When John Esposito came to Warner Records 13 years ago, the label was fairly moribund, and now it is a powerhouse.
He and his team have a big roster of contemporary hit-makers, including Cody Johnson, Kenny Chesney, Dan + Shay, Ashley McBryde, Blake Shelton, Breland, Cole Swindell, Gabby Barrett, Brett Eldredge, the Zac Brown Band and Ingrid Andress.
The ebullient Espo, as he is known throughout Music Row, also built a very special community, the folks who work at Warner Music Nashville.
The occasion of his transition to Chairman Emeritus led the label’s Shane Tarleton to organize a party on Wednesday evening (Dec. 14) at the Country Music Hall of Fame. A throng of celebrants attended.
The party people snacked on a smorgasbord of multiple cheeses, chilled vegetables, mixed nuts, bacon crostini, crackers, dips, assorted berries and mini chocolate cakes. A small stage was decorated with more than 40 lit pillar candles and a buffet table holding large E-S-P-O letters blazing with marquee-style lightbulbs rising from a display of white poinsettia.
The area directly in front of the stage was embellished with living-room arrangements of couches, coffee tables and upholstered chairs. The tall cocktail tables scattered in the Conservatory held tea lights nestled in hollow metal llama statuettes. It turns out that Espo is fascinated by llamas, partly because his family called him “llama lips” as a kid. You read it here first.
Schmoozing away were Kyle Lehning, Mary Ann McCready, Wes Vause, Clint Higham, Kenny Chesney, Lon Helton, Sarah Trahern, Kristen Williams, Rod Essig, Dan + Shay, Tony Conway, Chuck Aly, Holly Gleason, Ben Vaughn and Randy Travis.
Scott Hendricks took the stage to laud the outgoing label chief.
“Espo’s style of leadership is based out of love…and cheerleading,” Scott said. “He listened to everybody. He learned from everybody.” He recalled not knowing what to expect from Espo when the label boss was imported from New York. The first unreleased record that Scott played for the pop-music veteran was “Hillbilly Bone.” Espo didn’t balk. “He’s the biggest music lover I’ve ever met in my life,” Scott added. “It’s been my honor and my privilege to be on his team.”
One of Espo’s great gifts to Warner is that he trained his replacements. Incoming co-president Ben Kline told the honoree, “You have the longest shadow of anyone we know.” Ben added, “I’ve never met anyone who loves being around artists and creatives more than Espo does.”
Incoming co-president Cris Lacy recalled that her psychic in Virginia told her, “You’re going to get a new boss. His name starts with an E. He’s gonna be really good for the company and really good for you.” Cris lauded Espo by echoing the previous speakers: “I don’t know anyone who more fully absorbs music.”
Espo can also out-party anybody on his staff. If you try to keep up with him, you’ll be sucked into “The Espo Vortex,” as the staffers dubbed it.
Executive assistant Paula Eden said, “He always tells people that I’m the best babysitter he’s ever had. Well, he’s the best ‘baby’ I’ve ever had. I’ve gained an extension to my family.” She concluded by addressing Espo: “You’ve built an amazing legacy at Warner Nashville.”
Espo’s wife, Chantel Esposito, testified: “He wears his heart on his sleeve. You never have to wonder where he stands on something.”
WMN former Chief Operating Officer and longtime friend Matt Signore is Espo’s “life coach and wingman.” He described the honoree by saying, “He leads with his heart and soul, and his mind and body follow.” He saluted Espo with, “I’m looking forward to having this job as your friend for the rest of my life.”
“Through the years, we’ve built one helluva team, the best team in Nashville,” said Espo. “Look how it all worked out for all of us. Thank all of you for teaching me country music.
“It’s been a helluva ride.”