Frank DiLeo: Music industry executive and manager of Michael Jackson at the peak of his career
Friday 26 August 2011
The fall from grace, constant allegations and sharp artistic decline that affected Michael Jackson's last two decades until his death in 2009 often overshadow how talented and groundbreaking he was before the self-aggrandising and his ascent to the throne of The King Of Pop. On Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, the three multimillion-selling albums that defined him as a solo artist, he was superbly seconded by Quincy Jones, the producer extraordinaire. The other person who helped turn Jackson into a superstar was Frank DiLeo, his manager during five glory years between 1984 and 1989, and the closest the singer came to a father figure to banish the memory of his real-life father, Joe Jackson.
As the singer wrote in his 1988 autobiography Moon Walk, "Frank was responsible for turning my dream for Thriller into a reality. His brilliant understanding of the recording industry proved invaluable. For instance, we released 'Beat It' as a single while 'Billie Jean' was still at No 1. CBS screamed, 'You're crazy, this will kill 'Billie Jean'.' But Frank told them... that both songs would be No 1 and both would be in the Top 10 at the same time. They were."
Then VP of national promotion at Epic Records in the US, DiLeo threw out the rule book and masterminded the release of seven singles from Thriller, helping the album rack up unprecedented sales of 30 million in the US alone, and as many again around the world. He also convinced Jackson that turning the title track into a 14-minute video, directed by John Landis, would be a smart move. The memorable mini-movie extended the album's shelf-life beyond their wildest expectations.
DiLeo's business acumen, accumulated over the 17 years he had spent in the music industry, convinced Jackson to hire him in March 1984. Over the next five years, until he was replaced by Sandy Gallin in 1989, DiLeo looked after the singer's interests, through the Victory album and tour which reunited Michael with The Jacksons in 1984, the Bad album and the massive record-breaking tour which followed its release in 1987, and the Moonwalker anthology film project in 1988. However, DiLeo's most impressive coup, and the one he relished recalling the most, was the $10m Pepsi endorsement contract he made for Jackson in 1986.
"We cut the deal on the Pepsi jet," remembered DiLeo. "Once we agreed upon a price, I said to Roger [Enrico, Pepsi CEO], 'OK, there's just one more thing. You've got to pay it all up front.' He says, 'I don't know.' And I said, 'Roger, did Elvis Presley ever do a commercial for Pepsi?' He said no. I said, 'Did The Beatles?' He said no. I said, 'What do you want to be – 0 for 3?' He went into the men's room and came back and said, 'OK, you got a deal.'"
Only 5ft 2in, but with bags of energy, DiLeo cut a colourful figure, his cigar-chomping and deal-making ability reminiscent of Elvis Presley's manager, the self-styled Colonel Tom Parker. Unabashed about his reliance on so-called "independent record promoters" to cajole US disc-jockeys and radio programmers into playing acts such as REO Speedwagon, Survivor and Cyndi Lauper during his time at Epic, DiLeo liked to follow his hunches, and was instrumental in the success of British groups like The Clash and Culture Club.
After leaving Jackson's employ, DiLeo remained in the business, managing the likes of Taylor Dayne, Jodeci and Laura Branigan in the Nineties, and also consulting with Prince. A larger-than-life character, with a gold watch and a ring on his pinkie, he made several film appearances, most famously as the gangster Tuddy Cicero in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas in 1990. He also had cameos as Frankie "Mr. Big" Sharp, the head of Sharp Records, in Wayne's World and Wayne's World 2.
He followed Jackson's trials and tribulations with great interest, and visited him in Los Angeles during the 2005 court case. "I wanted to let him know that I know he didn't do it. In fact, when I went there, he didn't know I was coming," he remembered in 2007. "He went, 'Frank, I can't believe you're here.' And he started to cry. And I went over and I hugged him... He told [defence attorney] Tom Mesereau, 'This is Frank DiLeo. He used to manage me. I've had nine managers since then. He's the only guy that showed up, or even called to see how I'm doing'."
Born in Pittsburgh in 1947, DiLeo started work in his late teens as a "rack jobber", distributing records and installing promotional displays in stores around his hometown. In 1968, he joined the regional staff of the CBS subsidiary Epic, first in Cleveland, and then in Chicago, his first dip into the murky waters of radio promotion as he plugged records by Donovan, The Hollies and Sly & the Family Stone to local stations. The following year, he moved to New York where he worked for RCA, promoting singles by Harry Nilsson, John Denver and Elvis Presley, which gave him the opportunity to meet and have his picture taken with Parker, a memento that adorned all his subsequent offices. After stints with Bell Records in New York and Monument in Nashville, DiLeo headed back to Pittsburgh where he dabbled in illegal gambling on college basketball games.
"I had nothing else to do, and I got bored," DiLeo told Jack Silverman for a Nashville Scene cover story in 2007. "Did I do time? No. Was I fined? Yes. I'm not ashamed of it. I've never done anything that I should be ashamed of."
In 1979, his old friend Walter Yetnikoff, then the president of CBS in the US, brought DiLeo back to Epic, the unloved subsidiary that was in the doldrums. Within two years, he revived Epic's fortunes as the label scored hit after hit with The Clash, Dan Fogelberg, Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Jackson and Lauper. Bizarrely, given his penchant for self-promotion and subsequent film and TV roles, DiLeo turned down the opportunity to play the wrestler in the clip for Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun". "I thought that, if I did that, then everybody would think they had put me in their video to get attention, and I didn't want to start that kind of stuff," he explained.
DiLeo's well-documented reliance on "independent record promoters", examined in minute detail in Fredric Dannen's Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business (1990), made him notorious throughout the industry. "I could move records up that chart faster. At one time, in a 14-month period, a new artist went gold each month," DiLeo boasted, though he admitted the so-called "independents" sailed fairly close to the wind, but never practised payola as such. "They could do things with the programme director, take him to dinner. It's the way businesses operate. It's no different than having a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.," he argued, glossing over the alleged ties to organised crime.
DiLeo's appointment as Jackson's manager in 1984 proved a challenge from the off. But he took it all in his stride, even when he had to deal with Don King and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who co-promoted The Jacksons tour.
A tireless raconteur, DiLeo recalled how he became a vegetarian during his tenure with Jackson, but would occasionally sneak barbecued ribs into his hotel room. "Michael used to moderate everything I ate," he said. "It's amazing, when I started with him I was 210lbs; when I ended with him, I was 265."
He remained philosophical about his firing, putting it down to jealousy and the machinations of lawyers keen to edge him out of the picture. The fact that Jackson rehired DiLeo in 2009 speaks volumes about the way he felt about a manager who remained dedicated to him, beyond the call of duty.
"Michael Jackson lived, I believe, with Frank, through recordings of Bad," writes Jonathan Morrish, then head of Epic press and artist relations in London, now director of PR and corporate communications at PPL. "Having worked at Epic, Frank knew all the players and thought in a very expansionist way. As he worked (as head of Epic promotion), driving through airplay on Thriller singles, he was never parochial in his thinking.
So Bad was always a global priority. The Bad tour launched in September 1987 in Tokyo and it was no problem for him to have the whole of Fleet Street fly over because he realised the importance of the UK and other European markets. As I recall, he did the Terry Wogan show from Wembley Stadium on the night of one of the 1988 dates.
Frank was detailed, driven by radio but also print and TV coverage and was completely committed to Michael Jackson. The Bad tour was groundbreaking – in terms of sponsorship, for one. But also in its scale. This was really music theatre going around the world in a way never done before. He shared Michael's vision and saw the big picture. That's important."
Frank DiLeo, manager and music industry executive: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 23 October 1947; married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 24 August 2011.
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