(Photo: Richard Patire)
Frances Williams Preston, longtime president/CEO of BMI, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a pioneering executive in the music industry, died this morning in Nashville from congestive heart failure, according to a release from a representative for her family. She was 83.
Preston, who founded BMI’s Nashville office in 1958, was the first female executive in the country music industry and rose through the ranks to become the New York-based BMI president for 18 years before retiring in 2004. In the process, she influenced the careers of multitudes of artists and songwriters, including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brian Wilson, Hank Williams, Isaac Hayes and Johnny Cash.
In her role, Preston fought vigorously to defend songwriters’ copyrights and maximize their earnings. But she also extended her efforts to the general community, particularly the T.J. Martell Foundation, which presented her its humanitarian award in 1992. After receiving that honor, she spearheaded the creation of the Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories, a cancer facility affiliated with Vanderbilt University that is consisently ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the nation’s best.
Preston is credited with coining the Nashville music community’s unofficial mantra – “It all begins with a song” – and her own attachment to words and music, and the people who create them, began early in her career.
Born Aug. 27, 1928, in Nashville, Preston went to work after graduation from Vanderbilt’s George Peabody College for Teachers in the mail department at the National Life & Accident Insurance Company, which owned WSM Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Her duties included answering fan mail for Opry star Hank Williams.
She quickly turned that modest position into something much greater, hosting a WSM-TV show on her lunch breaks, moving into the company’s promotions department and building a substantial network among the artists, politicians and executives who visited the company’s downtown office.
BMI president Robert J. Burton channeled her energy, enlisting her to establish a Nashville division for the performing-rights organization in 1958. It made BMI the first PRO with a Southern area code, and she aggressively signed members of the city’s fledgling songwriting community to the BMI roster.
Initially, Preston and an assistant ran the agency out of her parents’ garage. In 1962, BMI moved to 16th Avenue South, helping ground a district of recording studios, talent agencies and publishing companies now known as Music Row.
Among her earliest decisions was to create an awards show for country songwriters and publishers. The first BMI ceremony in 1958 honored such songwriters as Mel Tillis, George Jones, Buck Owens and Harlan Howard. Preston first delivered the Music Row mantra “It all begins with a song” at one of those BMI ceremonies, which have become one of the premiere industry functions in Nashville. Subsequent songwriter of the year winners have included Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Shania Twain, Toby Keith, Bill Anderson and Taylor Swift.
Preston routinely insisted she did not consider her gender to be a significant factor in her career success, but her rise as a female executive in the “Mad Men” era was impressive. She was promoted to BMI VP in 1964. She is believed to be the first female VP in Nashville. She would also become the first woman elected to the board of governors by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. And she was the first woman to chair the Country Music Assn. board of directors.
Under her guidance, BMI widened its Southern sphere of influence to Atlanta, Memphis, Miami and Muscle Shoals. Preston relocated to New York in 1985 to become senior VP, performing rights. The following year, she rose to president and CEO, making her one of the most prominent music executives in the world.
During her time in the position, BMI tripled its revenues while collecting performance royalties for some 300,000 songwriters, including the likes of James Brown, Paul Simon, Gloria Estefan, Carole King and the Motown songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
“Frances Williams Preston was a force of nature,” BMI president and CEO Del Bryant said in a statement. “She was smart, beautiful, tenacious and generous. She put BMI on the culture map and shaped the careers of many: especially mine. Though we mourn the loss of a great leader and friend, she lives on through a legacy that is literally set in stone.”
Preston was often referred to as “the best friend a songwriter ever had,” and her lifelong mission resulted in numerous accolades, including membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame and the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville. Her name is also embedded on a historical marker that stands near BMI’s building on Music Row.
When “All Over Me” – penned by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and ASCAP writer Ben Hayslip – won country song of the year in November 2011, the honor was officially renamed the Frances Williams Preston Award.
Preston will be laid in the Rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame this coming Sunday, June 17 from 5 to 9 pm for visitation by family, friends and colleagues. A private funeral will take place at First Lutheran Church, with a private graveside service and burial to follow at Nashville’s Landmark Spring Hill Cemetery.
The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the T.J. Martell Foundation, 15 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203 or the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN 37240.