Music industry powerhouse Antonio “LA” Reid is credited with cultivating and producing some of the biggest music acts in the industry, including Usher, Pink, Justin Bieber, Outkast, TLC, Mariah Carey and Meghan Trainor. He began his musical career as a drummer with the Cincinnati-based funk rock band Pure Essence. Later he founded the R&B band The Deele, which featured Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on keyboards. After scoring a couple of hits, Reid and Edmonds began writing hits for other artists. Then they decided to move South and establish LaFace Records. Atlanta hasn’t been the same since.
In 1988, the industry had discovered us.
Our records simply exploded that year. We were hitting our stride, but then, in the first six months of 1989, three large earthquakes rocked Los Angeles. Neither Kenny nor I had ever been through anything like that, but Kenny in particular was really affected. He was frightened enough that he wanted to move. At the same time, Pebbles (a singer and Reid’s girlfriend) and I were having our own issues with LA, which had nothing to do with earthquakes.
Suddenly, Los Angeles seemed like a small town and we felt hemmed in. Our success gave us the confidence to think about other possibilities — because of how we’d gotten into the business, we didn’t feel tied to any city. We started to talk about relocating, so that Kenny and I could begin our own label.
Kenny, Pebbles, and I brought a map into the studio and pinned it to the wall. Where would we go?
The three of us stood there looking at that map, and I do not remember which one of us said Atlanta, but after that, nothing was the same.
Atlanta was not on the pop music map. It was a large Southern city, but it didn’t feel like the old South. It was the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the city where civil rights leaders Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson had been elected mayor. Atlanta had this robust history and an upwardly mobile black community. It felt like a city full of dreamers, a place where things could happen and a place that hadn’t been born yet musically.
It was a city that, in many ways, reflected what was going on with our music. Postdisco rhythm and blues in the MTV world had taken on a pop sheen, losing much of the raw, ghetto funkiness of the music I grew up playing. Like the black community itself, our music had taken on elegance, class and dignity, without sacrificing any of the essential black ingredients — grit, sass and soul. The more we thought about it, the better the idea of Atlanta sounded. We could own that town in a way we never could Hollywood. We would have first shot at all the talent and instantly be the biggest tree in the forest. It wasn’t some fully formed strategy. None of us were from Atlanta or had relatives there. None of us had even really spent any time in the town, but Atlanta it was.
Photo: LA attends the ASCAP Rhythm And Soul 3rd Annual Atlanta Legends Dinner in his honor on September 25, 2014 in Atlanta. Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Department
For a while, Kenny and I had spoken about having our own record company. It seemed like the obvious next step. It would give us control over our creative decisions, instead of being at the mercy of A&R executives. We never really considered the business side of the equation, other than assuming we would make more money if we had our own label. We came up with the name LaFace while driving down Sunset Boulevard and talking about how all the hot new restaurants in town were “La” something — La Place, La Dome, La Anything. We made a contraction of our names into LaFace. Forming our own label seemed obvious to me, and Kenny went along.
We had made a lot of our hits for MCA Records, so the next day I called the president of MCA, Irving Azoff. I told him I wanted to move to Atlanta and start the Motown of the South, LaFace Records. He loved the idea. I asked for $600,000. Not only did he say yes to the money, he also offered to book the travel, arrange the hotel rooms and introduce us to Joel Katz, Atlanta’s international power broker. Two days later, the money was in our account.
I had never really been to Atlanta, other than passing through on tour. As I drove around the town with a real estate agent and saw the place, I started to grow fascinated. We could have some pretty decent lives here. We found this ritzy, gated subdivision in North Atlanta built around golf courses called Country Club of the South that felt right. Kenny found his house, and Pebbles and I got a place. Kenny’s friend Daryl Simmons came along.
The stucco house that Pebbles and I bought was quite grand. The great room had 20-foot ceilings, and a sweeping staircase led upstairs. The 8,000-square foot, five-bedroom house sprawled over a corner lot, occupying an acre and a half with beautifully landscaped gardens. We used a decorator from Atlanta and did the place in a combination of California shabby chic mixed with Southern charm. We finished out the terrace level with a movie theater, an exercise room, an extra bedroom, and a beauty salon that opened to the pool.
These were richly emotional days. Pebbles and I ran off to Las Vegas and got married. We were young and in love. She was pregnant with our son, Aaron. We brought her daughter Ashley with us to Atlanta, and my son Antonio Jr. came down from Cincinnati to live. I had always sent his mother money and did my best to stay in touch, but I had been largely an absentee father and I hoped to make up for that in some way. He started high school that fall in Atlanta. After all these years, I was finally in a position where I could buy some things. I was glad to buy my mother a house in Cincinnati, and she never had to work again. She and her sister Katrina were constant visitors at our new home in Atlanta.
Between Pebbles’s career and Babyface’s solo work, we were big-time for Atlanta. There was a splash in The Atlanta Journal- Constitution. TV news covered us. When we moved, we rented one of those giant car carriers that auto dealers use to transport new cars and filled it up with our cars; Benzes, Range Rovers, Porsches. I remember that thing pulling up in the Country Club, a seriously uptight, exclusive little enclave. Back then, I didn’t give it a thought, but now I wonder, what the hell did the neighbors think?
My life had completely changed. I was running a record company and living in a mansion with my new family. I wasn’t rich — I went to Atlanta with $40,000 in the bank. We moved into this giant place that didn’t have curtains up yet. We felt like we were living in a fishbowl. That first night, Pebbles, Ashley, and I went out to dinner, and a terrible loneliness descended on us. We had moved to a city where we knew absolutely no one. What had we done to ourselves? And what were we going to do? The first thing was to get the record company funded. Our intended deal at MCA fell through when Irving Azoff grew bored running a label and quit his job. Our industry godfather Clarence Avant, took us to see Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss at A&M Records, and even arranged a meeting with David Geffen.
Over lunch, Geffen regaled us with tales of the record business and concluded by saying he wanted to make a deal with us. A couple of days later, he had changed his mind.
“There’s one last meeting I want you to take,” Clarence said. “I want you guys to meet Clive Davis.”
Clive Davis? I read his book when I was 18 years old. He was the man behind Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters,” Chicago, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He had made Janis Joplin a star. I knew he was the guy.
We went to Clive’s Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, where he had the air conditioner set to full chill. Everybody else had wined us and dined us, but we went to meet Clive around noon and he had a plate of cookies out. Where the (expletive) was lunch? We told him we were hungry and he ordered some sandwiches. Clive was running Arista Records and had Whitney Houston and Kenny G, both at the height of their careers; otherwise, the label was not making an impact on youth culture. That didn’t matter to us — we loved him. He agreed to pay the million-dollar advance we wanted plus cover our overhead while we built a staff that the record company funded. I felt official for the first time.
Atlanta was not quite ready for us. There was no music business. There was no place you could rent a luxury car. Hell, there weren’t even rehearsal studios or equipment rentals.
We looked at every studio in town — and there weren’t many — and sort of settled on Cheshire Bridge Studios, where we’d cut Bobby Brown and Johnny Gill. The studio owner paid a visit to my home, where he let me know what a top dog he was while he flicked his (expletive) cigarette ashes on my Oriental rug. When Kenny suggested building a studio on my property, we got the builder together with a studio designer and made a two-bedroom guesthouse that was a replica of the main house with a studio, named LaCoco Studios, after our Lhasa Apso puppy, Coco.
We were up and running in four months. The first thing we did was finish Pebbles’ next record, which had been going slowly because she was pregnant. Meanwhile, Kenny and I kept flying back and forth from Los Angeles, finishing his next Babyface album.
Once we had the studio built, the house turned magical. It became the castle of my kingdom, a busy hive of creative activities that went on day and night. My label was my life, and as it was a small, family-size company, we blended our social and professional lives seamlessly. I wanted to be around that kind of energy, right in the middle of it.
I made my home the center of everything. We kept a chef on duty around the clock in the main house. The terrace level was always humming with people watching movies, shooting pool, using the small demo studio or hanging out in the beauty salon. It was our little recreation center, and we drew around us not only the artists and musicians, but the trainers, the hairstylists, all the kinds of creative people we needed. When the neighbors complained I was running a business in their residential community, I told the fellow they sent to interview me that I was a musician and I had a studio. My neighbor is an accountant — does he have a calculator? They left me alone after that.
After we’d set up shop, we quickly started checking out the local scene. Joyce Irby of Klymaxx introduced me to Dallas Austin, a 19-year-old wonder boy I met at Cheshire Bridge. We instantly became good friends and started to spend a lot of time together in the studio. He already had a couple of hits, and when we opened LaCoco, Dallas came around a lot. He had a very different style from ours, hipper than we were.
We were pulling together a clique, and Atlanta was getting to be our town. About the same time, Bobby Brown moved to town. He was officially Bobby Brown and quite the celebrity.
To get things out of the house, we rented an office space in Norcross. We hung the LaFace logo on the wall and opened for business. I dressed in a suit every morning and went to the office, feeling special about life. Everything was great, except one thing: I knew nothing about business. Outside of Uncle Rueben’s barbershop and my stint on the loading dock at Duro Bag Manufacturing Company, my entire life had been spent playing and making music. My business skills were nonexistent; I had never given a thought to the business side of the record business. All I knew how to do was make records.
Around that time, Clive asked me and Kenny to produce Whitney Houston. She was making her third album. She was undoubtedly the most popular female vocalist of the day and the biggest-selling act on the label. She had a string of No. 1 hits, but Clive felt she needed to strengthen her grounding in contemporary black music and ease up on the pop songs. So he called LA Reid and Babyface.
Whitney flew to Atlanta and the limo service failed to pick her up. I made the 45-minute drive in a mad rush from Alpharetta to the airport. I had never met Whitney before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was looking around the terminal for maybe a mini-entourage, maybe an assistant, when I saw a lady sitting on a bench alone in sunglasses and a scarf.
“LA?” she said
I made my apologies and whisked her off in my car, only now I was even more nervous. There was nothing in my playbook about driving around with the stars, and I was driving around in my car with Whitney Houston. I small-talked and played the radio. We hit it off instantly. We sang along to the songs on the radio together. That 45-minute ride felt like about five minutes.
When I got back to my house, the first thing I did was introduce her to my wife. She and Pebbles started gabbing about shoes and shopping, making that girl pop star connection immediately. We had written “I’m Your Baby Tonight” for her, and Clive found this song, “My Name Is Not Susan,” that he wanted us to produce with her. She knew the songs from the demos and had done her homework. We walked over to LaCoco, and before she stepped into the vocal booth, she stopped.
“Baby, we want to go shopping,” she said. “How long do you think before the mall closes?”
Now, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” has a lot of parts and is a (expletive) to sing. There was no chance she could finish her singing in the 45 minutes before the stores closed. “I know the song,” she said. “I don’t know the bridge yet — you guys have to write the bridge — but I know the background parts and I know the lead parts. Let’s do that.”
She went into the studio, cut the lead vocal for the chorus and stacked her vocals, doubling and tripling her original vocal perfectly. Then she laid down the first track of background vocals, the second track of backgrounds, the harmony parts. We stacked them up and flew them through the track. That took her about 20 minutes. I was blown away. That voice coming through my speakers on one of Kenny’s and my songs — we’d produced a lot of records by then, but I had never heard anybody sound that good, ever. Not even close.
“Baby, I really want to go to the mall,” she said. “Let’s get to the lead vocal.”
She got behind the mic and belted that song, nailed it on the first take, right up to the bridge, which we still needed to write. “OK, baby, give me another try,” she said.
She did it again and nailed it a second time. “OK, what else you need?” she said.
“I guess we need to write the bridge,” I said, and off she and Pebbles went to the mall.
While they were at the mall, I went down the block to Kenny’s house and we wrote the bridge. When the girls returned from shopping, Whitney went back into the studio and polished off the bridge. Whole song, top to bottom, vocal time spent: one hour.
We finished that song and “My Name Is Not Susan.” Whitney went back to New York. We wrote a song for her called “Miracle,” and Clive wanted us to do another one he found called “Lover for Life.” Whitney came back to Atlanta one week later and she knocked out these two songs like they were nothing — pow, pow — only now we were used to it. Talk about a superpower. The girl would work to the point of exhaustion.
She came back a third time to do some fixes. Aaron had been born and Pebbles was out touring behind her new album. Whitney called from her hotel to tell me her room had been broken into and she felt uncomfortable at the hotel. Could she use the guesthouse? She showed up with her manager and running partner Robyn Crawford. It was late. I put on a movie in the theater to watch and the phone rang. It was Pebbles, who quickly became upset when she learned Whitney was there.
“Whitney’s in my house?” she said. “We’re not having that. My husband is not going to sit in my house late at night watching a movie with another girl.”
I tried to explain, but she threw a tantrum and I started to get angry. I told her she had nothing to worry about, this was completely safe, platonic, and just us musicians. I got loud and Whitney overheard.
“She’s trippin’, huh?” she said.
Whitney offered to leave, but I told her my responsibility was to take care of her and everything would be fine. “I don’t want to be in the middle of y’all’s mess,” she said.
Pebbles kept calling back and finally I took the phone off the hook. I was embarrassed. I pride myself on being a professional. I was starting a business, and was now working with — and entertaining — major celebrity superstars. I didn’t need this (expletive). Whitney went to the guesthouse to sleep.
The next day, Pebbles came home and had attitude with me. She tried having attitude with Whitney, too, but Whitney put out that fire in, like, two seconds. I don’t know what she said, but everything quickly was cool. Whitney invited us all — me, Pebbles, Babyface and his new girlfriend, Tracey — to her place, so we all piled on a Delta jet and spent the weekend in New Jersey.
Excerpt from “Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic and Searching for Who’s Next” by LA Reid with Joel Selvin, published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers
ABOUT THE STORY
Deciding which section of LA Reid’s new memoir “Sing to Me” to excerpt for Personal Journeys this week was a challenge because the options were so plentiful. There was the part about his discovery of TLC and what really happened when Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes burned down Atlanta Falcons player Andre Rison’s house. Or the section about the time two nervous 17-year-olds too scared to make eye contact stood by Reid’s desk and demonstrated their rapping skills. Their names were Antwan and André, and they would become Outkast. I finally landed on this excerpt, about Reid’s first days in Atlanta, the birth of LaFace Records and an extraordinary recording experience with the late, great Whitney Houston. Enjoy.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
LA Reid is chairman and CEO of Epic Records. He has been shaping the music industry for more than 25 years. In addition to co-founding LaFace Records in Atlanta, he also has served as chairman of the former Island Def Jam Music Group and president and CEO of Arista Records. He has produced or co-written dozens of No. 1 singles and has won 18 BMI Awards and three Grammys. In 2013 he was awarded the Grammy’s President’s Merit Award. He has been instrumental in the careers of scores of artists, including Rihanna, Kanye West, Usher, Pink, Justin Bieber, Outkast, TLC, Mariah Carey, The Killers, Avril Lavigne and Meghan Trainor.
Joel Levin is an award-winning journalist who has covered pop music for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1970. He is the author of “Summer of Love” and co-author with Sammy Hagar of his memoir “Red.”