Denise Weathersby’s story is one that is truly admirable. She was one of the first women to be Vice President of a major record label, Warner/Chappell Music, and was responsible for signing artists to the label for publishing deals, including Dru Hill, The Isley Brothers and many others. As a former dancer on Soul Train she would years later have a working relationship with the program booking artists on the show, working directly with the program’s creator, Don Cornelius, due to her prominent stature in the recording industry. Here is her story.
Denise Weathersby: I always had an interest in and love for music. I was a kid who would give my father a list of 45s and albums I wanted. Like when The Jackson 5’s albums came out for example, I would always learn all of the lyrics and I would be able to imitate them. Music and fashion were the industries I had a love for.
Soultrain.com: Did you take any classes to learn about music and fashion?
Denise: I took piano lessons for about a year and then, unbelievably, my mother talked me into playing the accordion! I took accordion lessons for about three years until I had enough. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her. But I also took dance lessons and went to modeling school.
Soultrain.com: How did your journey with Soul Train begin?
Denise: By way of a friend, Lisa Jones, who was dancing on the show for a short while. A close friend of mine, Pam Wilson, and I went down to Metromedia Studios one Saturday to watch a taping of Soul Train. When we got there we were sitting in the audience and Pam Brown, the coordinator of the dancers, approached both of us and we were asked to dance on the show and that was the beginning. Pam (Brown) took our information down and for the next three or four years we got our monthly call to come to the tapings.
Soultrain.com: What were your impressions of Don Cornelius seeing him on the set?
Denise: My impression was that he was larger than life. He was somewhat intimidating–not in a negative way, but you knew where your place was!
Soultrain.com: Did you ever do the Scramble Board?
Denise: I did and of course we knew the answers [laughs]! I got the Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen kit.
Soultrain.com: Do you have any special memories of recording artists that came to the show?
Denise: Yes! At the time there was a local club here in Los Angeles called The Total Experience and a lot of artists would appear at that club the same weekend they taped Soul Train, artists like Blue Magic, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and several others. I do remember one time when Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were on and, in between tapings, the dancers got a chance to talk to them as we did with many of the artists. On this day, I think they were the last artists to finish taping and Teddy Pendergrass, instead of going to his limo, came with me and my girlfriend Pam to hang out. I had an orange 1974 Vega and I remember saying, “Oh my God, I have Teddy Pendergrass in my car driving down Highland Avenue!”
Soultrain.com: Did you have any other buddies on Soul Train?
Denise: Patricia Davis, Vicki Abercrombie, Kim Jackson, Diana Bruner and Sharon Hill.
Soultrain.com: I always ask the dancers this, but Pam Brown was notorious for her gum ritual. Were you a target of her gum ritual?
Denise: Oh yes! Her cup was put in my face several times.
Soultrain.com: Do you have any bad memories from being on the show?
Denise: I never really had any negative experiences associated with Soul Train. In high school, however, I got bullied about dancing on Soul Train. Looking back, I know it was just jealousy.
It was an honor to do Soul Train.
Soultrain.com: What did you do after you left Soul Train?
Denise: I went to Dickinson College for a very short period and then I worked in retail. I followed that path until I got a major opportunity, in which someone thought I was perfect for a position at A&M Records and that was the beginning of my career in the music industry.
Soultrain.com: What was your position?
Denise: I was second secretary to the then-president of A&M Records, Gil Friesen. By the grace of God, I excelled to a pretty prominent position in the music industry.
Soultrain.com: What did you going forward from A&M?
Denise: After I left A&M Records, I worked for a musician named George Howard for several years and I traveled the world. It was great! When I started working with him he had just signed with MCA Records. Because I was the liaison with the record label, I knew a lot of the executives there and, consequently, got hired for a position at MCA Records. I was working for the head of A&R, Louis Silas, and at that time our department solely booked the acts on Soul Train. I never really knew Don while dancing on Soul Train but here it was 10 or 15 years later and I got a chance to interact with Don on the business side and got a chance to know him and found out that he and I share the same birthday.
Soultrain.com: What was it like working with Don in a business capacity?
Denise: Don did the booking of MCA’s acts himself. I don’t know about the other record labels, but Don and my boss Louis had a good rapport. So he, Don and myself would be on the phone and
Don would be interested in, let’s say, Patti Labelle, Guy, Pebbles, Heavy D & the Boyz–whoever was on the label, and we would always negotiate. If we had a new act, we’d say, “You want the big act, but come on Don, we have this new act,” and he would be like, “Uh, no I don’t think so.” [laughs] We’d be going back and forth. It was very interesting because I got the opportunity to be a part of his iconic show as a dancer and then years later work with him as a colleague. Jody Watley, who danced on Soul Train while I was on the show, was also one of my acts. It was definitely a full circle moment.
Soultrain.com: You have an interesting story about working with New Edition while at MCA.
Denise: New Edition is like family to me. When New Edition came out with their NE Heartbreak album, Bobby had just put out his solo project. A few months later New Edition had gone on tour as headliners with special guests Al B. Sure! and Bobby Brown. In the middle of the tour Bobby’s album exploded and started growing by leaps and bounds. We had to reconfigure with the tour’s promoter for Al to open up, then Bobby to come out next, and New Edition to close the show. On some of those shows we had Bobby as the headliner.
Soultrain.com: Would you attend Soul Train tapings when the label’s acts would perform on the show?
Denise: Absolutely. I would go there with some of the acts throughout my MCA and EMI Music Publishing days, as well as my Warner/Chappell days. I attended many Soul Train tapings with our artists. I also attended every Soul Train Music Awards ceremony until 2003. Soul Train was very instrumental in my life.
Soultrain.com: How did your position as vice president of Warner/Chappell come about?
Denise: I was at MCA for a number of years and that parlayed into a stint at EMI Music Publishing. I was the director there. After that I went to Warner Chappell, starting there as Senior Director and ending as Vice President of Black Music. My position was signing songwriters, artists and producers to publishing deals. You may not recognize the names of a lot of the songwriters that I signed but you would certainly know their hits. Some of the artists I did sign whom you would recognize that were on publishing deals on compositions that they wrote were Johnny Gill, Bone Thugz & Harmony, Dru Hill, Naughty By Nature and The Isley Brothers. I also signed writers who wrote songs for 2Pac and many others. It was a great time to be in the music industry. A lot of things were happening. I received a lot of gold and platinum plaques for songs I participated in by either the artist and/or songwriter, whether it was 2Pac, Dr Dre, Janet Jackson, Usher or others.
Soultrain.com: Being in the music industry, which is dominated by men as chairmen and CEOs, you being a black woman as VP must have been a real honor for you. What was that like for you?
Denise: I felt that I had accomplished something that I never could have imagined. When I got my first job in the music industry I thought that it was great just to be a secretary in the industry that I always had an interest in. I never could have imagined making vice president. In my first four or five years at Warner/ Chappell, I was fortunate enough to work under their first female vice president at the time. When she retired, I elevated to her position. The recording industry is a male-dominant field; most of the executives in promotion and A&R and managers are men. There a few of us that are women and fewer of us that are black women. I enjoyed my position. It was great and fabulous and I have no regrets.
Soultrain.com: What are you doing currently?
Denise: I officially left the music industry in 2005. I had quite a few independent offers, whether it was starting a publishing company or working exclusively for a few of my artists which was very flattering, but I had lost a lot of the passion. The music industry, as you very well know, has changed dramatically. I had the interest but I didn’t have the passion anymore. By that time I had met the love of my life–Shelby Middleton, an accountant with William Morris Agency–who became my husband on June 10, 2007. Today, I do publishing administration for a couple of artists like Johnny Gill and Angela Winbush, both very good friends of mine, Angela was a bridesmaid in my wedding and Johnny and Howard Hewitt sang at my wedding. If I feel an interest in someone’s career to do publishing administration, then I would do it.
Soultrain.com: What would you like to say in Don’s memory?
Denise: Don was very instrumental in my youth and in my career. His path, foundation and legacy are phenomenal and I have nothing but respect and good thoughts for Mr. Cornelius, my fellow Libra.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers?
Denise: In life, follow your dreams and reach for the moon. You might not make the moon but you might fall on a star. Keep God first.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.