Photos of My Life: Record mogul L.A. Reid looks back
Ahead of Reid's forthcoming memoir, the music biz legend remembers major career highlights in an interview with EW.
His ear for fresh talent (OutKast, Usher, TLC, Pink, Rihanna, Kanye) and mid-career revivals (Whitney, Mariah, J. Lo) has made him an industry legend. Now Reid, 59, has written a revealing new memoir, Sing to Me (out Feb. 2). He sat down with EW to revisit his triumphs, tribulations, and one or two regrets.
The music bug bit Reid early on. As a young boy working at his uncle’s barbershop in Cincinnati, he tells EW, “I was making tips — a dime, 15 cents, a quarter — but that was enough to buy records.” (And a drum kit.)
The trio that would go on to become one of the all-time best-selling girl groups “never did fashion; they did style,” he recalls. “But they weren’t some empty, mindless pop band. People who didn’t listen to songs like ‘Waterfalls’ missed that they dealt with HIV, violence, real cultural things. Not just ‘Look at my booty!'”
Houston’s trip to Atlanta to record 1990’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight” with Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds coincided with the blooming of her biggest romance. “Unless you were around Bobby [Brown] and Whitney, you can’t understand the level of love, how much fun they had with each other, how happy they were,” Reid says. “People didn’t know, they just speculated, and it was painful for them.”
“It was instant,” he says of meeting the singer. “The voice was just undeniable, and her personality was so charming — she pulled you right into her jokes, her one-liners. She signed to a black-owned record label that made black pop music…. I hadn’t witnessed an artist who stepped out that way, who collaborated with people from a different walk of life, all on her own.”
“Michael and Mariah [Carey] have something in common: They both have this childlike quality. But they’re smarter than you, they’re richer than you, they’re more successful than you—so don’t make the mistake of treating them like children.”
“She’s so quick with her words, so witty and smart. But what I really love is that when I’m with her, I feel like I’m with one of the last real great stars. She has that presence. There’s no one else in the industry who embodies her level of glamour.”
Reid signed the rap icons when they were still in high school, and they never stopped surprising him. ” ‘Hey Ya!’ could’ve come from a punk band in Europe, you know?” he says of the pair’s 2003 smash. “I never questioned their songs or their choices. How can they not be my favorite act?”
Reid writes intimately of the star showing up at his New York home after an ugly, much-documented incident with then boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009. Her subsequent album, Rated R, was “darker and more credible,” he tells EW. “Every artist has that coming-of-age moment.”
“He came in at 15 with his guitar and piano and sang for me. He’s a real musician. The hair? I don’t think you can say, ‘Okay, let’s get the committee and figure out what the aesthetic gimmick’s gonna be.’ It has to be organic.” Reid had also signed Lady Gaga around that time, but her persona seemed less formed, and he dropped her. “I regret that, I’ll always regret it,” he admits. “It’s really that simple. I blew it.”
“Kanye is a different guy than the one people think they know. A guy who’s filled with ego, pure ego, wants to do it all. He can step back and allow someone to produce him. It takes confidence, but you have to be humble to do that. Michael was that way also: Every song is a work in progress.”
The X Factor
Simon Cowell wooed Reid for the show, but it was an odd fit at first, he says of his two seasons as a judge: “It’s a different environment, a different kind of talent.” So he chose to walk away. Would he do it again? “Of course,” he laughs. “I’m an entertainment person! I’ll do TV, I’ll do music, I’ll do everything.”