Ornetta Barber, the first African-American female marketing executive at Warner Elektra Atlantic Corp. (WEA), died of metastatic cancer on April 3 in Los Angeles. She was 71.
“Ornetta was a woman with brains, beauty, kindness and a smile that would light up the world,” Epic Records chairman/CEO Sylvia Rhone posted on Facebook. “She never displayed anything but positivity. I remember the day that she started at WEA and continued on to be the highest-ranking black woman there—a true trailblazer.”
In another post on Barber’s Facebook page, Linda Moran, president of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, added, “Ornetta was one of the most beautiful souls I have ever known in my life. We all truly are better people having known her. Her warm, generous spirit will be missed tremendously.”
Originally from St. Louis, Barber moved to Los Angeles and attended California State College. In 1977, she applied for a job as a Warner Communications management trainee and was one of nine chosen from 1,000 applicants. After completing the trainee program, Barber joined Elektra Records in 1978 as a chart and store report coordinator. She advanced to senior director of national marketing research in 1983.
Barber was named director of black music marketing at WEA in 1986, becoming the first female executive in that position. Rising through the ranks, she was promoted to vp in 1987. Along the way, she implemented marketing campaigns and worked with the labels’ creative departments in developing merchandising materials and promotional ideas for their artists.
Dubbed “The Gladiators,” Barber and her marketing team worked with seven WEA branch offices and received numerous awards for their creativity. During her career, Barber handled campaigns for Quincy Jones, Prince, The Cars, The Eagles, Chaka Khan, En Vogue, Linda Ronstadt, Grover Washington Jr., Miles Davis, LeVert and Al Jarreau, among many others. Barber is also credited with paving the way for more women of color to hold executive positions in sales and marketing in the music industry.
After leaving WEA in 2001, Barber consulted for Hidden Beach Records between 2001-2003. She ended a brief retirement to become marketing consultant for Bobby Wilkerson Productions from 2010-2015. Barber fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2016 as host of her own weekly online radio show, SoulTracks of Our Lives. Listeners were treated to a mixture of popular and obscure songs, alongside inside information about the song or the artist gleaned from her personal industry experiences.
Barber beat cancer in 2012, but it aggressively returned in 2016. During that battle, she became as fierce a warrior for her health as she was for black music and its artists, women’s rights and social justice.
Barber is survived by her husband Bobby Wilkerson, a producer and musical director in Los Angeles, and aunt and uncle, numerous nieces, nephews and godchildren and countless friends. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.