Roy Eaton: A black man’s journey to the top of the advertising industry


A story worth telling: Roy Eaton, the Jackie Robinson of Advertising

“If you were white, I’d hire you immediately,” Roy Eaton was told during his first interview for an advertising job with Young & Rubicam. Years later, the Advertising Hall of Fame welcomed him as a member.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

Roy Eaton turned 89 in 2019 and continued his weeklong Bryant Park lunchtime gig.

Roy Eaton became advertising’s Jackie Robinson, breaking the color line in New York during the Mad Men era.

He remembered what his mother told him.

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

Before he left Madison Avenue to return to music, his first love, Eaton was probably closer to 300%.

For decades, children sang for Beefaroni — “It’s made with macaroni!” — as they heard it on television. Their parents eased into Texaco stations, reminded that “You can trust the man who wears the star.”

Eaton created both campaigns during his time with Young & Rubicam.

The top-level ad agency overcame some initial hesitation and embraced an African-American man with great talent. Excellence pushed aside the overt racism in 1950s America.

My friend Roy Eaton, 91 and going strong..

At Young & Rubicam, Roy’s adventures went beyond simple acceptance.

In an interview with Ad Age, Eaton recalled a talk 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.”

Thanks to Young and Rubicam, Roy Eaton became the Jackie Robinson of Advertising

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

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

When a tragic accident changed lives…

“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.”

Ad Age Magazine

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

Prodigy Redirected On His Way 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 during 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 frankly.

Becoming the Jackie Robinson of Advertising

That realization led to reshaping advertising much as Jackie Robinson reshaped baseball.

And people outside the profession might have been just as influenced by Eaton’s unseen presence. They just never saw his name in a box score or watched him dash home on a daring steal.

Landmark campaigns he’s best known for 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 in New York “home” returned to the concert stage he left to make a living 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 September he resumes his annual lunchtime concert series in Bryant Park, devoting five days to the Piano in the Park program.

Although suffering a stroke in 2017, Roy Eaton notched his 89th birthday on May 14th, still performing.

Roy Eaton plays Bryant Park, September 2019.

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

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

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  1. Is Mr. Eaton still alive? I met him only once when he applied for a job at Young and Rubicam in New York. I was a trainee in the personnel department and carried his impressive c.v. to my boss. I knew that he had been hired but that is all…….would very much like to send him a note. My name was Becky Rand………

    • I believe Roy is still alive. I bumped into him several times over the past year, but the current lockdown has kept most folks inside. Roy performed last year in Bryant Park in September in the noontime concerts in the park series and had a concert scheduled to celebrate his 90th birthday in May, but of course, it was canceled.
      Sharing any personal information, such as addresses, is not allowed, but next time I see Roy, once the shutdown is lifted, I’ll relay your interest. If he says, “Okay,” I will get back to you.
      Thanks for commenting.

      • I have now rediscovered Roy Eaton and discovered David Stone. I do not, will not, cannot accept Kindle although kind guests often bring one as a gift. Amazon France lists several of your books and I have purchased the artist and cat one. Your blogs are provocative and are very much like spices from small producers of spices. Thank you. If you like wine, do let me know and I will send you a bottle or two…..

      • Thanks, Becky. By coincidence, I learned from a mutual friend who lives in the same building as Roy that, 90 now, he is alive and well and full of anecdotes. I can forward him your best wishes and see if he will allow me to give you his contact information.
        Best, and thanks again.

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