Thursday, April 22, 2004
Telling the story of his first encounter with the record business—other than the normal retail one that many 44-year-olds remember—brings a smile to Greg Preston's blue eyes. "I was about 7 when my dad brought home these two guys from CBS Records in New York," he said. His dad had met them on the plane coming into Atlanta; his mom, always a saint, made them a home-cooked meal, and Preston thought it was cool when, later on, he began to get records from them in the mail. He'd found his calling.
Even though Preston loved the creative side of advertising once he started his first job, he told me, "I guess I always knew what I wanted to do." He'd had what he called a pretend band with guys in Sandy Springs, his Atlanta neighborhood—"Young Girl" by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap was their greatest hit. And in college, Preston had worked record retail on Cumberland Avenue. Advertising just wasn't going to cut it.
Preston's first record industry job was with ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, as a sort of enforcer—he collected money from establishments that played music in the Memphis area. "A lot of them threw me out, ganged up on me," he told me. After a year of that, Preston realized it was time to move on.
He interviewed twice with a friend's friend who had a label in New York. For six months, between interviews, Preston sold auto glass to garages to pay the bills. The new record industry job was in sales, too, a great place to start, he said, because you find out what it takes to survive.
A contact he made on that job led to an interview with Relativity Records in Atlanta, a big rock label then. Preston was devastated when he didn't get the job. "I cried so hard. I couldn't believe that nobody would want me to work for them. I was crushed," he said.
His Nashville friend who had told him about New York stepped up again and introduced Preston to Tommy Couch Jr. of Malaco Records in Jackson. "We hit it off … we knew some day he would want me." In 1994, when his first son, Julian, was 2, Preston became marketing director at Malaco. It was 1998 when he convinced the powers-that-be at the label to let him produce his first record—Little Milton's "Welcome to Little Milton" received a Grammy nomination. They lost out to Robert Cray, but, Preston said, "I'm going to get there again. I refuse to accept that that was my moment."
Preston had met Mississippi bluesman Bobby Rush back in his Malaco days, and, "When I left, we just got together because we wanted to do something."
Today the two are partners on their own label, Deep Rush, and have set a June 1 release date for their third project—Rush's latest CD "Folk Funk," recorded live at Sonic Temple Recording Studio in Jackson. This album features blues, gospel, and funk with the 68-year-old Rush singing and playing rhythm guitar and harmonica, Alvin Youngblood Hart on lead guitar, 73-year-old Charlie Jenkins on drums, Steve Johnson on bass and Jesse Robinson playing the guitar on one song.
Before I left his living room last week, I had the pleasure of listening to the cut "Uncle Esau" with Bobby Rush on one side of the room, listening intently, and record label co-owner and producer Greg Preston on the other side, holding his toddler son Jesse in his arms. "That's history," Rush said at the end of the song.
Preston is living his dream, making history in a business that is totally different than it was when he entered. He told me, "I'm glad I was in it during that time, it was a great time to be in the music business. I still get goosebumps …music makes you feel every emotion available." Hope is one of them. "This one just might be a Grammy nomination," he said, quietly.
"Gigs" is the JFP's new career column. Know someone with a cool career? Send ideas to [e-mail missing]
DOSSIER: Greg Preston, Record label co-owner and record producer
Born: Atlanta, Ga., St. Joseph's Hospital
Education: BS in Communication with a Concentration in Advertising, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
First Job: In-house ad agency layout designer and copy writer
Best Advice: "When you get into a [new] situation, keep your mouth shut and listen and learn."