Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Timothy White

I must admit, I was taken aback when I glanced at today's birthdays on Wikipedia and found former Billboard editor Timothy White listed among the notables born this day. It's hard to believe he died in 2002, at the age of 50...

I was in the office the day he goddamn dropped dead in the elevator of our office building, followed by a dreadful staff meeting where we were told he'd been raced to the hospital and did not survive... From that day on, Billboard lost its consummate leader, a man identified with the brand simply by bow tie, buck shoes... and his grand (albeit, wordy) but ever passionate signature on what was the music industry's must-read weekly mag.

Timothy arrived at Billboard in 1991, four years before I came on as Radio Editor. From the beginning, he proved to be a tough sell: ardent in his passion, but fitful with his opinions. You could transition from his darling to nemesis overnight.

For the most part, Tim and I had a charmed relationship. In 1995, I had the advantage of a cubicle in close proximity to his office when Billboard was at 44th & Broadway in New York's Times Square. As a newbie, I often worked late into the night and because he lived in Boston and spent the weeknights in New York, he was also on-site past normal work hours.

When Tim loved something, he would play it ad nauseum, often the same song again and again. I remember walking into his office one night, offering, "She's awfully good. I hear a future. What's her name?" It was a spanking new, barely discovered Shania Twain. He had those kind of ears.

Timothy offered me four grand rewards during our time at Billboard, which changed the course of my life.

First, when I arrived, the (Radio) Programming column was little more than a regurgitation of industry promotions in sister radio mag Airplay Monitor. I came up with a proposal to bring my signature to the Radio Editor column: Each week, I would write about a hit single on one of Billboard's charts, interview the artist, radio programmers and a record exec. As an editor who fed on his staff's enthusiasm, Tim gave me an immediate thumbs up.

Over the years, my AirWaves column defined me at Billboard, peaking as the third most-read regular feature in the magazine. It gave me access to every act I adored, new and established—and believe me, when Billboard called, publicists delivered.

Second, as absurd a request as it seemed, when I arrived at Billboard, my focal obsession was to find a way to connect with music idol Sheena Easton. It happened she was appearing on Broadway in "Grease," giving me an ideal hook. I pitched Tim to write an article about an established artist who had found "life beyond the hits"—not only did he agree, but the story ran, my god, for three pages.

Third was a fateful one-on-one discussion with Tim to let him know I didn't believe radio was my life; I wanted to evolve at Billboard. He promoted me to Senior Writer, a role that left in command of scribing page 1 trend articles, monstrous undertakings that took weeks to write and often ran just under the masthead.

Truly, it was a love-hate undertaking. Tim expected me to come up with entrepreneurial ideas on the fly. I was admittedly better at taking direction. When I failed to deliver a worthy list of potential headlining pieces, he not only made clear his disdain, but threatened my job. That was the wicked side of Tim: When it was good, it was awfully good, but when he turned on you, your career was hanging by a thread.

Back to good: Fourth, by 2002, after I had become Billboard's focal connect to Celine Dion—as my career grew parallel to hers, I was able to interview her up the ladder and pretty much inherit her as my artist at Billboard—Tim suggested that in January, as she returned with album "A New Day Has Come" following a two-year break, that we negotiate the first interview in the world with Celine, promising a page 1 Billboard cover in exchange for a face to face with Celine.

Sure enough, her husband/manager Rene Angelil agreed, and I flew to Montreal, spending a day with the pair in their home, interviewing Celine for five hours... absolutely the greatest experience bar none, in my life. I remember how Tim suggested breaking the interviews into a series of articles, spreading out page after page, and putting the cover together, with Tim, ultimately rejecting Sony's choice of artwork, because he thought Celine was sexy in alternative artwork we obtained—and why shouldn't we show her evolution? Goddamn, it was a peak. The peak.

By the time he died, Tim (sadly, any photos I have of us together are in the print era, laying in a stack somewhere not readily at hand) had promoted me to Senior Editor at Billboard, pretty much third in line, editing and proofing the front of the book. When he left us and new editor Keith Girard was hired, hell cast its fury with a guy with a lot of power who had no knowledge of what he was doing (think William Hurt in "Broadcast News"). Instead of relying on those who could make him look better, this idiot hired wings to "protect" him, firing and demoting anyone who intimidated him.

I was among those who appeared to get in his way, and was stripped of my duties as Single Reviews Editor and ultimately put to pasture with sis Billboard Radio Monitor (post-Airplay Monitor, when protective longtime exec Michael Ellis refused to let me be canned). Eventually, the inept Girard and his minions were not only fired, but sued (I participated in a comical 10-hour deposition filled with fictional accounts of racism, prejudice and all sorts of preposterous accusations), and future execs unfortunately never had any idea that longtime staffer Chuck had once been a heavyweight... nor did they care. As is typical, new editors hired their own fledgling heroes—just as Timothy did with me in 1995.

I hope to hell that Tim, in his resting place, recognizes that as difficult as he was for many (and other stories would definitely differ from my positive sway), he was surely the voice of Billboard in its heyday.

He honored my ambition, offered opportunity and, in the world of Billboard, which, at that time, mattered in the entertainment business, made my every dream come true. To this day, I visit with Sheena Easton every time she's in the Northeast. Tim, thanks much.