Timothy White’s fatal heart attack on Thursday June 27 leaves a tear not only in the fabric of Billboard, the music-industry publication he edited since 1991, but in music journalism. Led by his soul and his instincts, Timothy bucked the trend toward downsizing and simplified writing that over the past decade has turned almost every major American music publication into a purveyor of glib emptiness and fluffy personality journalism. Instead, he expanded Billboard from a magazine that seemed beholden to corporate powers into a home for artist- and issue-oriented in-depth reporting. Under his stewardship, Billboard ran major tributes to historically significant musicians, including Buddy Guy and George Harrison, and thoughtful feature packages that took major labels to task for their ineptitude in addressing music downloading and analyzed the impact of corporate-radio consolidation on artistic creativity and access.
It’s no surprise that the Beacon Hill resident brought a crusading sensibility to his post as Billboard’s editor-in-chief. When I first met him, in the mid ’80s, he was writing a piece on Fleetwood Mac for Musician, where I was an editor. His passions for music, musicians, and the craft of journalism were as obvious as a tidal wave. So were his warmth and his utter lack of cynicism.
By then he had already served as an editor at Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone, and as we got closer, he shared stories of his battles with Stone’s mercurial publisher, Jann Wenner. Two of those conflicts seemed to help chisel his resolve that his reporting should follow his heart. For years he had fought to profile the New Orleans piano genius Professor Longhair, believing that Longhair’s role in forming the sound of rock and roll deserved the kind of attention Rolling Stone could bring. He finally won his case, only to arrive in New Orleans and find Longhair had died. Then there was his bet with Wenner that he could persuade Frank Sinatra to sit down for an interview. Timothy lobbied Sinatra’s people long and hard, and when he finally got Sinatra’s consent, Wenner apparently had the deal killed to win their bet, a move that prompted Timothy’s resignation.
It was no surprise that he frequently championed underdog artists in his Billboard column "Music to My Ears." Born into a large, struggling family in Paterson, New Jersey, he could relate. And some of his earliest musical adventures were in the ghetto neighborhoods of Paterson, where he discovered and sought the sounds of Jamaican and underground African-American music. His early love of reggae would blossom into a friendship with the late Robert Nesta Marley, and that eventually led to his best-selling Catch a Fire. The book’s tone echoes the sense of high drama that surrounded Bob Marley’s life and music; along with Dave Marsh’s Who tome Before I Get Old it remains the template for excellence in rock-and-roll biographies.
Timothy’s work always included small revelations that were a result of the depth and commitment of his research and reporting. His Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews brims with them, as did the Fleetwood Mac feature that first brought us together. This story explored the rat’s nest of sexual and emotional relationships within the band in unprecedented detail, but as a way of explaining how it fed their music and created songs. Timothy also solved the mystery of what had happened to guitarist Peter Green, who led Fleetwood Mac through their earliest triumphs: he found Green living as a troubled hermit in rural England, known to nearby villagers as "The Wolf Man."
Although we’d kept in touch only by occasional notes these past few years, I vividly recall our last lunch together in a Copley Square restaurant. Timothy spoke of the great happiness he felt in his Billboard position, and in the love and presence of his wife, Judith Garlan, and their sons, Christopher and Alexander. He talked of savoring his rewards and of how the blue-collar æsthetic his humble beginnings provided had served him. He also said he felt compelled to push himself through his 40s. He believed that his strength and physical abilities were at their peak, but that 50 would be a turning point. And before aging set in, he wanted to use his energy to make his mark. That he did — and well.