Class of 1950
Roy Eaton is an advertising pioneer as well as an accomplished classical musician. When he was three, he lost part of a finger. When he was six, he started taking piano lessons. Within a year, he was performing at Carnegie Hall, the start of an illustrious career in music. Just as remarkable, Roy Eaton is the man who broke Madison Avenue’s color barrier. When he was hired by Young & Rubicam as a copywriter in 1955, he became the first African-American to land a creative position at a major American advertising agency. Advertising Age called him “the industry’s version of Jackie Robinson” and in 2010, he was elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame.
Born in 1930, Eaton grew up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, a few blocks from City College. “We all wanted to go to college,” he remembers. “I knew about the level of excellence and the reputation of City College. It was also free and we couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.” Eaton credits his parents, Jamaican immigrants, with fostering his desire to succeed. His mother worked as a governess and he says she told him that to overcome prejudice, “you have to do 200 percent to get credit for 100 percent.” After attending the High School of Music and Art, he said, “it was only natural that I’d go to City College next door.”
In 1948, during his junior year at the College, he won a Naumburg Fellowship that allowed him to study in Zurich. In 1950, on the day of his graduation, he competed in the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin competition, then raced to Lewisohn Stadium for commencement. Later that day, he learned he’d won the competition. Eaton was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude. While at City, he was also studying at the Manhattan School of Music, earning graduate and postgraduate degrees.
In 1951, he won two Yale University fellowships and performed in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He made his Town Hall debut with the orchestra in 1952. In 1953, he went into the Army and was assigned to Armed Forces Radio as a writer and producer. Returning to civilian life in 1955, he drew on his stint with AFR to talk his way into a copywriting job at Young & Rubicam, where he became the first African-American to play a significant creative role at a major ad agency. He worked on campaigns for clients such as General Electric, Gulf Oil, Kent cigarettes and Beefaroni, bringing his “philosophy of competition” to jingles: the melodic and harmonic patterns of 1950s jazz to evoke Kent’s new Micronite filter, for example, or a tarantella to highlight Beefaroni’s association with Italy (“We’re having Beefaroni, it’s made with macaroni”). Kids sang the Beefaroni jingle for decades.
In 1959, Eaton became music director at Benton & Bowles and was later named a vice president. His 1962 jingle for Texaco (“You can trust your car to the man who wears the star”) was cited by Advertising Age as one of the 20th century’s top campaigns. In 1982, Eaton launched a production company. His clients included major brands such as Coca-Cola and he produced an anti-drunk driving campaign honored by President Reagan. Eaton left B&B in 1982, returned to classical music in 1986 with a solo concert at Lincoln Center, toured Europe, Asia and Latin America, and launched a recording career. Among the albums he released are “The Meditative Chopin,” “Scott Joplin: Piano Rags” and “24/7+7: The Complete Preludes of Chopin, Gershwin and Still.”
He was honored by the College with a Townsend Harris Medal in 2007.