British Airways Denies Celebrity Bashing

British Airways | Prince  

British Airways Denies Celebrity Bashing

British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington denied to this column yesterday — through his spokesman — that he has turned on American stars who are too afraid to fly.

Reuters picked up a story on Thursday from London's the Mirror in which Eddington was quoted praising New Yorkers but calling American celebrities from Hollywood "gutless cowards."

Eddington supposedly said: "They want everyone to see their movies and think how big and brave they are. But at the first sign of trouble they cower under their beds like gutless cowards. It's pathetic." He also allegedly said the same stars had retired "to their mansions."

But when I called to see if this were true, BAA spokesman Tony Cane denied the whole thing. "Categorically," he underlined. Cane says the Mirror overheard the conversation between Eddington and others, and that someone else near Eddington made these remarks.

"He didn't say it," Cane insisted to me. "He was supporting New York and not denigrating the stars on the West Coast. He wasn't making accusations against anyone."

Several Hollywood stars have canceled trips to New York and London recently and many studios have reset premieres for L.A. instead of New York — all out of fear. Meanwhile, New Yorkers are more or less back to our original routines.

Prince Makes a Royal Visit to Harlem

The Apollo Theatre in Harlem was already buzzing last night when none other than Prince turned up. That's right, Prince, the enigmatic and diminutive music star came rolling into the Apollo just after the 12th annual Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards got started. He came to support his friend, Larry Graham, one of the powerhouses behind Sly & the Family Stone. Graham and Prince have been close friends for years. In fact, Graham moved to Minneapolis to be close to Prince and to record on his NPG Records.

And Prince was not disappointed. When the Family Stone — sans Sly, who stayed behind in Los Angeles — came up to get their award, the group launched into an impromptu rendition of "I Want to Take You Higher." The six members gathered around one stationary microphone and managed to pull off one of a couple of coups of the night. To say their appearance was brilliant would be an understatement.

Alas, also missing was award recipient Al Green, who played chicken with the Foundation all day. He booked flights and then cancelled them, ultimately deciding to stay in Memphis rather than chance a flight to "dangerous" New York. His absence would have been more upsetting had the other performers not been so good. As it is, Green has severely hurt himself in the music community by committing to, and then ditching, the Pioneer show.

To redeem himself, Green pledged to return his $25,000 honorarium to the Foundation.

But the Family Stone's terrific appearance was capped off by Graham himself, who then took the microphone and reminded the audience that Sly & the Family Stone had lots of hits. Nevertheless, he said, "We don't own our masters. We're doin' ok but we don't own our masters. That's why there's a ceremony for us. The people who own the masters don't need a ceremony."

Masters are what records, and now CDs, are made from. Owning the original master to a recording guarantees a lifetime of income. Prince's long dispute with Warner Music Group — during which he changed his name to a symbol and wrote the word "slave" on his face — stemmed from this argument. Since he's left Warner, Prince has re-recorded his back catalogue and owns his masters.

Graham said proudly, "I record for NPG now and I own my own recordings."

The group — who were absolutely delightful when I interviewed them together on Wednesday afternoon — told me they are still pursuing legal avenues to get the money they’re owed from their many hit recordings.

Rose Stewart, Sly's sister, and his brother Freddie, who have each been members of the group for 37 years, told me that Sly is in better shape than people think. "He has a nice house up in Bel Air, he's living very well. He's divorced, and his children are grown. But drugs are not the issue they once were."

Rose, who gained her own fame when she sang a duet with Sly on their hit, "Family Affair" in 1972 (my personal favorite of their many records), lives in San Francisco. Her mother came to New York to accept Sly's award. Their father died earlier this year, and Rose reports, her brother came home and went to the funeral.

Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation

Other performers at the Pioneer Awards were Fontella Bass, the St. Louis vocalist most famous for her 1967 pop hit, "Rescue Me." Bass told me a story not unlike those of other soul singers from the mid 60s. "I wrote 'Rescue Me,'" she said, "but the producers I was working with never put my name on it. When I asked them about it, they said, Don't worry, we'll take care of it."

Nearly 35 years later, Bass has never seen a penny in publishing royalties from the much-recorded, bestselling song. She was so disheartened from the experience, she told me, that she left the United States for several years and made a career in Europe.

Among the celebrity guests who were part of the show — which was produced by soul man Chuck Jackson ("Any Day Now") — or just enjoyed it from the audience: singers Phoebe Snow and Patty Smythe, "Shaft" actor Richard Roundtree, 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, and Motown legend Martha Reeves.

Other presenters included former Supreme Mary Wilson, who looked spectacular, and songwriting husband and wife team Ashford & Simpson. Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes hosted the show. "Clean Up Woman" Betty Wright subbed for Green and sang a credible earthy version of "Let's Stay Together."

Some of the more straitlaced folks loosened up fast as the fun evening sped along. When he took the stage, normally stuffy Ed Bradley said, "I'm not going to sing, unless the band plays '60 Minute Man' — do you remember that song?"

Reeves, who came to watch Brian and Eddie Holland, the songwriters who composed her hits "Heat Wave" and "Nowhere to Run" among others, was in a feisty mood as usual. She told me, "When the Foundation helped me out a few years ago, I was on welfare and homeless. Their money really goes right to the people. Everyone should know that."

Reeves had a lot of hits, but she didn't write them — a problem for performers since they rarely receive performance royalties and are generally forgotten financially even as their records continue to garner huge airplay on oldies radio. This was the case for most of the Motown acts, some of whom have died relatively young without proper healthcare. A new $2 million fund set up by Universal Music, which now owns Motown, is earmarked for those performers.

Also, Foundation leader Jerry Butler — who opened last night's show with a rousing version of his 1968 hit, "Only the Strong Survive — told me that Motown founder Berry Gordy recently pledged $50,000 to the group. Last year Gordy made his first major donation when he set up a $750,000 fund in his sister’s memory.

Here's a funny story Martha Reeves did tell me last night. Seems that when Linda Ronstadt covered her hit, "Heat Wave," in 1975, she had trouble handling it because it required such powerful vocals. "Linda used to tell me she felt faint when she finished it," Reeves said. "She thought she was going to pass out. That's why she stopped doing it."

For the record, the mighty Martha Reeves still performs "Heat Wave" regularly, and has no trouble doing it.

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