*On the morning of December 2, Wally Roker passed away in Los Angeles.
He was 78.
Roker’s music career began as a founding member of doo-wop group, The Heartbeats, singing bass on the late ‘50s classic, “A Thousand Miles Away.”
However, Roker’s career as an artist and entertainer would be eclipsed by a decades-long career as a star behind the scenes in the music industry.
Roker was instrumental in the 1960 creation of the Scepter label, one day connecting label owner Florence Greenberg–a New Jersey housewife and novice to the record business–to songwriter/producer Luther Dixon, who’d successfully placed songs with Bobby Darin, Elvis, Perry Como and co-wrote the 1958 hit “16 Candles” for the Crests. The fateful introduction was made when Dixon happened onto an elevator occupied by Greenberg and Roker.
At Greenberg’s Scepter label (which would find tremendous success with an unknown named Dionne Warwick and her great hits with the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David; singers Chuck Jackson and B.J. “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” Thomas, among others), Dixon went to work writing and producing Scepter girl group the Shirelles, while Roker worked as the label’s A&R man, responsible for finding new talent.
Leaving Scepter, Roker would end up in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, where he’d further develop his skills-—and build his legend–as a record promotion man.
Once upon a time, when the success of a record depended solely on national radio airplay (and not iTune downloads, Youtube hits or as a TV commercial jingle), Roker was one of those dynamic men (there were women, too) hired by a record company—-or an artist’s manager or the act itself—to get their record played on radio. Roker’s persuasive way with station programmers and disc jockeys routinely took “black” records pop, and pop records to number one.
And yes, there was often payola–clandestine “gifts” such as cash, televisions, plane tickets and new cars–to radio jocks, their wives, their kids, their girlfriends. This is how the business worked. The distribution of such trinkets and a promotion man convincing a radio station that playing his record would make their station number one in their city was the difference between a label’s hits and misses.
Roker independently worked records for most of the majors. He also created major successes for independent labels, such as Henry Stone’s Florida-based T.K. Records. T.K. hits like K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight”, “That’s the Way (I Like It)”, and “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” were all Roker-worked.
If it weren’t for Roker, one of my favorite songs, Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 T.K.-issued “What You Won’t Do For Love,” might have been but a memory instead of a classic.
Indeed, Roker epitomized the term “Record man.” During his long career, he worked in various capacities as performer, record executive, producer, music publisher, manager (at some point in the ‘80s managing Tower of Power, among others) and independent label owner, helming the labels Canyon, Roker, Soul Clock and Stardom.
A colorful guy with a million incredible stories of how some great records became hits, Roker had his Rokerisms. One of my favorites: When you ran into Roker and asked him how he was doing, he might reply with, “I’m gettin’ in the position to get ready to get it.”
Unlike a lot of men and women in the music business, Roker was a true lover of music. He possessed a keen ear for a hit, a driving entrepreneurial spirit. A native of the Virgin Islands reared in New York City, Roker relished the challenge of making something out of nothing.
In the music business, he was a mover and a shaker in all the clichéd ways. Sometime in the late ‘70s, when my buddy photographer Bobby Holland was trying to make inroads into shooting more album covers for major labels, he casually mentioned to Roker, with whom he’d worked on several projects, that an executive he didn’t know in Polygram Records’ art department wasn’t returning his calls.
The usually jovial Roker went serious. “What? Who is this fucking guy? What’s his name? Listen. Don’t worry about it. And don’t you call him again. I’ll look into it. But whatever you do, DON’T CALL HIM AGAIN.”
A couple of days later, Holland’s phone rang. “Hey, Bobby, hi ya doin’?” went the sheepish voice on the other end. “Gosh, I’ve just been so busy; forgive me for not getting back to you.” And then this: “I understand we’re going to be working together….”
When Roker said he didn’t know who the guy was, he was telling the truth. But Roker did know the man’s boss—who just happened to run all of Polygram—and he made a call.
Despite his love of business, the music was still what Roker loved most. He’d occasionally reunite with a version of the Heartbeats for shows. His dedication to the musical genre got him dubbed the “Godfather of Doo-wop.”
It was a title he took seriously, helping to form the Doo-wop Hall of Fame. One of Roker’s last music projects was the 2011 launch of the five man doo-wop group, Street Corner Renaissance (SCR), which recorded for Roker’s New Beginning label.
To be sure, the music business had changed many years before Roker’s passing after brain surgery. However, now that the big man with the even bigger personality has gone, the change seems official. Wally Roker’s exit left a void. I can feel it.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]
EUR BONUS COVERAGE!
Below is a video produced by Director/Producer Bobby Holland’s Cymarron West featuring Wally Roker speaking on one of his last projects, Street Corner Renaissance.