Art & Commerce: Get a (Real) Life

When I guest teach, I urge aspiring ad wannabe’s to get a life outside the business, to be passionate about something from real life as opposed to ad life. Doesn’t matter what it is—just find something you can lose yourself in, something that reaches a place deep down and energizes your everything. Italian opera. Swimming. Mid-century modern design. The history of condoms. Street art. Steinbeck. Rescue dogs. Customized Chia pets. Whatever. You’ll be better off for it, you’ll be a more interesting person, you’ll be happier. And trust me, sooner or later you’ll be able to apply it somehow, some way, some day to advertising.

My passion is the blues. There’s this album, Ray Charles in Person, recorded at the old Herndon Stadium in Atlanta, which includes “Tell the Truth,” maybe the greatest live cut ever recorded, even more remarkable when you realize they got it all on a rainy day in Georgia with a single microphone and a portable tape recorder—I am hooked on the drug that is and forever will be the blues. The rhythm that is the blues.

When I was growing up in St. Louis, Benny Sharpe had a kick-ass band—pomaded hair, slick and cool. I’m sure half his band had done time. His sax player would always have a lit cigarette stuck in one of his horn’s keys while he played, and Benny stuck his filter first on the sharp end of a string from his Fender Strat, one just like Ike Turner’s.

One time, Sharpe steered his boat-long, tail-finned red Cadillac right into MidWest Laundry just inside St. Louis city limits, where I worked Saturdays during high school. We had curb service and he was picking up some dry cleaning. He didn’t even park in a space, just pulled up long ways, defying anybody to suggest otherwise, and handed me his ticket. His processed, pomaded hair shone like neon lights on a beer glass, and there was this gorgeous blonde white woman wedged up next to him in the front seat. Cool.

I went and got his cleaned-and-pressed sharkskin suit for him. Three-dollar tip for a $2.75 cleaning bill. He was probably on his way over to a gig at Sam Spaulding’s Wonder Bar, on the East Side. This was the blues.

Now it’s 20 years later. I’m a punk-ass assistant account dog on the Budweiser business and it’s time for a new set of radio spots. Budweiser was always gifted with a brilliant jingle, befitting the King of Beers—”Where there’s life, there’s Bud,” “Here comes the king,” “When you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all,” “This Bud’s for you.” Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson, sang the pivotal, original, “When you say Budweiser…” campaign theme, establishing an amazingly high bar for the real deal. But our radio packages were always produced with what they called “sound-alike” studio versions, segmented by market—well intended, but more like “official” commercial music than anything real.

Now, along comes one of the creative guys with studio demos for the next sound alikes, this time for the black market. He’s actually got the right idea somehow, with a couple of demos that hint at Johnny “Guitar” Watson, an early rapper who was rappin’ even before James Brown “invented” rap. And I say, “Shit, why don’t we just hire ‘Guitar’ himself?” (What do I know?) So we do. And in great Budweiser style: unidentified, authentic, no sellout, no pitch, no endorsements. Just jam your music thing in between Bud melody bookends and the people who get it will get it, and the rest will follow.

And they did. Watson was first. After that, no more sound alikes. We ended up recording BB King, the Temptations, Rick James, Frankie Beverly, Herbie Hancock, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke, War, Billy Preston, The Busboys, Jimmy Cliff, Sugahh, plus Robert Gordon, Oingo Boingo, Janis Ian, Leon Redbone, Karla DeVito, Mickey Thomas, Lacy J. Dalton, George Thorogood, Jennifer Warnes and Journey, to name a few. And we catapult Bud into the No. 1 share positions in every segment.

It’s no big thing. Just the real deal. A passion runs headlong into a situation and becomes an idea. All you’ve got to do is go for it.

There’s nothing like the blues for me.

That’s my other life. What’s yours?