industry that it is easy to forget now how things were done—or were never done—before she arrived.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Preston entered the music business at the bottom, hired to answer Hank Williams’s voluminous fan mail. Back then, there was no “Music Row” in Nashville; Williams recorded at Castle Studios, a spin-off of WSM, then the only recording studio in the city. The post-World War II country-music boom that made Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Eddy Arnold stars had been made possible by the birth of BMI (Broadcast Music International) in 1940. The venerable American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), home to Broadway and mainstream pop publishers and their tunesmiths, had long refused to affiliate with anyone in American roots music—country, R&B, gospel or even much jazz—so there was no simple way for broadcasters to identify and pay for rights to use that music; as a result, they simply avoided playing it. BMI stepped up as the performing-rights organization to fill that gap, and it worked.
Song publishing and recording in Nashville began to take off, but the BMI affiliation was with publishers, not directly with songwriters, who received little recognition and often went virtually unpaid. Meanwhile, song use was tracked by banks of secretaries filing index cards. (Secretary was about as high a job in the industry as a woman could hope for at the time.) Then in 1958, as record labels and studios began to line up along Music Row, BMI hired Preston to head a new office based in Nashville. She began to sign writers to BMI directly—tracking them down in coffee shops, in audiences at shows, wherever they were. She believed the now well-known catch phrase she first uttered in an industry speech, “It all begins with a song.”
From a strategic standpoint, that meant it was of first importance to sign writers who had promise to consistently produce; a publisher could always be found for them or created by them. As Preston rose to vice president of BMI Nashville in 1964, and then to president and CEO of all of BMI (based in New York) in 1986, she would enable some songwriters (Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran were two) to buy publishing companies with advances on future song royalties, or to set up such companies of their own.
As BMI’s rivals came to discover the possibilities in country and roots music themselves, Preston kept the firm at the top of its game with groundbreaking, competitive moves. She signed Kris Kristofferson to BMI for a cool million dollars just as he approached the height of his songwriting productivity and Hollywood fame—a risk that paid off.
She’d follow the same pattern with R&B songwriters lurking in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., who, as she recalled during a 2008 interview with the Journal, “hadn’t even heard of being paid for song performances. . . . There was quite a bit of a stun when I started signing all of these writers directly and they started being paid—because that old habit of paying people with fur coats and new Cadillacs and such, this had been the going thing. When they went to get royalties, it would be ‘But we gave you that fur coat!’”
The songwriters themselves remember the attention and care she offered them, and the respect she demanded for them. Vince Gill noted at a dinner held in her honor: “When I think of Frances, I’m most impressed with her class and her character—and her great kindness.” And singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell told the Journal: “She was the first woman that came up looking to elevate everything, so I behaved myself; I learned manners from Frances!”
“At first,” Preston would recall, “it was a race for me, to see how many I could get signed, but then, especially if they had a hit, I got interested in them personally—into really understanding them.” She instituted the annual black-tie BMI Songwriter Awards to honor country music’s best and most successful writers; held some of the first of Nashville’s songwriter get-together “guitar pulls” in the ’60s and ’70s, by her own swimming pool; and became a mentor to several generations of songwriters and music-industry executives —she was particularly valued by younger women, who were inspired by what she was able to achieve in a male-dominated industry. (The Nashville Songwriters Foundation has named its mentoring award after her.)
Preston was, as people couldn’t help but notice at every stage of her life, beautiful; she carried herself with elegance, and she was equally comfortable in conversation with the down home and the well connected. There are photos in which she appears alongside grateful cohorts ranging from Roy Acuff and Tammy Wynette to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, several U.S. presidents, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. She served with the last two on the National Information Infrastructure Committee. International cooperation on connecting performing-rights organizations around the world through digital databases had become one of her major interests. She’d seen to it that the index cards were long gone.
There’s a street in the middle of Music Row called “Chet Atkins Place,” another a few blocks over called “Roy Acuff Place,” and a statue of Owen Bradley at his piano at one end of the neighborhood. Don’t be surprised if the people who decide such things look to rename another street on the Row now; “Frances Preston’s Way” sounds about right.
Mr. Mazor writes about country and roots music for the Journal.