Music Industry Veteran Polly Anthony Dies at 59
The former president of Epic Records and Geffen Records is remembered by Jimmy Iovine, Tommy Mottola, Celine Dion and Macy Gray, among others.
Polly Anthony, the Epic Records president who helped break and/or worked with such artists as Macy Gray, Shakira, Celine Dion, Rage Against the Machine, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Pearl Jam, passed away at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., over the weekend surrounded by her family and beloved dogs after a long fight with pancreatic cancer. She was 59.
"When people talk about her, it was about how fearless she was in work and life," recalls her good friend and colleague Michele Anthony (no relation), Universal Music Group evp for U.S. recorded music and founder of 7H Entertainment. "She was a natural-born leader yet would jump in and tackle challenges. No job was too big or too small. She wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty."
Anthony had many accomplishments throughout her career, not the least of which being one of the first female executives to helm a major label. "Polly was not just a leader, but a trailblazer and mentor to scores of women, and she was my best friend," adds Michele Anthony.
As news of her death spread, artists, colleagues and industry executives took to Facebook and other social media to mourn her passing.
Dave Glew, who was Anthony's boss at Epic Records, issued a statement with his wife expressing their deep sorrow at her passing. "Polly was more than a friend or colleague. She was family. More than a leader, she was a guiding light to all at Epic and Sony Music. Intelligent, thoughtful, passionate and fearless, she grew to be one of the great executives our business has ever known. Her love for music, artists and her team was an inspiration to all."
One of Anthony's fondest memories, which she would recount to her colleagues, pointed the way to the road her life would take: When she was 10 years old, in 1965, she saw the Beatles perform live at the Hollywood Bowl with her sister Carrie and her mother. It was her first concert.
Born in Alexandria, Va., Anthony moved with her family to Dayton, Ohio, in 1958 and then to Southern California in 1963 while her father pursued his career in the aerospace industry. Ten years after seeing the Beatles, she would begin her music career at RCA before moving to artist management company Management III and joining what would become the Sony Music family in 1978, where she worked as an assistant to Larry Douglas, the head of promotion for the Epic Associated labels.
She assiduously worked her way up the ladder, becoming svp of promotion and moving to New York City in 1988. In 1993, she was promoted to general manager of 550 Music and then president of that label before moving over to become president of Epic Records in 1997, with her career at Sony culminating with her becoming president of the Epic Records Group.
In 2003 she joined the Universal Music Group as president of DreamWorks, and that position morphed into co-president of Geffen Records. In 2006, she became head of television and film for the Universal Music Group and then transitioned into executive producing film and TV projects in 2010, when she left UMG.
In recent years, Anthony worked on various TV and movie projects, including the HBO series Off the Record, CBS' Cane and Lifetime's Betty & Coretta starring Mary J. Blige.
In interviews on her passing, the most repeated characteristic cited by those mourning her was her persistence, particularly when she was chasing goals for her acts.
"Everyone liked Polly, even the radio people whose arms she was always twisting to get her artists' records on the radio," recalls her boss Tommy Mottola, former chairman of the Sony Music Entertainment. "The artists and her staff loved her, and so did everyone at Sony Music. She was a real street person with the killer instinct to go out and get what she was chasing, but she always pulled it off with ladylike elegance, using her charm and passion."
While Anthony fought aggressively for her artists, "I never saw her more committed than she was to Macy Gray," Mottola recalls. "We were scratching our heads, but she took charge of it."
"People didn't know what to make of [Gray] because she didn't easily fit into a [radio] format,” Michele Anthony recalls. “But Polly said, 'We have to sign this.' When she wanted to release Gray's 'I Try' as a single, everyone said it wasn't a hit, yet nine months later it was massive."
Gray issued a statement: "Polly is one of the most excellent people I've ever met, and one of my heroes. She changed my life. She was beautiful. And I will miss her more than I can say."
Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine said in a statement: "After admiring Polly for her winning years at Sony, I was lucky enough to convince her to come work with us. Her sense of humor combined with her talent and willingness to compete make the time we worked together really special to me."
Another album that Anthony believed would be a big seller was the Titanic soundtrack, which the other executives at Sony Music couldn't see because it was mainly just a song and background soundtrack music, Mottola recalls. But that song was Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," and 22 million records later, it turned out Anthony was right.
"I'm so sad to hear the news about Polly.... She was a great person, and she always approached everything with such a positive attitude," Dion said in a statement. "She believed in me from the very beginning, and she'll always be a part of my career. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family and loved ones."
Rockers, too, say they felt fortunate to have Anthony in their corner. "Polly Anthony was a good friend who played a crucial role in bringing [Rage Against the Machine] and Audioslave to the world," guitarist Tom Morello said in a statement. "I have a vivid memory of an early Rage performance at some stuffy Sony conference in Toronto. Afterwards, someone said, 'You gotta see what's going on in suite 402!'
"I was frankly a little nervous about what might be going on in suite 402, but when I got up there I saw a number of Epic records folks rocking out to a two-song Rage demo. Polly was standing on a couch head-banging furiously. A one-woman mosh pit! When the two songs ended she yelled, "PLAY IT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN!!" and continued rocking wildly. It was then I knew we were destined to be good friends. I will miss her greatly and am so sad to hear of her passing. I feel so fortunate to have known her."
Anthony's own words make it clear that her artists and team were paramout to her. "I'm most proud of the diversity of artists with whom I've had the pleasure of working," she said when she was named to Billboard's inaugural Women in Music list in 2005. "But as important to me as the artists I've championed over the years is building a great team, which has always been one of the greatest challenges -- but one that has yielded many of the greatest rewards."
Even Anthony's competitors praised her, even if she cost them money or artists. Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, who competed against her and worked with her when he was chairman/CEO of the Universal Music Group, said in a statement, "I was fortunate enough to work with Polly, and to know what a wonderful, loving person she was. In business Polly was a fierce competitor. Many years ago, Jimmy and I were chasing Macy Gray and she beat our ass! Polly was special, and I'll always remember her."
While gaining the respect of her bosses, peers and artists, Anthony also went out of her way to mentor her staff in the office and outside of it. "Polly often had family-like dinners at her home for her staff," recalls Michele Anthony.
"She was a great hostess and would cook dinner, doing everything including shopping, for 25 or 30 people on Christmas Eve," recalls David Cohen, a former vice chairman at Interscope and a UMG consultant.
"She took care of her artists, her family and her friends," remembers Cohen, who worked with Anthony when she moved over to the Interscope family in 2004 and was one of her closest friends for more than 30 years. "Her greatest personal happiness was her family, especially her nieces and nephews."
Anthony is survived by her mother, Patty Anthony; sister Betsy Anthony-Brodey and her children, Lily and Quinn; sister Carrie, her husband, Bobby Kelley, and their sons, Danny and Alex; brother Ted and his wife, Teresa, and their daughters, Delancey and Marley; brother BJ; and her French bulldogs, Meg and Reggie.
In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to City of Hope, 1500 East Duarte, Los Angeles, CA, 91010 (www.cityofhope.org), 626-256-4673; or to the Lustgarten Foundation, 11 Stewart Avenue, Bethpage, NY, 11914 (www.lustgarten.org), 516-803-2304.