Jerry Blair, the record executive who, as head of promotion at Columbia Records from 1988 to 2000, played a decisive role in the success of artists like Mariah Carey, Will Smith, Wyclef Jean, the Fugees and Ricky Martin, died Wednesday morning (Sept. 8), due to complications from COVID-19. He was 60.
“I’m really affected to be honest,” Martin, who is currently rehearsing for his tour in Las Vegas, tells Billboard. “I hadn’t seen Jerry in a long time, but he was one of those people that you liked from the moment you met him. His energy was so strong and powerful, He was always present someway, somehow. Sending all my love and support to his family.”
A music man through and through, Blair was known for his impish smile and for his relentless and enthusiastic support of the artists and projects he championed. It was not unusual to get a midnight call from Blair saying — in his distinctive rapid, breathy voice — “This is Jerry Blair. Have you heard this?”
It was Blair who saw the potential of Latin music in the mainstream market, long before any other major label executive in the English-speaking world did. As executive vp promotion for Columbia Records in 1999, he insisted to then-Columbia chief Tommy Mottola that he seriously invest in Martin, then a young Puerto Rican star.
“I heard about Jerry from multiple people. He was working in Boston and I called him for an interview and I hired him on the spot,” Mottola tells Billboard. “He was the absolute superstar best at his game and he wrote the blueprint for promotion and trained and taught the absolute best promotion staff in the entire music business. Hands down. No one was better. He had great music to work with, but they could even take a mediocre record and make it a hit.”
“He is the guy who single-handedly pushed me into making the whole Ricky Martin thing happen,” says Mottola. “He was such a Ricky Martin fan, and he was so obsessed with Ricky Martin […] that’s when I went [in 1999] to the Grammys and I said, ‘If you will not put Ricky Martin on, we are not in the Grammys.’ Jerry Blair is the guy who started Ricky Martin’s fire.”
Luana Pagani, who at the time ran marketing for Sony Music Latin, agrees.
“I am very sad to hear about Jerry’s passing,” Pagani says. “He was a driving force and the first at Columbia Records to support and believe in Ricky Martin. Here’s to you, Jerry!”
Blair began his career in music as a college rep for CBS Records and later joined Chrysalis Records in the late 1980s as director of West Coast operations, according to All Access. He became a fabled figure when he started working in promotions at Columbia, where he served as senior vp from 1988 to 1997 and, finally, executive vp until 2000.
Those years coincided with the success of superstar acts like Carey and the Fugees, but also with the so-called “Latin explosion,” with Blair helping steer hits by the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Martin and Elvis Crespo.
Blair later went to Arista as executive vp and continued to work in Latin music, eventually founding, with Rich Isaacson, Fuerte Group, where he managed and promoted Latin talent from 2003 to 2009. Blair then launched his company Global Entertainment Management/Perspeciva Music, where he continued to work with both Latin and mainstream acts, in addition to serving as vp strategic partnerships for Goldleaf Limited LLC, a consumer wellness company focused on products to help quit smoking.
Blair remained committed to Latin music throughout his career.
“You look at what could have mass appeal, and then you talk to your guys in those markets, all the places where you know you could take this stuff and make it bigger,” Blair said two years ago when I interviewed him for my book, Decoding Despacito. “To this day, what shocks me is that the labels still look at [crossing into other markets] like froth over the cappuccino, but they’re not really focused on it. They still haven’t figured out how to do it to maximize the opportunity.”
Blair is survived by his wife Karen, son Joshua, 26, and daughter Suzette, 9.