On a hot July day in 1955, Roy Eaton walked into the New York offices of advertising giant Young & Rubicam and made what seemed like an impossible request.
An out-of-work pianist trained in classical music, he asked for a job as a composer.
Eaton, fresh out of the Army, didn’t even know the business that Y&R was in. He sought out the company only after receiving an answer to an inquiry he made about the name of the piano concerto used in “Goodyear Playhouse,” an NBC television show that Y&R sponsored.
Aside from that, there was one other obvious but unspoken obstacle: Eaton was a black man knocking on the doors of a white man’s industry.
Out of that unlikely situation came a nearly 30-year-career that rivals any of the jaw-dropping storylines written for the AMC television series “Mad Men” and its protagonist, Don Draper.
“Adversity is a gift, not a liability,” he said.
Now retired from the profession, Eaton, who was inaugurated into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2010, has experienced renewed fame as the first black “Mad Man.” A copywriter and composer, he is known for creating iconic jingles, including the catchy Beefaroni ditty and the modern jazz-inspired tune for Kent cigarettes.
On Monday evening, the 84-year-old spoke before an audience at UConn’s Stamford campus, part of the university’s 11th annual Estelle Feinstein Memorial Lecture. He has also been a featured speaker at Harvard, Columbia and the City College of New York.
Before the event, Eaton talked about his experiences, recounting the pressures of often being the only black person in the room to the thrill and excitement of working in a madcap industry that employed artists.
Back to that fateful day on Madison Avenue, Eaton said the executive he spoke with suggested he first try his hand at writing commercials.
It was meant to be dismissive, he later found out.
But overnight, he wrote 10 commercials. He was hired by Y&R’s creative director Charlie Feldman, who told him that he wanted to anoint him the “Jackie Robinson of advertising.”
He worked for Y&R for four years, and was later hired by Benton & Bowles. He worked there from 1959 to 1982, first as a music director and then as a vice president.
Although he broke a barrier, he did not see racism recede. Instilled by his Jamaican immigrant mother that he had to work 200 percent harder than his white peers, he nevertheless had to deal with cruel indignities.
“When I wrote a commercial, I could not cast a black person,” he said.
But behind the scenes, he hired talented black jazz musicians like Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Milt Jackson and Ron Carter.
Yet he also recalled that during a campaign for Yuban coffee, his decision to have Nina Simone record the vocals was outright rejected.
“It’s too black,” they told him.
The client was General Foods, a company based in White Plains, N.Y.
He did win some important artistic battles. Chef Boyardee initially wanted to base the jingle for Beefaroni on “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for its mention of macaroni. Eaton argued that the ad should harken the product’s heritage.
So he composed music using an Italian tarantella and urged the client to try it.
“It lasted for 25 years,” he said with a smile.
At the end of the day, advertising provided Eaton with an avenue for self-expression. As a teenager from Harlem, he won several classical piano competitions even though he was the lone black person in the crowd. “Music is, for me, my voice,” he said.
The larger message, he said he hopes to tell, is that of persistence.
“Don’t let the world tell you who you are or what you can be,” he said.
(Source: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/First-black-Mad-Man-gives-talk-in-Stamford-5436665.php – firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-964-2265; http://twitter.com/lizkimtweets)