Dick Alen, William Morris’ Music Head and Longtime Agent for Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, Dies at 89
Dick Alen, a music agent renowned for a six-decade-plus career that included representing icons like Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, died of natural causes Nov. 27. He was 89.
Before Alen retired in 2010, he had spent the last 39 years of his career at what was formerly the William Morris Agency and later William Morris Endeavor. Starting work there in 1971, he eventual became senior VP and had a five-year stint as head of the agency’s music division, where he was credited with bringing more country, Latin and Contemporary Christian artists to the company.
But he had a thriving career for nearly 20 years before he ever joined William Morris. Among his early triumphs was signing Berry in the early 1950s when the seminal rocker was still on Chess Records. He continued to represent Berry for more than 50 years. Alen was an honorary pallbearer at the star’s funeral in 2017, as he was when Franklin died the following year.
Others whom Alen represented over the years included Ray Charles, James Brown, Rod Stewart, Hank Williams Jr., Tom Jones, Fats Domino, Cheech & Chong, Barry White and Juanes.
“I was a lucky son of a bitch,” Alen told Billboard in an interview earlier this year. “You do what you do, and it turned out very well for me and my clients.”
As well-known as he was for being a hardworking, dedicated agent, Alen was also renowned for his wit and wisdom. Alen tried to keep the client/agent relationship in perspective and was reported to have once told a colleague who was having a beef with a star: “Always remember this. They can sing, and we can’t.”
Alen was candid about how agents can be caught in the middle in artists’ relationships and not always get the credit they deserve.
He told Celebrity Access, “An agent, especially one with a big company, has one of the worst jobs in show business for this reason: The artist feels you’ve undersold him. They know they’re worth twice as much money and twice as many tickets as you put them in. The person you sold them to knows you overcharged them and that you’re making them go to a building too big whereas she can easily sell out so he’s mad at you.”
Alen continued, “And the other agencies, when the act is hot, is trying to figure out how to get the act to come to their agency. And in your own company, an agent in the big company has two jobs: one, you’re responsible for a certain number of acts – usually ones you’ve brought into the company. You also are a booking agent where you’re booking a territory so you’re booking a quarter or eighth of a country so as you bring more acts in especially the money you generate for your agency goes up, your salary goes up. Your coworkers are slightly jealous. You just signed these three hot acts and they’ve now raised their salary. I’ve got to get something so that now my salary gets raised. And sometimes it’s competitive in the agency.”
Still, as he said in another interview upon his 2010 retirement, “When I’m asked about my career, my answer is that I thank my lucky stars for it,. I’m old and a little shaky, but still upright. I’ve dealt with some wonderful artists and hey, it’s just been a great run.”
Alen started his career in the late ’40s with a small agency run by Roy Gerber and Norman Weiss, then in 1952 moved to Shaw Artists, working with jazz and R&B artists including Domino, Charles, the Clovers and the Orioles, getting many of these artists on the new medium of television for the first time. He then had a stretch as jazz man Woody Herman’s road manager. “That’s one reason why it became easier to book one-nighters,” he told Pollstar, “because, for four years, we drove back and forth across the country doing one-nighters. Until you see America from the driver’s seat of a car, doing 300-400 miles a night you don’t really know Show Business America.”
He came back into the agency world with Universal Attractions, where he represented Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Johnny Taylor and, of course, Berry and Little Richard. “Television – now, I’m talking early ’50s – television is a white-bread industry,” he told Pollstar. “They’re looking to please a middle-America audience, and R&B acts and jazz acts, which is a fringe part of both show business and the audience’s preference, were not favorites. There’s also a great resistance, always, in those days to black artists on TV.Unless it was someone like a Steve Allen who was a music nut, it was very, very difficult. The only black artists they really wanted were Sammy Davis or Harry Belafonte or Nat Cole. But the Fats Dominos or Ray Charles? They were not looked upon with favor by the advertising agencies.”
He and Jack Bart eventually bought out Universal Attractions. “We had James (Brown), of course, and Joe Tex and Solomon Burke. It was still hard work; it was mainly black acts for black audiences. And I just decided I wanted to try something else. One of the things I did at Universal was I put together some of those big touring packages… rotate our headliners – Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex – and these would be eight- and 10-act shows, going on the road for 30, 40, 60 days. This was hard work,” he said.
On the road, Alen was described as instrumental in setting up the bookings that had the nascent Rolling Stones opening for Berry and the Beatles doing the same for their idol Little Richard.
Moving to the William Morris Agency’s Beverly Hills office in 1971, he also helped open the agency’s London office. He helped spearhead its move into country with Charlie Rich and the Oak Ridge Boys as well as Williams, and into CCM with Sandi Patty.
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