E’lyse Murray, The Agent to the Stars (R. O. C. U.) Women’s history month salute
By Liam Klenk
E’lyse Murray is the owner and manager of the boutique entertainment agency Elyse Group 7. This is another article in a series in which we highlight members of Roadies of Color United (R. O. C. U.). E’lyse Murray has more than three decades of experience in the music entertainment industry, in producing events, and in artist administration. In this interview she tells us about her work, her passion, and about not giving up no matter what obstacles you may find on your way.
This is a great time for people in the music industry. While we are greatly being affected by the Covid19 pandemic, the current difficulties also remind us to be creative and think outside the box.
Please let me emphasize that this interview is dedicated to honouring Women’s History Month by recognizing the shoulders I stand on. It is dedicated to those who’ve paved the way for women like me.
I was born in the Northeast Bronx and raised by a single parent family.
My mom introduced me to entertainment by always having music in our home: Jazz, African Instruments, Modern Jazz, Calypso, Salsa, R&B, Crossover Pop & Funk etc.
My mom is an African American Southern woman, my dad is from Trinidad Tobago, West Indies.
When I was little, you can say I was being trained to be my mom’s Beyoncé. I went to dance school, performed on Broadway, as well as off Broadway plays.
Growing up, I was a rap artist as well. My brother and I and three others were the Famous MCs. We toured and the group made it all the way to Radio City Music Hall.
From there, I was asked to play the lead role in videos from Chubb Rock, Charlie Singleton (Cameo’s former guitar player), Chain Gang, and several others.
Then, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who told me there was a position at General Talent International, a booking agency… They had some of the biggest artists. Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, etc. They had the biggest of the biggest.
I was a huge fan of Diahann Carroll.
When I was a little girl, I watched a night soap opera called Dynasty. There was a scene in which Diahann Carroll’s character wore a black & white pinstriped suit.
There I was, a little black girl. Just sprouting in the entertainment business and I was awed by her class and sophistication. So, years later, when I went to try my luck at General Talent International, I said, “Yes, that’s the outfit I’ll wear for my interview.”
I sat in the waiting room. Four hours went by. They did not realize their phones kept ringing and no one was there to answer them.
So, I thought, “Why should I just sit here? I can answer those phones.”
The next seven hours, I took over and answered the phones.
Eventually, they realized there was a woman they had never seen before answering their phones. And asked, “Who are you?”
I said, “I had an interview with Norby Walters eight hours ago and I figured I’ll answer those phones. This job is for me.”
That’s how I began working for them. It lasted only three months, though. The partners separated and formed a new company. They asked me to be a part of the new firm, called Entertainment Complex International.
I said to the CEO, “We need to call the company Pyramid Entertainment Group.” I explained why, talked about pyramids, the strength in numbers, etc.
With them, I started as receptionist and office manager. Then went on to become junior agent, agent, vice president, and partner.
I gave them seventeen years of my life. I could have had children, a family, but I decided to be a career woman.
When the CEO made me partner of the company which, essentially, I had named, it was featured in Black Enterprise Magazine, Amusement Business, Billboard Performance, and Pollstar Magazine.
All through being vice president, I went through this military training through the CEO as to how to build up and maintain your numbers. I would travel all over the world to take care of our artists. We were a boutique agency and very hands-on.
And I had to convince black promoters they had someone they can trust.
The CEO’s position was to protect the house. Cover the artists. And be out there. Accessible.
I went out on the road and made sure the promoter’s promotion was right from the bottom up. I checked the marketing plan, sales, and how much the promoter was on the streets to actually promote. Was he on radio TV? How were his ads? Etc.
From there, I went on the road with the Isley brothers, Cherrelle, Cameo… From time to time it might have been also Gladys Knight and Freddie Jackson.
Sometimes, I was asked to work as a tour manager or as a road manager. To take care of the numbers, salaries, and per diems. And to make sure the artist got from his home to the airport, to the hotel, to the gig for soundcheck, back to the hotel, back to the gig, then back to the hotel again.
At that time, I was one of only about 4 African American managers who were taking care of bookings. It was great to see there were at least a few of us. But I wanted to see more.
Other than taking care of artists on the road, I also assisted in developing festivals, e.g., the Jazz in the Gardens festival, and many others over the years.
Work was a continuous stream of high-speed activity and I managed it all.
Then, I began developing a fever which just wouldn’t go away. I was walking around with a temperature of 108, 109, 99, 109, 94… it was going up and down. This went on all summer of 2005. I kept ignoring it. Because, when you are an African American woman, and you are pressured to produce a minimum of 1.2 million in sales, you couldn’t just stop. I had a record of 3.2 / 3.4 million.
The fact is: You are your last hit. You can’t say, “I am sick.” You have to produce.
While I struggled with these health problems, I also noticed my artists didn’t get the level of opportunities they should rightfully receive.
I tried to support the artists I represent by any means necessary. So, I wrote to quite a few institutions. I even wrote to the Grammys and asked, how can we honour certain bands yet not others?
I just kept moving. Doing the unthinkable, the unheard of, the impossible. I was the activist writing to the heads of huge institutions, saying you are overlooking this group vs that group, vs this group.
They were putting together the Apollo Legend Award. And I said we have to integrate some of these black music legends that have made an impact over the years.
Because of my activism, I wound up with a Grammy when the artists received one. All in all, I wound up with four awards because of being a dedicated activist for the groups I represented.
I was always told, “E’lyse I don’t know how you do what you do. Your workload and engagements are amazing. We’re gonna honour you.”
I had four tours on the road. I was the agent to the stars. That means working seven days a week around the clock. It was to the point that I was in my office on the weekend where I had three different outfits to quickly change and wash up.
I had to keep pushing, because, essentially, I am a black woman in a white man’s club, in a black guy’s club.
In September 2005, I wound up in the hospital because my fever just would not go away. I stayed in the hospital until March 2006. It turned out I had SLE Lupus.
It is an auto-immune disease which can affect your kidney, brain, lungs, etc.
I asked God, “Why me?” and went into a depression. Basically, this meant I had to figure out all over again how to do what I do.
You have to maintain your dignity. You can’t appear weak. I wanted to keep doing what I had always been doing: making my way up the ladder due to hard work and competence.
My doctors told me, “You’re gonna have to switch careers.”
I was like, “What does that mean? I enjoy doing what I do. Being on the road. Being behind the scenes, on location managing organizing. I love what I do.” I was in denial.
Then, one day, my brother Ed said, “We’ll open your own agency.”
The Elyse Group 7 agency. A lot of artists came, joined me, and supported me.
The rest was history and I never looked back.
When my brother Eric passed away, it made me come forward. His death and me having a serious flare which put me in hospital twice made me become an advocate.
I became a local activist for the Lupus Foundation north-east region. And wound up being an ambassador for the Lupus Research Alliance, too. I ended up devoting over 4000 hours to the foundations.
A friend of mine submitted my name for the Lifetime Achievement Award during Barack Obama’s presidency. For lifelong commitment to building a stronger nation. For volunteering my time with the Lupus Foundation and the countless hours I put in.
That blew me away.
We are impacted by the wins and losses, journeys and bumps we encounter on our road.
Since then, I have just been going with Cameo and Cherrelle. All of the artists I want to work with.
I am still advocating for Lupus because I believe that you should come out and you should speak up. I am doing it in a way so my dignity is still protected. Someone needs to be a voice. But I can’t appear as if I can’t produce. I need to keep going strong.