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Former president, BMI
By Kay West
For a good part of her illustrious six-decade career — virtually all of it with performance-rights organization BMI — Frances Preston was referred to as "the most powerful woman in the Nashville music industry." In 1986, when she moved from Nashville to New York and assumed the presidency of the entire company, she became "the most powerful woman in the music industry," a title she held until her retirement in 2004.
But for Music Row and the community outside its borders — two worlds she worked hard to bring together — what Frances Preston may be most fondly remembered for is not her power but her hospitality.
Whether it was the conference room at the original one-story BMI building on Music Square East that was open to any group who reserved it (and found it prepared with hot coffee, cold drinks, cookies, fruit, china, crystal and silver) or a cocktail party at her beautiful home on Woodmont Boulevard, Preston imbued every gathering with her exquisite taste and impeccable manners, cloaked in genuine warmth.
But it was the BMI Country Awards dinner that set a new standard for entertaining on Music Row and changed the perception of the country music industry in Nashville and on both coasts. All the writers, publishers and guests who have been feted so spectacularly since have Frances Preston to thank.
For the five years prior to her being tapped to open the first BMI office in Nashville in 1958, hit songs were recognized as part of the annual fall WSM DJ Festival and Grand Ole Opry celebration. In her first year as BMI's sole Nashville employee, Preston suggested shining the spotlight on the writers of those songs, and staged a breakfast in the downtown Maxwell House Hotel to honor — among others — BMI writers Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Don Everly, Ferlin Husky, George Jones, Harlan Howard and Roger Miller.
It was a huge hit, and the next year, she transformed the event into a black-tie dinner at the Belle Meade Country Club. In addition to honorees and industry members, Preston also invited leaders of the business, arts, academic, political and philanthropic communities, knowing that for the music business to gain respect and grow, it had to dress up a little and reach out beyond Music Row.
The dinner remained at BMCC for 17 years, until some club members complained about the presence of emerging African-American writers and artists — Charley Pride for one — crossing their color line and comfort zone. When Preston was told she would have to uninvite them, she moved her dinner to the BMI office parking lot, where it became the most glamorous party ever held under a tent. Every year from 1976 through 1993 (with one temporary move to TPAC), Preston and her second-in-command stood at the entrance to the tent, personally greeting and snapping a photo with every single guest. She changed gowns between cocktails and trips to the stage, where she emceed the affair and distributed awards.
Even after she moved to New York, she returned to Nashville every fall for the dinner, one of her favorite nights of the year. In 1994, when the new BMI building was being constructed, the dinner was held at Municipal Auditorium, then returned in 1995 to the top floor of the parking garage with a spectacular view of the Nashville skyline.
In 2005, Del Bryant — son of "Rocky Top" composers Felice and Boudleaux — who had succeeded the woman who hired him decades before, took over as host, and Preston segued gracefully to a guest at the dinner she created. On Oct. 30, she was remembered from the stage of the 60th annual BMI Country Awards. Once the most powerful woman on Music Row, she will remain the most unforgettable.
Music industry executive
By Kay West
Donna Hilley, a Birmingham, Ala., native who moved to Nashville after graduating from Jones Valley High School in 1958, began her climb to the top of the music industry at ground level. Her entry point was the front desk at WKDA radio station. In 1978, she was named executive vice president and chief operating officer of Tree International, one of Music Row's top publishers.
Her story wasn't dissimilar to the other female leaders of the day — BMI's Frances Preston among them — who started as receptionists or secretaries, then seized every opportunity that presented itself, took on any task, no matter how mundane, and parlayed larger-than-life personalities, drive, hard work and a very Southern style of leadership to the executive suite.
During her tenure at Tree, Hilley negotiated the company's acquisition of more than 60 major catalogs, including those of Jim Reeves, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and Tree's sale to Sony in 1989, where she assumed the role of president and CEO in 1994. In 2002, she orchestrated Sony/ATV's acquisition of Acuff-Rose Music Publishing.
At BMI's annual fall awards dinners, Hilley made countless trips to the stage to retrieve plaques for her company. Looking back, Preston once remarked, "Tree was Publisher of the Year so many years it got to be embarrassing. Donna kept buying companies and she kept up with them all too. She'd call me all through the year, wanting to know how many performances so-and-so had!"
Though Preston and Hilley were not personally close, they moved in the same social circles, were friendly, and held each other's professional accomplishments in high regard. They also shared, like many women of that era, a propensity to fudge about their age.
When Preston passed away on June 13, 2012, it was discovered that the birth date on her bronze plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame — Aug. 27, 1934 — was incorrect; she was actually born on Aug. 27, 1928. Similarly, when Hilley died June 20, 2012, some obituaries printed her age as 65, while others got it right at 71. Both women shaved six years — and got away with it until their deaths.
On Oct. 10, Donna Jean Hilley posthumously received the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award from the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation.
By Dana Kopp Franklin
It's hard to overestimate how important McCabe Pub has been to the transformation of the Sylvan Park neighborhood over the past 30 years.
When John Dean and his wife Josephine opened the pub on Murphy Road in 1982, Sylvan Park was a fairly obscure little corner of West Nashville, not the hot sector of real estate it would become. Dean, who died in January at age 65, made quite a mark there.
Much more than a typical sports bar, McCabe has been an anchor of the neighborhood, with a strong core of local customers plus folks from other parts of town attracted by McCabe's diverse menu of burgers, Southern cuisine, daily soups and specials, grilled fish and desserts.
Sylvan Park residents, of course, were the first to discover the pub. (Now the neighborhood clientele encompasses three generations.) The bar at McCabe became a place of civic discourse and lively debate, and Dean always chimed in with his own strong viewpoint.
Though opinionated and sometimes prickly, Dean attracted devoted friends and had a multitude of interests. He loved West Nashville (he was a native, who graduated from Cohn High before attending MTSU, Belmont and UT), but he also loved global travel and opened a hotel in Nepal in 1999.
McCabe Pub continues to thrive with Dean's daughters at the helm. Whether diners stop by for a daily Southern special or a fresh slice of pie, a cocktail on the patio or a good debate at the bar, they're enjoying the legacy of John Dean.
MICHAEL KINNARD PONTES
By Kay West
Michael Pontes saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was just 2 years old, in the company of his mother Jackie, a free-spirited flower child. Single, she carried her child with her to concerts and communes before settling — kind of — in a meadow at the end of a two-mile road that wound between two mountains, in a holler outside Floyd, Va. It was the kind of place where people lived off the land, unfettered by convention and the scrutiny of the law.
It was there Pontes first learned to fend for himself, a skill that came in handy throughout his life. With a natural gift for running the rigorous trails around him, he pursued cross-country, made his high school team and, longing for structure, moved in first with his coach, then the family of his buddy Jeff. He got an invite from Clemson, but representatives of Brooks running shoes steered him to Belmont, a scholarship he accepted.
That's how he came to cross paths with Neal & Harwell attorney Bill Ramsey, a couple of decades his senior and a world removed from Pontes'. At the time, guitarist John Jackson was renting the top-floor apartment of Ramsey's Belmont-area home; he came to his landlord and asked if his new friend Pontes could move in as well. "He was 18 or 19, and a little-bitty guy, no more than 5-foot-4," Ramsey remembers. "That first year, he grew six inches."
He ran cross-country all four years at Belmont, setting a record that stands to this day on Percy Warner's horse trail: 8.3 miles in 42 minutes. After graduating with honors with a degree in marketing, he tried on many hats — the music business, working closely with BR549 in their Robert's days, bartending at Pub of Love, and construction, fine-tuning his carpentry skills under the tutelage of expert craftsmen. It was during that era, Ramsey remembers, that he got into some trouble with substance abuse and financial issues.
"Mike had his demons, and he probably had some kind of emotional disorder, his highs were so high and his lows so low," Ramsey recalls. "He would self-medicate, because that's the culture he grew up in. But he was gritty and fearless, and he always bounced back."
Part of his bounce-back lay in his affinity for hard work — whether training for cross-country to the point of injury, or in physical labor. Pontes built the side addition to the cafe Frothy Monkey in 12South, crafted all the tables and chairs and bar for Burger Up a few blocks away when it opened in 2010, then did the build-out and furnishings for the Burger Up in Cool Springs, which he also ran.
The Rev. Becca Stevens, his friend and pastor at St. Augustine Episcopal Church, believes he found grace in hard work. "Mike did so much for the St. A's community, but he was not a committee-meeting guy," she says. "He was the guy who cut the wood and hammered the nail. He was happiest when he was in labor, in motion." The final labor Pontes performed for St. A's was to hand-chisel the tiny cedar plugs for the new pews he helped make for the chapel, lasting talismans to his memory.
Michael Pontes could run like the wind, but ultimately, he could not outrun the demons that haunted him. Blessedly, he could not outrun his friends either, hundreds of whom gathered under a tent on Cal Turner's farm on a bleak March afternoon to hear Stevens' prayer for Michael; anguished words from his mother and old friends; heart-wrenching performances from Bobby Bare Jr., Etta Britt and John Jackson; and to sing together "You Are My Sunshine." Magically, the heavy gray clouds roiling across the sky were pierced for a sweet moment by sunbeams.
Four days later, Ramsey, Jackie and other intimates went to Ramsey's family farm in Viola, a place where Pontes often turned for rest and respite. They put half of his ashes around an October Glory maple tree planted in his honor, and the rest on the trail he made there, which he loved to run.
Hair stylist to the socialites; owner, Element Salon
By Abby White
Loyal. Loving. Generous. Kind. Open. Honest. Ask anyone who knew Kevin Moser, and these words come up repeatedly. To the outside world, he is best known as a successful salon owner and stylist to the Nashville social set — he was the go-to guy for Swan Ball hairstyles. But to his friends and family, he was so much more. Moser, who passed away from natural causes on June 28, 2012, at age 44, was a stranger to no one.
"Kevin was the type of person that, whether he was greeting you for the first time or not, he made you feel like he cared about you and loved you," recalls Moser's partner, Scott Stalker. "He was generous and kind with his whole being."
Born in Jacksonville, Fla., and raised in Chattanooga, Virginia Beach and Crossville, Tenn., Moser attended MTSU before moving to Nashville in 1996, where he learned his craft at Jon Nave University of Cosmetology. Moser, uniquely gifted with both creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, opened his first salon in the upscale boutique Jamie. He opened the luxurious yet welcoming Element Salon in Green Hills in 2000, allowing many employees to flourish under his instruction.
"He was more than my best friend — we were family," says Christy Gibson, a friend of Moser's for 20 years. Moser and Gibson were big Madonna fans, and they attended several Madonna concerts together. She recalls the first, years ago in Atlanta. "Right before the show started, he grabbed my hand and said, 'I think I'm going to cry when she walks out onstage,' " Gibson says. "We both did. We danced and sang for the entire show, even though we were in the nosebleed section and were nervous about falling over the rails."
Gibson was among a group of Moser's close friends who scattered his ashes at a Madonna concert in New Orleans in October.
"Everyone knew Kevin," Gibson says, fondly remembering her friend. "No last name needed." Like Madonna.
By Kay West
Despite the fact that he ran the kitchens at Germantown Café and Allium — the restaurants he opened and owned with Chris Lowry, in 2003 and late 2008 respectively — Walter Johnson "Jay" Luther preferred to be called "cook" over the more formal "chef." When asked once by an impressed Germantown Café diner where the chef had attended culinary school, general manager Greg Hilbourn only half-jokingly replied, "The Norma Luther Cooking Academy." Jay Luther did learn many lessons from mother Norma growing up in Dickson, Tenn., but the menus at both restaurants were unmistakably his. For the most part, they remain so, though longtime colleague and veteran Germantown chef Jeff Martin is now the one cooking them.
"Jay's menu, by design, was not complicated or fussy," says Lowry, who was also Luther's life partner of 18 years, a relationship that began when they both were servers at the old Granite Falls. "We have updated the menu and Jeff has added several new things, but Jay created some perfect dishes that people love and would be upset to see removed, and we have no reason to do so. Jeff was trained by Jay, and he cooks them faithfully. " Luther's signature comfort dishes — French onion soup, Germantown Strudel, squash fritters, plum pork, coconut curry salmon and braised lamb shank, for example — have become even more comforting in the wake of his passing, reassuring touchstones of his continued presence.
His desserts — which he most enjoyed making — are more problematic to re-create. "He liked to play a lot, but he also got a lot of the recipes for cakes and pies from his mother," Lowry says. "She always left an ingredient out, and it was fun for him to figure out what it was. She made a killer chess pie, and it took him forever to figure that one out. But he did, and his chess pie was as good as hers. Unfortunately, he never shared that one secret ingredient with us."
What he did share with the staff was his prankish sense of humor; a tireless, democratic work ethic; and an admonition he repeated so often it became a slogan. "Jay wasn't the kind of chef who liked to go out and walk through the dining room," Lowry says. "He was happiest in the kitchen. But if he looked up and saw too many servers hanging out there, he would say, 'Who's watching the door?' — which was the signal for them to get back out to the front of the house."
A framed photograph of Luther in the water of Curaçao from a 2010 vacation hangs on the wall behind the host stand at the entrance of Germantown Café. Lowry put it there not long after his friend and partner's death, a poignant answer to Luther's rhetorical question: "Who's watching the door?"
JOSEPH H. "TIGER JOE"
Decorated pilot; businessman; former president, Nashville Rotary Club, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
By J.R. Lind
There are those for whom the name "Greatest Generation" seems singularly made. The men and women who won the Second World War created modern America: After bringing fascism low, they returned home and built a country. Joseph "Tiger Joe" Thompson — whose nickname ranks among the finest in the history of a city rife with outstanding sobriquets — was a shining example.
Flying with the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 9th Army Air Force, he helped liberate France from the Nazis. He received awards from two grateful nations — the Distinguished Flying Cross from his own, and the Croix de Guerre and Légion d'honneur from France. The Fifth Republic granted him the latter just days before he died in Nashville at 92.
After the war, he returned home, taking a job as an agent with Northwestern Mutual. He worked his way up to an executive position, staying with the company into his ninth decade. Later, he would serve as president of the Nashville Rotary and then as Chamber of Commerce president starting in 1979.
In 2006, he published Tiger Joe: A Photographic Diary of a World War II Aerial Reconnaissance Pilot, a book of photos from his time in the war. It wasn't the only way he passed down his memories. He was a treasured guest at Montgomery Bell Academy assemblies, where he shared his remembrances year after year with successive classes. He made America's finest hour come alive, not as a dry recitation of stats and dates, but as history seen in the moment in bursting skies, through an aviator's goggles.
Tiger Joe Thompson helped save the world, and he helped build his city, and he left a legacy for the rest of us. Greatest Generation, indeed.
By Kay West
Mario Ferrari named his infamous party boat and his own farewell party late this summer La Dolce Vita, and that's what he lived: the good life. That's not to say we didn't have our differences. Many years ago, the Scene and Mario kept up a lively, litigious feud, and we battled royally over a critical review. But there are a million great stories about the grandiose, charismatic, flamboyant, self-invented restaurateur, even if some of the best ones cannot be verified or repeated in public.
"He was a legendary figure for over 40 years as the focal point of owner-operated restaurants," says Randy Rayburn, whose own empire includes Sunset Grill and Midtown Cafe. "No one else had that kind of staying power. Others stood on the stage, but none as long as him."
His path to Nashville began in poverty in Italy, according to Village Wines owner and restaurant-industry veteran Hoyt Hill. "He came from nothing, and knew he could have a better life in America," Hill says. "He was a stowaway on a freighter and when it docked in N.Y., he jumped ship and got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He met a girl there who was an aspiring actress, and they moved to Hollywood. When she decided she wanted to be a country singer, they came to Nashville. I don't know how much of that is true, but it's the story he told me."
When he got to Nashville, he got a job bartending at the Executive Club. Because it was a private club, it was able to sell alcohol back in Music City's pre-liquor-by-the-drink days. He told Hill he saved his money, then borrowed $5,000 from a man in Memphis to open his restaurant Mario's in an old townhouse on West End Avenue.
"At the end of the first week, he had to borrow another $5,000 from the same guy," Hill remembers. "By the end of the third week, he paid him the $10,000 back in cash and was debt-free from then on."
That was 1965, and Nashville's political, business, media and music elite were drawn to the restaurant like moths to the flame. On any given night, the original Mario's — and the bigger building at 20th and Division where it moved and remained until a fire in 2006 — hosted everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to The Rolling Stones, Muhammad Ali to Dolly Parton, and June and Johnny Cash dining with Ruth and Rev. Billy Graham. "Mario was the best at making celebrities comfortable and treating important people as they felt they deserved," Rayburn remembers.
But Mario could also make a nervous young groom like Hoyt Hill feel like a Master of the Universe. "When Elizabeth and I got married in 1983, we took 25 people to the upstairs dining room in the old restaurant," Hill remembers. "I was at [the now-defunct West End restaurant] Julian's then, making $30,000 a year, and I was paying for dinner. I told Mario to bring a Caesar salad, a fettuccini Alfredo and one glass of wine for everybody. We sit down and all of a sudden we're getting prosecco and antipasti, then the courses kept coming, each with a different wine. We had a half-dozen courses and I was about to have a heart attack, but I couldn't stop it without embarrassing myself. I figured it had to be $100 a person, even back then. I was dying.
"I ask for the check, and all the bill says is, 'Just tip the waiters.' He didn't charge me. Mario had peers back then that also moved the needle to a new level of dining, but there was no one who knew and practiced hospitality like Mario. It wasn't just a restaurant, it was an experience. And he was a giant."
George McCabe, 51, veteran restaurateur. In August, the former Loveless Cafe co-owner was found dead in a wrecked car in Edwin Warner Park.