A Fresh Face At Arista Records

For all of their fame, neither Ringo Starr, Buddy Rich nor any other percussionist has ever soared as high in the music business as Antonio (LA) Reid, a onetime drummer in a soul band. On July 1, Reid becomes CEO of Arista Records, one of the music industry's legendary labels and home to such global superstars as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Santana. He succeeds Clive Davis, the industry icon who 25 years ago founded Arista, which is now a unit of BMG.

It's more than a corporate reshuffling: Reid's appointment strikes a historic note. At 42, Reid, cofounder of the boutique label LaFace, is now one of the highest-ranking black executives in the music business--and one of the few African-Americans to hurdle the industry's notorious racial divide. While black artists always have played integral roles in the U.S. music industry, few have made it into the executive suites. "Here we have a young black executive, who's also a musician, now running this major company," says Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds, who ran LaFace with Reid. "And that's a positive. There are few powerful black executives in the first place."

For Reid, however, the title is bittersweet. BMG formally announced the Arista post last week, but for the past several months, Arista's succession saga yielded messy headlines pitting BMG's Strauss Zelnick against Davis, who wanted to continue to lead Arista. "I really haven't been able to enjoy this," Reid says.

Reid is hardly an overnight sensation. In the early 1980s he played drums, while his longtime friend Babyface sang lead in The Deele, a band that broke up after three albums. Babyface went solo--his hits included "Whip Appeal" and "It's No Crime"--and the two produced and wrote hits for the likes of soul group The Whispers and Bobby Brown. Later they moved to Atlanta and, in 1989, established LaFace records as a joint venture with Arista.

But Reid, who is soon to marry a schoolteacher, found himself split between producing in the studio and executive duties--mainly dealmaking with producers, songwriters, artists and distributors. He discovered he liked the latter. "I'd found a new passion," Reid says. The label found stars--including TLC, Toni Braxton, Usher and OutKast. LaFace has sold more than $500 million worth of records.

At Arista, Reid says, he intends to quickly douse industry speculation that the label will put out only R&B records. He and other black execs suggest the R&B speculation as veiled racism. "Arista will be a full-service, multi-genre label," Reid says, adding: "I'm a fan of music, not a particular genre."