Frances Preston Dies; Pioneering Former President of BMI

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Frances Preston

UPDATED: The Country Music Hall of Famer spent more than half a century with the performing rights group, leading it for 18 years, and was a force in Washington and tireless humanitarian.

Frances Preston, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and former president and CEO of BMI, died June 13 of congestive heart failure at her home in Nashville. She was 83.

The woman Kris Kristofferson once called “the songwriter’s guardian angel” led the performing rights group from 1986 to 2004. Fortune called Preston “one of the true powerhouses of the pop music business,” and she often is credited with coining the Nashvile songwriter's creed, "It all begins with a song."

Born on Aug. 27, 1928, in Nashville, Preston began her career as a receptionist at WSM-AM Nashville. She rose quickly through the station’s ranks, eventually hosting her own fashion show.

She joined BMI in 1958, when she was hired to launch a Southern regional office in Nashville. She was named vp in 1964, reportedly becoming the first female corporate executive in Tennessee. In 1985, she rose to senior vp performing rights and moved to offices in New York before taking the top post at BMI the following year.

Preston also had a strong presence on Capitol Hill. She lobbied for songwriters’ rights, championing such initiatives as the Copyright Amendments Act of 1992, which extended copyright protection to older compositions, and the extension of the copyright term to the life of the composer plus 70 years. Earlier, she served on the Panama Canal Study Committee and on the commission for the White House Record Library during the Carter administration. And during the mid-’90s, she was a member of Vice President Al Gore’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council.

She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and later became a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. She received a National Trustees and Heroes Award from the Recording Academy in 1998 and was MIDEM's Person of the Year in 1999. The Library of American Broadcasting named her to its elite Giants of Broadcasting ranks. She also sat on the Grammy Foundation board.

"Frances Preston was a pioneer for female executives in the music industry," Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow said Wednesday. "Her success with BMI artists in Nashville, especially in the country music genre, helped the industry recognize the talent and creativity of the city and put it on the music map. The music industry has suffered a great loss of one of its true visionaries."

Preston was the first nonperforming woman invited to join New York’s prestigious Friars Club and in 1993 became the first woman appointed to its board of directors. That same year, she received the Friars’ Applause Award for lifetime achievement.

A dedicated humanitarian, Preston was president of the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research, the music industry's largest charity. She is the namesake of the Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville.

She is survived by sons Kirk, David, and Donald, all of Nashville; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Visitation for family, friends and colleagues will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, June 17, at the Country Music Hall of Fame. A private funeral will take place at First Lutheran Church in Nashville, with a private graveside service and burial to follow at Landmark Spring Hill Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to the T.J. Martell Foundation, 15 Music Square West,
 Nashville, TN, 37203 (615-256-2002) or the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, c/o Gifts Processing PMB 407727, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN, 37240  (615-936-0233). 

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