The record and radio business has a lot of dark corners, once you go beyond the music that links them together. It can be cold and hard, cruel and unusual. There are fast talkers, thieves and criminals, who take and never give back, who abuse and destroy with reckless abandon. Then there are those gems who rise above all that's ugly in those industries and show a better way to be, a better way to behave, a better way to treat people. Mercyline 'Mike' Bernardo was one of those people.
Mike made her transition Wednesday evening and left a sea of crestfallen people in her wake. She was known as 'Momma' Mike to anyone who felt the embrace of her strong arms and gigantic heart. I met Mike when I was an overnight DJ at 1480 WCIN Cincinnati, Ohio in 1981. Mike was working for CBS Records, bringing Deniece Williams around to promote her latest album, 'My Melody'.
Mike and I struck up a conversation and when she found out I had never been to New York, she insisted that I make a trip up and she'd show me around. The capper was when she told me she'd introduce me to WBLS program director/announcer- legend, 'The Chief Rocker: Frankie Crocker". I thought she was kidding, but she called me a couple of weeks later to see if I made my arrangements.
I arrived in New York and spent a week running around town with Mike and a couple of her other 'adopted' sons, Steve Arrington (fresh from leaving the group Slave, embarking on a solo career) and entrepeneur/top flight good guy, Bill Underwood. I remember a lot of laughs, with Mike often laughing the loudest and the longest.
I also remember everytime I mentioned Crocker to someone Mike introduced me to, no matter who it was, that person was pissed at the Chief Rocker. I started to get nervous about meeting him, but Mike made it happen, and she had Frankie on his best behavior. She tended to get that out of people.
Mike always told me that I'd have a big career in radio, even when I didn't see it. She was the first record executive from 'the Big City' who didn't treat me like a Midwestern hick. She never wavered in her support and when ten years after she introduced me to Crocker, he and I were sitting on a dais in New York being roasted for the success of our individual careers, Mike was there.
(w/Frankie Crocker @ East Meets West Roast 1990)
Mike's kindness extended beyond the entertainment industry. She founded the 331 Foundation to bring hope and help to kids in crisis. Through a variety of events that she created, Mike was able to provide school supplies, clothes, dental screenings and love to children who otherwise would have had nothing.
The last time I saw Mike was at a midwestern radio conference in Chicago. I hadn't seen her in a long time and as you can see from the photo, we were both glad to see each other. She told me she'd been following my career and expected nothing less than the success that I enjoyed to that point. It meant a lot.
(with Mike in Chicago)
Mike loved music, so I offer as a salute a few songs that always call her to mind.
When she brought Deniece Williams to Cincinnati, Niecy was promoting her new single, 'Silly'.
Deniece Williams- Silly
Mike tried mightily to open my musical perspective, but with limited success. I was all about the music of the day, but she took me and my girlfriend, Karon Grant, to see Sarah Vaughn in concert. I tried to resist, but Mike wasn't having it. It was a great show, but I really didn't appreciate 'Sassy' until years later. I'm grateful that Mike exposed me to Ms. Vaughn, even if I wasn't ready at the time.
Sarah Vaughn- Misty
After the success of 'Off the Wall', I knew that Michael Jackson was a major solo talent, but it had gotten pretty quiet since the release of that landmark album. I bugged Mike every few weeks about what was going on with Michael's next album. One day, an unlabeled cassette appeared, with the home demo of 'Billie Jean', months before Thriller was completed. Mike could have gotten fired for sending it to me, but she knew it would mean alot to me, so she did it anyway. It ultimately surfaced officially on the 25th anniversary release of 'Thriller'.
Michael Jackson- Billie Jean home demo
While running around New York with Mike and Bill Underwood, who was managing Steve Arrington at the time, I had a chance to hear his first solo record, 'Way Out'. I remember that Crocker encouraged Steve to record a rap to insert in the song. Crocker was visionary, but he wasn't infallible. The rap was regrettable. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I couldn't find the rap version, so we're left with Steve's original party starter.
Steve Arrington- Way Out
Finally, a couple of samples of the Chief Rocker. Mike introducing me to Frankie Crocker was one of the most memorable times of my life. I wish I could find the polaroid that she took of the two of us that day. It was one for the ages.
Frankie Crocker aircheck
Frankie Crocker- The Evening Bath
Mike Bernardo gave a lot to so many people. It's sad to know that she's not here to receive the love and appreciation of the folks she left behind, but she was loved and adored while she was with us. Her good deeds and big heart will warm many a cold night. Much love to you, Mike.
For more on Mike Bernardo, visit The Official Mike Bernardo Fan Page.