She was an ambitious, well-connected former Nashville radio station receptionist when the performing rights organization BMI hired her to open a southern regional office in the Tennessee capital in 1958.
By the time Frances Williams Preston retired as president and chief executive of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 2004, she had been long known as one of the most successful and influential executives in the music industry and a key figure in Nashville’s growth as a major music center.
Preston died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at her home in Nashville, said family spokeswoman Caroline Davis. She was 83.
Dubbed “one of the true powerhouses of the pop music business” by Fortune magazine in 1986, the year she became BMI’s president and chief executive, Preston fought passionately for the rights of songwriters, composers and music publishers.
Kris Kristofferson once called her the “songwriter’s guardian angel.”
As a performing rights organization, BMI collects license fees and distributes them as royalties to its members whose works are performed on radio, television, films, commercials, cable and digital outlets.
“She truly felt that writers were not properly compensated, and she spent her life fighting for them,” said Del Bryant, who succeeded Preston as BMI’s president and chief executive. “She was a well-known face on the Hill [inWashington, D.C.] and had a tremendous relationship with some of the leading legislators of her time.”
Throughout her nearly 50-year career with BMI, Preston nurtured the careers of countless songwriters and singer-songwriters and served as a mentor to them.
“There’s still people that I keep in touch with that I signed in the early days, like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson,” she told the Associated Press in 2002. “That was my favorite part of the business. But you’ve got to get into the business of the business in order to help them.”
Bryant, who joined BMI’s Nashville office in 1972 as a junior executive, said Preston “really defined the regional office in Nashville, which became arguably the most important office in a music community in the world.”
Nashville as a music scene, he said, “would not be what it is today without her influence.”
“I think she personally signed just an amazing group” of songwriters, said Bryant. “It wasn’t all country; it was all over the South: blues, rock, Latin, Texas, folk — you name it.”
Songwriter-singer Lamont Dozier, who was part of the renowned Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and producing team at Motown, said he’ll always remember how Preston “ran BMI like a family.”
“Although she kept a grueling schedule and worked tirelessly for her songwriters, she seemed to always find time to give us special attention whenever we needed it,” Dozier said. “She was like a mother, a big sister, and she was just a mentor to the songwriters, all of us. We could always run to Frances when we had a problem.”
Born Frances Williams in Nashville on Aug. 27, 1928, she attended George Peabody College for Teachers. Her plans to teach changed after she took a summer job as a receptionist for radio station WSM in Nashville.
Preston, whose early duties included answering fan mail sent to singer-songwriter Hank Williams, began hosting a daily fashion and style program on WSM-TV during her lunch break. She eventually moved into the promotions department.
Preston’s many honors include being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and receiving a Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998.
As a woman who rose to prominence in a male-dominated field, she was credited with a number of firsts, reportedly including being the first female executive on Nashville’s Music Row.
“It has been said that she shattered the glass ceiling,” Bryant said. “I think she’d say she didn’t even think about ceilings. She didn’t deal with ceilings because she just didn’t see them.”
Preston’s 1962 marriage to Nashville businessman E.J. Preston ended in divorce. She is survived by her three sons, William Kirk Preston, David J. Preston and Donald L. Preston; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.