KSU professor Eugene Shelton on working with Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and more

words and photos by Akii Butler

Imagine getting the chance to work with some of your favorite artists. And not just your favorite artists but everyone’s favorite artists, like Diana Ross and Tevin Campbell.

That is exactly what Kent State professor Eugene Shelton spent his career doing.

“It was something that I did not plan on doing,” says Professor Shelton. “When I moved to Los Angeles, unemployed, my goal was to get a job at a newspaper, because at that point in my career, after graduating from Kent, that’s all I did.”

After graduating in 1972, Professor Shelton worked as a reporter for the Cleveland Press as well as the host of the show Here It Is, a public affairs program on WKYC-TV, Cleveland’s NBC affiliate.

After a few years, however, he packed up and left.

Although he was expecting to write for the Los Angeles Times or the Herald-Examiner, that is not what happened.

“I went to an appointment at the Los Angeles Times and they basically told me, ‘You don’t know this industry; you’re gonna have to do some freelancing,’” says Professor Shelton.

Shelton would go on to freelance for a magazine called Soul, which was comparable to Rolling Stone but for black artists and black music. Soul’s publisher would go on to suggest that Shelton work for Motown Records. One call from Regina Jones, the publisher of Soul, to Motown’s director of publicity, Bob Jones, and the rest was history.

The first artist Shelton worked with was Rick James. Shelton would afterward go on to travel the world and work as a writer and publicist for dozens of artists.

“I think the artist that I embraced the most and I treasure having crossed paths [with] in this life was Curtis Mayfield,” says professor Shelton. “He was a quadriplegic and I learned so much from him. I stopped complaining about life because of Curtis Mayfield because, even though he was a quadriplegic… His attitude was always positive.”

Prof. Shelton had a long and exciting career. He was behind the media profiles of artists such as Jackson and Richie; The Jacksons; Jermaine Jackson; Prince; Miles Davis; Ray Charles; Stevie Wonder; Marvin Gaye; Seal; Michael McDonald; Smokey Robinson; Gladys Knight; The Four Tops; The Temptations; Luther Vandross; Patti LaBelle; Earth, Wind and Fire; El DeBarge and many more.

When you walk into his office at Kent State University, it’s decorated with platinum and gold plaques for his work with Tevin Campbell, Karyn White, Ice T, girl group Jade and others. Shelton has photos of himself and his family with Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick and the guys from Dukes of Hazzard.

Instead of a plaque for his work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Shelton has a poster. He claims he left the plaque with a friend, but his friend claims to have never received it, Shelton says.

As he explains it, the plaques in his office are just the “creme de la creme.”

“There are plaques in my apartment, the ex-wife has some that she gave away, and there is even more,” he exclaims.

After two runs with Motown and a run at CBS, Professor Shelton started his own PR firm, an experience he says was excellent. “I just didn’t like… the responsibility of paying people,” Shelton says. “But the advantage of it was, I didn’t have to wake up in the morning, I could just work in the house all day if I wanted to.”

Professor Shelton worked as Gladys Knight’s publicist for quite some time before his sons convinced him to move back to Ohio.

“Much like I did with LA, with no job lined up or anything, I packed my things up and moved back to Ohio,” he says.

When he returned, he picked up a copy of Cleveland Scene and saw Kent State University advertising an open house for grad school. There, he met Dr. Melanie Baker, who was close friends with his sister. He became her graduate assistant.

It was a decision he felt it was time to make.

“Back in 1973, I applied and was accepted into the grad program at the University of Wisconsin to start the 1974 school year, and not only was I accepted, I was given a full fellowship,” Professor Shelton says. “I attempted to do my thesis on free press for the trial of the Joan Little case. But before I could finish, I moved to LA and everything had taken off.”

For Professor Shelton, everything came full circle. He completed a Master’s degree at Kent State University and has been teaching there ever since.

Akii Butler is a 2019 graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism & Mass Communication.