Roosevelt Islanders

Roosevelt Island's Roy Eaton: The Jackie Robinson of Advertising

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Roy Eaton Playing at Bryant Park
Roy Eaton Playing at Bryant Park
Photo credit: Piano in the Park

"If you were white, I'd hire you immediately," is what Roosevelt Islander Roy Eaton heard at his first interview with Young & Rubicam.

It was 1955. Eaton had already played Carnegie Hall and was a Korean War Veteran.

Soon, he would become the advertising industry's Jackie Robinson.

Roy Eaton's mother told it straight.

"You have to do 200% to get recognition for 100%," she said.

As the man who broke the color barrier on Madison Avenue, Roy Eaton's achievement was probably closer to 300%.

For decades, children sang their requests for Beefaroni ("It's made with macaroni!) Their parents eased into Texaco stations, reminded that "You can trust the man who wears the star," both ad campaigns created by Eaton during his tenure at Young & Rubicam.

In spite of initial hesitation, the top level ad agency embraced an African-American man with undeniable talent because it was one of the few places where excellence pushed aside the overt racism in the America of the 1950s.

His experience at Young & Rubicam went beyond simple acceptance.

In an interview with Ad Age, Eaton recalled a conversation with creative director Ed Graham, Jr., in his first days there.

"Graham asked, 'Did you get your key?'

"I answered, 'Which key?'

"And he replied, 'The key to the men's room. You can use the one in the stairwell.' There was an uncomfortable moment of silence between us followed by Ed laughing and saying, 'There's only ONE men's room here!'

"He made me feel so at home. His greeting immediately and practically broke the color line."

At Young & Rubicam, Eaton used his familiarity with modern music to customize ads that appealed to modern tastes. He used the jazz of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker to sell Kent cigarettes with their innovative "micronite filter."

But if a single story illuminates the beacon of equality Young & Rubicam became during his years there, it's one not directly connected with Eaton's creative output. It's a story about caring transcending any imagined color line, shared in the Ad Age interview.

"I was in Utah traveling with my wife, and we were in a car accident. I lost my wife in that accident. The driver of the other car was killed too. I was spared. Something amazing happened minutes later: a New York Times reporter who was in Utah at the time doing a story found me roadside. He gathered my information and recognized that I was from NYC and immediately contacted Y&R. My creative director told him to get me to the nearest Emergency Room, and that he would cover all of the medical costs. He also had specialists flown in to Utah to help me. He then personally jumped on a flight to Utah to sit bedside with me and supervise my recovery. Back in NY, the creative department raised $8,000 to contribute to my medical expenses because at the time I hadn't yet registered for my medical coverage. I simply can't express the love and acceptance that I felt for Y&R and for my friends and colleagues there."

Young & Rubicam and Roy Eaton were of a time, made for each other.

Prodigy Redirected To The Hall Of Fame

Raised in Sugar Hill, Harlem, next door neighbor to legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Roy Eaton gravitated to the piano early.

At seven, he won a gold medal in a Music Education League competition in Carnegie Hall. Barely twenty, he won the first Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Award and, a year later, made his concert debut with the Chicago Symphony, playing Chopin's F Minor Concerto.

His fast rising career was soon interrupted by two years service in the Army at the time of the Korean War, during which he produced and wrote  programs for Armed Forces Radio.

Released into civilian life in 1955, he did not return to the concert stage for thirty years.

"I had to earn a living," Eaton recalls.

That realization led to reshaping advertising much as Jackie Robinson reshaped baseball. And people outside the profession might have added just as much from Eaton's achievements into their daily routines. They just never saw his name in a box score or watched him dash home on a daring steal.

Among the landmark campaigns he's best known for participating in are Piels Beer, General Electric, and Gulf Crest along with the previously mentioned Beefaroni and Kent Cigarettes. 

"My approach to jingles" he told Ad Age, "was always to determine the style of the piece based on a sound marketing philosophy. At the time the only requirement for a jingle was that it be memorable. I thought that was stupid!"

In 1959, Eaton moved to Benton & Bowles as music director, later becoming vice president, in 1968.

Beginning to turn full circle, in 1980, he left them to start his own music production company. His music for Michael Jackson's anti-drunk driving campaign won awards and, for Jackson, a citation from President Ronald Reagan. 

In 2010, Roy Eaton was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

A Loop Completed

But before that, this musical genius who calls Roosevelt Island "home" returned to the concert stage he left to pursue a career in advertising.

In 1986, he launched the first of several "Meditative Chopin" performances at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. 

Along with continuing on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, Eaton has continued concerts for worldwide audiences, featuring compositions that range far from Chopin to Joplin and Gershwin.

In June, he completed his annual series in Bryant Park, where he occupies five days in the Piano in the Park program.

You can see and hear Roy Eaton play Chopin for free by clicking here.

Here's a selection of Roy Eaton's Albums available on Amazon:

Appreciate the musical genius and Hall of Fame member you may never have noticed riding the Tram or sitting next to you on the Red Bus.

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