From Madison Avenue to Meditative Chopin
By Rolf Erickson
Roy Eaton was born in 1930, the son of Jamaican parents, and grew up in Harlem, New York. This was before Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time when most African Americans were denied a higher education and barred from many professions. Roy proved to be up to this challenge and many others that came his way.
Roy’s mother had a major influence on his success in life. She told him, “You are whatever you feel you can be.” She said that in order to overcome racial prejudice, he would need to do 200 percent to get credit for 100 percent in life. “That became my life mantra,” Roy says.
Roy took up classical piano when he was six. At the age of seven, he won his first competition and performed at Carnegie Hall. He went on to attend New York’s High School of Music and Art.
Roy’s next challenge was to attend two colleges simultaneously—City College of New York (CCNY) and the Manhattan School of Music. In his sophomore year, Roy was ranked number three in his class of 3000 students at CCNY, and won a Naumburg Scholarship to study abroad at the University of Zurich during his junior year. At that point a New York Times story quoted Roy as saying that completing degrees from two colleges at the same time “required perfecting the art of eating lunch in five minutes or less.”
June of 1950 was a remarkable month for Roy. He graduated from CCNY, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. He also graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. He won the first Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Award. (The pianist Van Cliburn won it two years later.) And he received a fellowship for graduate study in Musicology from Yale University.
While studying at Yale, Roy had successful concert debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1951 and at New York’s Town Hall in 1952. He was drafted into the army during the Korean War, and spent two years writing and producing programs for Armed Services Radio. This was his first introduction to the infant Radio-TV business.
Breaking Barriers on Madison Avenue
Returning to civilian life, Roy was faced with a new challenge—turning his musical talent into a paying career. One hot July day, without an appointment, he walked into the offices of the advertising firm Young & Rubicam seeking a staff position producing background music for the Goodyear Playhouse dramatic show, which he believed they produced.
The personnel director explained that they did not produce the actual show, only the advertising. Roy notes that the popular TV show Mad Men is a “pretty accurate snapshot” of the ad world at that time. There were no black creatives on Madison Avenue. When the personnel director questioned Roy’s ability to write ads, he responded to the challenge by writing ten TV ads overnight!
Charlie Feldman, a creative director at Young & Rubicam, seeing this demonstration of his skill, hired Roy as a copywriter and jingle composer in 1955. “He was open to giving me an opportunity to use all of my talents,” Roy recalls. “He called me his Jackie Robinson. Charlie had broken down the lines of race years ago as a Jewish person in this business. He saw my talent and not my skin color, and therefore gave me a chance to do what I love: create.”
That’s how Roy became the first black “Mad Man” to do creative work on Madison Avenue. In the next two years at Young & Rubicam, he created 75 percent of all the music produced by the firm. In 1959, Roy moved to the firm Benton and Bowles as Music Director.
If you’re over 30, you may still have some of Roy’s jingles floating around inside your head. Let’s see, how about: “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star...” Did your brain respond: “The big, bright Texaco star!” (Mine did.) Roy produced and co-wrote this jingle with Bill Fredericks in 1962. In September 2007, Advertising Age named that Texaco jingle as the foundation for one of the twentieth century’s top 100 creative campaigns. And on March 26, 2010, Roy was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.