The Day I Saved Michael Jackson’s Career
An Excerpt from a Memoir
By Fred Beauford
…And Mistakes Made Along the Way
I have always been a glutton for work. As I have described in an earlier chapter, my first job was delivering newspapers as a ten-year-old, in cold, snowy Buffalo. I have been working ever since, and can’t imagine not working, even if I have to create my own jobs, as I did with Morton Books, Inc, and the Neworld Review.
If I don’t have at least two jobs, I feel like I’m goofing off.
Now, in the early 90’s, my first job as an associate professor at Suny/Old Westbury was ending for the summer, and I was on an airplane heading west for my summer job as a public relations executive for the Hollywood firm of Pat Tobin and Associates, the largest black-owned public relations firm on the west coast.
As I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, my mind was all abuzz. Pat Tobin, founder of the firm that bore her name, had actually called me, something she rarely does, and asked me when I was coming out.
“Well, I thought I would wait a week and catch my breath” I told her.” Teaching a full load is not the easiest thing in the world to do, you know.”
Pat would have none of my whining, however. “I need you now,” she firmly replied. “My office will make all the arrangements. Don’t worry about a thing, just be on that plane tomorrow.”
“Wow! What’s up?”
“It’s big. Real big.”
I went straight to her office from the airport in a car she had waiting for me.
Pat Tobin was her usual, let’s get down to business self. Behind her back I called her “hell on wheels.” She had started her company in her kitchen, but for the last fifteen years was able to maintain a large suite of offices on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, while other PR firms, black and white, had come and gone
“Bob needs our help.”
“Bob? Coming to us? No shit. This I got to hear.”
The Bob we were speaking of was Bob Jones, Michael Jackson’s director of public relations. What was going on at the time, on television, in newspapers and magazines was a non-stop flood of Michael Jackson.
He had been accused of molesting a child, and his name had become media fodder of the kind that no black person had ever experience before in this country.
Bob, however, had a plan to put an end to what he considered an unwarranted attack on Jackson’s reputation.
“Have you met the new Regional Director of the National NAACP?” Pat asked.
“Can’t say that I have. I have little to do with those guys anymore. I am now just a quiet college professor, unless I am hanging out with crazy folks like you.”
Pat managed a small smile. The ice was broken and we were once more friends, as well as colleagues “Well he has been on the job for only two months. I met with him on behalf of Bob and he agreed to hold a press conference and threaten the national media, and companies that advertise with them, with a full boycott organized by the NAACP, if they didn’t end their negative coverage of Michael.”
“Ah, Bob has no shame. The famous race card.”
“Call it what you will. All I know is that the Regional Director suddenly got cold feet. He called me a few days ago and told me something about the national office needed to talk it over.
“You have to go over there and push him off the fence. We have already rented the Roosevelt hotel for the press conference on Monday, and he can’t back down now,“ Pat said to me.
“But I don’t even know the guy.”
“Well, he certainly knows who you are. I told him that you now work for me part-time, and he said that he wanted to meet you. I think he wants to pick your brain about how to get around all that political mess that you obviously was able to do, when you worked for them.”
Both Pat and Bob Jones knew that for over eight years I was the editor of the Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, and was widely credited with saving it, and restoring some of its former luster, just when it was about go under; so I was in good standing with the organization, although I had left my editorship a little over a year ago.
I had also known Bob since his days as the public relation director of Motown Records. He was well known in the Hollywood community for being a highly irascible gay black man, with a fierce loyalty to Michael Jackson. But the two of us got along just fine from the first moment we met.
Pat, who was even a better friend of Bob, told me that he once told her that I was a real intellectual, “Not like those janitors I have to work with.”
Bob Jones and I first met in 1974 when I handled the Temptations for EWW, the public relation company I worked for, which was on Sunset, right down the street from Motown, and a block away from Pat’s present office. The Temps soon fired us because I couldn’t get them a cover on People, which the owner had promised them when they signed on.
(This taught me to be very wary of owners of PR companies. They will promise almost anything under the sun, the moon, the planets, and all the stars, in order to get the contract, and then dump it on the desk of poor unfortunates like me.)
Bob and I had stayed in touch after he left Motown when the Jackson’s, with the exception of Jermaine, left for a better deal with Columbia Records, including Columbia’s promise to let Michael record solo. Michael personally appointed him to the newly create position of public relations director at MJJ Productions.
In fact, only months before all hell broke loose in the press, I was in conversation with Bob to see if I could get my youngest daughter, Alexis, a position as a Production Assistant for Jackson’s next world tour. I thought at the time it would be an invaluable learning experience for her.
I also warned him in a friendly, friend-to-friend fashion, that from a PR point of view, Jackson was hurting himself by every time you saw him in public he was carrying Emmanuel Lewis, the extremely diminutive actor, in his arms.
“It looks really freaky, dude.”
Bob laughed softly. “Well you know Michael, Fred. Michael does what Michael wants to do. Anyway, I’ll see what I can do for your kid.”
I first met Michael Jackson as a young, polite, extremely shy young man. I had left PR and returned to journalism where I covered major entertainment affairs in Hollywood. I would run into him, and he would always looked uncomfortable, and out of place.
Hollywood parties, then, now, and forever, are filled with the biggest, most over the top egos on the planet, and everyone is in the middle of the room trying to be the most famous.
But not Michael.
My wife at the time was also very shy and very pregnant, and I knew she felt just as out of place among all the stars and poseurs. I, on the other hand, lived for moments like this. I was out in the middle of the floor, slapping backs, and being clever, with Smokey, Miss Ross, and all the rest of the show-offs.
On several different occasions, I looked to the back of the room to check on my wife. Both times I saw her and Michael sitting alone, no one else paying any attention to either of them, as the two of them quietly engaged in conversation. It seemed at that point that they were kindred souls, and had thankfully found each other amiss all of the pretensions and carrying on taking place right in front of them.
The next morning I paid a visit to the regional office of the NAACP, at Wilshire near Highland, a place that had served as one of my west coast offices when I was running the Crisis.
I had a long, pleasant conversation with the new Regional Director, an energetic, inquisitive young man from the Bay Area, about the inner workings of the national office of the NAACP. I warned him of some of the many minefields he should avoid.
“Just remember my friend, they have pictures hanging on their walls of people who worked for the organization when mutton chops were all the rage.”
We both liked that one, and laughed loudly. We also hit it off because I had also lived many years in he Bay Area. I turned the conversation to why I was really there.
I watched as his face quickly changed. “Speaking of minefields. Now that’s a minefield. You crazy niggers are trying to get my black ass fired,” he answered when I asked him why he was thinking of backing out of the press conference.
I laughed loudly again. “My friend, my friend, ” I said to him, holding up my hands to stop any more thoughts in this direction, and feeling correctly, as it turned out, that he wanted more than anything to make that press conference.
It wasn’t going to take much, as Pat so artfully put it, to “push him off the fence,”
”Look at it this way” I said, “every camera crew in L A is going to be there. When this is over, you’re going to be as famous as Michael. In this world, as you well know, name recognition means everything.”
“Well they didn’t say that I couldn’t hold the press conference, only that I should wait for a decision from them.”
“There you go.”
I called Pat. “The deal is done.”
“Thank the lordy!”
“No. Thank me.”
“Don’t brag so much, it’s unbecoming.”
“Anyway, he wants me to help him write his opening statement to the press. For God’s sake, Pat, I thought slavery was over. Tomorrow is Saturday and I haven’t even seen my kids.”
“Well you can’t do it tomorrow, I need you in the office to finish the press release and we have to fax it to all the outlets.“
When you are a glutton for work, there is always someone more than happy to exploit this eccentric quirk.
It was also hard to believe, when I thought about the maelstrom I was now deeply involved in, that only a few days ago I was a nondescript, unassuming professor at a quiet little college on Long Island.
That Saturday, Pat and I worked feverishly faxing the news flash of the press conference to all the major and minor media.
Within hours, a producer from the Early Show called, followed by a call from producers from Good Morning America, and the Today Show.
This was the Holy Grail, the blessed Trinity of PR. These were the same people who in the not so recent past had thumbed their noses at small firms like Pat Tobin and Associates, and wouldn’t give us the time of day. Calling the Queen of England could produce better results.
Pat had been absolutely right. This was big.
They all wanted the Regional Director to appear on their shows that Monday. Because it was the west coast, they said they would send a car for him at 3:00am so that he could make the east coast opening segment with joint feeds.
This made the thing more complicate. As his handler, it would have meant that I would have to get up at 2:00am to meet the limos and producers, gather him up, prep him, and make the shows.
I called him.
“Are you crazy. No way I am getting up that early. Also, if my mug was all over the early talk shows, those guys at national would really be bent out of shape.”
He had a point. Despite all of the hard work Pat and I had put in, this was music to my ears. The last three days had been nothing but airports, planes and non-stop work, with little sleep; and I still had to spend perhaps all Sunday working on the Regional Director’s statement, and then face the world press on Monday.
I may be a glutton for work, but I was not looking forward to getting up at 2:00am, and was more than happy he declined the offers.
I called the producers back and told them of his decision. They all seemed disappointed. I assured then that we had other clients who could appear on their shows in the future, now that we had become friends, and I had their direct lines.
I knew this was a grand moment lost, but I didn’t care; plus I knew that they would get the feeds anyway for later broadcast.
I had been at the Roosevelt hotel since nine. I had spent most of Sunday working with the Regional Director on his statement. My two girls still had not seen hide or hair of their father, although I had assured both of them by phone that I was indeed in town. I was in a back room putting together the handouts I would give to the press.
Around 10, I peeped out onto the floor where the press conference was to take place and couldn’t believe my eyes. Even at this early hour, the room was already crowded with press and camera crews, more camera crews then I have ever seen in my career.
I walked into the lobby to see if the Regional Director had shown up. Sure enough, I immediately bumped into him.
“Well, national said don’t do it,” he said.” He then showed me his pager with a written text message from the national headquarters in Baltimore: “Don’t hold the press conference.”
At this point, this was the last thing I wanted to hear. I didn’t panic though, because I saw on his face, the moment I saw him coming purposely across the hotel lobby, that he couldn’t resist the audience Pat and I had assembled for him.
“What are going to do?” I asked, as if I didn’t already know the answer..
“Go ahead with the press conference, and beg for forgiveness tomorrow.”
The Regional Director got his first and last chance to stand center stage facing a huge bank of cameras from every part of the world, reciting the words I had written for him, with force and conviction. I especially liked it when he came to the part about how “the white-owned media have been making fun of black people since we have been in this country. We stand here in the heart of Hollywood, where some of the worse offenses took place, as movie after movie portrayed us as coons, mammies and morons. Well, those days are over. If you want a fight, then we will give you a fight.”
And just like that the attacks on Jackson creased.
Bob’s plan had worked wonders. Now, Jackson was once again just another strange looking, highly talented eccentric.
The Regional Director had been also right about one thing. His black ass was indeed immediately fired. And no, he did not become as famous as Michael, but faded into oblivion, perhaps forever savoring his brief moment on the world stage.
Pat was hoping for a big payoff for her company: major league contracts for big name stars. Hadn’t she just saved the career of the biggest star in the world? Those contracts never came, however. It was soon back to the usual role for black PR firms in LA: handling hopeful nobodies on the way up, or bitter, difficult has-beens on the way down.
For me, I offered Bob a deal I knew he had to accept. “You need to return to your first base to repair the damage that’s been done,” I explained to him.
As much as the black community, the first base I was referring to, adored him, and was ready to forgive him almost anything, Jackson had turned his back on them. He didn’t even want to look black anymore, and seemed to have dyed himself a ghostly white, and even, if it turns out, paid millions for white babies he could call his own.
I offered to write and place a series of articles in the black press calling attention to the good work Michael planned on doing on behalf of African Americans. In the back of my mind I hoped that this might prod him to give some of his millions to projects that would benefit inner city blacks.
I met Bob at Michael’s office on Sunset at the edge of Beverly Hills, to discuss my ideas.
“We discussed it, we really did. The problem is that the audience you are speaking of has little meaning to us. He’s a world-wide star,” Bob patiently explained. “But I could give you out of pocket a couple hundred for a few pieces.”
This was my big payoff?
I laughed, shook my head and stood up and walked over to the many pictures on the wall showing Michael hanging out with other famous people. The one that stood out in my mind was the one of him with Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Bob was even in the picture.
“Man, she sure looks like she’s in awe of him.”
“Well, he is the King. They are mere Prince and Princess.”
“Bob, you have been out west too long and forgotten how to be humble. You’re a Goddamn cowboy. By the way, I bet I know who started all that “King of Pop” stuff in the first place.”
Bob put a finger to his lips, as if to warn me not to say out loud what I was thinking.
You would think that once I arrived back at my first job at SUNY/Old Westbury, that I’d be chomping at the bit to regale my students with such an adventurous summer. But I said nothing to them about Michael Jackson. I wasn’t proud of what I had done for several reasons.
One, I hate the race card and had railed against it on many occasions. I call it the silent killer. The race card works because African Americans have a historical memory of centuries of abuse by Northern European settlers. The descendents of the early Europeans also have this deeply etched in their historic consciousness.
The race card plays on this collective, uniquely American memory, and empowers clerics, lawyers and people like Bob, and has made some of them extremely wealthy.
But they win short term, pyrrhic victories, because their actions brings the fears that go alone with this memory, especially in black males.
That’s why people like President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, can leapfrog over native blacks with a long history in this country. They just don’t feel the fear that’s buried in the soul of most African American, a fear that this country must be rid of if we are ever to end the race problem.
I also felt some shame at the nagging feeling that I may have just helped a pervert. I was abused as a child, as most of you readers who have followed this memoir well know, and I should have been the last person to help someone like that.
So I kept all of this to myself. But now that my friend Pat Tobin is dead, and cranky old Bob Jones is dead, and now Michael, I can finally unburden myself. Isn’t this why I named this memoir,…and Mistakes Made Along the Way?