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The Man with the Golden Ear: Don Kirshner, 1934-2011

Don Kirshner, who has died aged 76, was a giant figure in the history of American music. In 1982, the late Greg Shaw chronicled the role he played in Brill Building pop from Carole King to the Archies--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Pop from the production line; that seemed to be the story of the late Fifties and early Sixties. But the production line does not inevitably come out with trash. Philadelphia's teen idols are often criticised, but on the West Coast Phil Spector's hit factory produced a string of classic records. And in New York, firms like Aldon Music proved that Tin Pan Alley traditions could be fitted to rock without disastrous results.

The success of New York-based rock in the early Sixties -the music often called Brill Building pop after the name of the edifice which housed the offices of so many of the people involved - owed much to the interaction of two forces. The first was the sheer talent of the young New Yorkers - Neil Sedaka, Ellie Greenwich, Carole King, Barry Mann - who provided the raw material in the hundreds of songs they wrote. The second force was the energy of the man who put so much of this raw talent to use: for without Don Kirshner, this whole style of rock music might never have happened.

To millions of Americans, Don Kirshner became best known as the unctuous host of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, a syndicated late-night TV fixture from 1972 onwards. Maybe some of them wondered how this unprepossessing, fiftyish man came to be such a titan of pop music; Dick Clark's story they knew, but where did this Kirshner guy come from?

Only a few, the kind of people who like reading the small print on old record labels, recognised Kirshner as a pioneering publisher who brought the Tin Pan Alley approach to rock 'n' roll in the late Fifties and in a few short years helped launch the careers of Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Bobby Darin, Tony Orlando and the Monkees.

But the real importance of Don Kirshner goes much deeper; after all, most people who have been in the musical business 25 years can claim to have discovered a few major talents. What Kirshner did is a lot more impressive: he almost single-handedly reshaped rock 'n' roll, taking a rude music of the streets that was foundering after an initial explosive heyday, applying for the first time high standards of craft and professionalism, and moulding it into a pop industry of greater size, complexity, efficiency and profitability than ever before. And at the same time he contributed mightily to America's musical heritage.

The story of Don Kirshner is very much the story of pop in the early Sixties. But the empire he built was more the result of many years of smart business moves guided by a real knack for recognizing good songs than any grand vision on his part. The story began in 1957. Kirshner, then 22, had given up his dream of playing pro basketball and decided to turn an intense love of music into a songwriting career. He was just another Jewish kid from the Bronx peddling lyrics door to door, getting nowhere. Then he met a fellow down-and-out songster, Robert Cassotto, and it was the beginning of a new life.

"Bobby was cleaning latrines at the time," Kirshner recalled. "He played me a few songs and I couldn't believe how talented he was. So I said to him, let's team up and we'll be the biggest songwriting team in the business. We went from office to office and nothing happened. But I was sure I knew as much about music as those guys sitting behind the desks. I just didn't have the chance to do anything about it."

The big break came via Al Nevins, former guitarist with the Three Suns and an aspiring publisher. He took a liking to Kirshner and they decided to form their own company, Aldon Music, opening offices at 1650 Broadway - directly across the street from 1619, better known as the Brill Building. At the time in New York the whole music industry operated out of hole-in-the-wall offices along a few blocks of Broadway, and it was a buzzing little community. In the heat of a booming business, writers and singers swarmed like determined little bees from office to office, building to building, hoping to strike gold, and in the process effecting a kind of cross-fertilisation of ideas, personalities and infectious energy.

Enter Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield. After two years of writing songs together they'd seen a lot of promises and no action. Making the rounds, they ran into Kirshner and he thought they had something. He offered to sign them up, but they'd heard that too many times. "You deliver a hit record - on the charts - and we'll sign," Greenfield remembers telling him.

In those days you had to hustle or get left behind. Kirshner thought fast. He had a connection to Connie Francis, just coming off her second big hit, so he took her 'Stupid Cupid', a catchy little ditty from the pair's portfolio. She recorded it, and in July 1958 it entered the Top Twenty. True to their word, Sedaka and Greenfield signed long-term contracts with Aldon and became the basis of the expansion of Kirshner's business, which now occurred at a dizzying pace.

Sedaka himself struck Kirshner as having a decent voice and, as the author of a big hit, was signed as a singer to RCA. He struck the charts in December with 'The Diary', the first of 20 hits in a row. Meanwhile the former Robert Cassotto, now dubbed Bobby Darin, had been placed by Kirshner with Atlantic, and in July had had a Number 3 hit with 'Splish Splash'.

With Sedaka and Darin riding high, Kirshner was hot, but only one of many young hotshots on the rise. His goal of building a major publishing firm required that he enlarge his stable of talent. Although he was now able to attract many good writers, not all were willing to meet his condition: an exclusive six-year contract before he would touch any of their songs. Explained Kirshner: "It's not worth my time and effort to make somebody an important writer and not have an exclusive deal with them. It would be foolish for me to take a Bob Dylan or a Laura Nyro, get them two hits and have them walk away and open up their own publishing company."

The fact that he was able to turn unknowns into important writers had a lot to do with Kirshner's ability to spot potential genius. At a time when masses of schlock songs were being placed with A&R men who desperately needed fodder for their ranks of budding teen idols, when any old lyric about high school or pony tails was good enough to get a pretty face in the charts, Kirshner held out for quality. He was able to find it, too, partly because his judgement was good but largely because songwriting was the game that all the best people were getting into.

In the late Fifties and early Sixties there were so many rock 'n' roll groups and would-be teen singing stars, all needing songs and working for a small number of record labels whose job it was to provide them, that the competition for good songs was intense. Soon, some of these aspiring singers who wrote their own material came to realise they'd be better off selling their songs to already-established artists while waiting their turn at the mike, meanwhile building up industry contacts that might someday lead them where they really wanted to go. And as songwriters they were often able to record their own tunes as demos, which occasionally got released.

Kirshner's idea was to spot the most talented of these young writers, bring them into his stable, guide and develop them into consistent deliverers of hits, and use his own clout to place the songs with top-rank artists.

Sedaka (who tended) to be the best interpreter of his own material), had been the breakthrough, but it was Kirshner's next discovery that enabled him to get his hit factory going full-steam. Carole King, a friend of Sedaka's from their old neighbourhood in New York, was just another young singer whose plain looks and rather appalling material (things like 'Queen of the Beach') had held her back despite a couple of years around the business and a recording deal with ABC-Paramount. But Kirshner heard her answer to Sedaka's 'Oh Carol' - 'Oh Neil', on Alpine Records - and liked it.

He spent the next few months working with Carole and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin, and when he was done they were ready to begin cranking out strong, commercial pop songs by the truckload. During the next five years the duo would hit the charts with some 200 songs, an incredible accomplishment, and all the more impressive when one considers how many future standards and just plain great songs were among them.

Of course there were a few clinkers, and some hits like 'Her Royal Majesty' that they'd no doubt sooner forget. But at their best, Goffin and King wrote classic pop songs of a very high calibre. Kirshner now had a standard by which Aldon's other writers could be measured.

By November 1960, when Goffin and King were heading for their first Number 1 hit with 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' by the Shirelles, Kirshner's next star team was already in the wings. Barry Mann was typical of the frustrated singer who turned to songwriting as an outlet. Since 1959 he'd been making obscure records, at the same time penning hits for other artists - 'She Say (Oom Dooby Doom)' by the Diamonds was his first, a Number 18 in February 1959. By 1960 he was at Aldon, writing with Larry Kobler, Howie Greenfield and whoever else happened to be around.

Krishner must have spotted his potential early, and kept him around as the hits began to come. In August of 1961, Mann reached Number 7 with his own recording of 'Who Put the Bomp?', a satirical song that has become a classic oldie. The same month he was at Number 15 with 'Bless You' by Tony Orlando (another Aldon discovery whose demos for Bobby Vee and others were now being recognized as worthy of release in their own right). This was a significant song because it marked Mann's first successful collaboration with Cynthia Weil, another young talent being developed by Aldon.

Incidental or not, Kirshner's role as Cupid brought together one of the best and most prolific songwriting teams of the Sixties, and one that has endured to the present. Next to Goffin and King, they racked up more hits for Aldon than any other team, and added an element of humour, honesty and social commentary that was lacking in most of the other staff writers. Mann and Weil kept Aldon up to date with the changing world and made their songs popular with groups like the Animals, Raiders, Turtles, Righteous Brothers, and Phil Spector, who co-wrote some of his best records with them.

"I don't think the rest of them quite understood us," mused Mann, years later. "The difference between us and, say, Neil Sedaka... well, you really can't even compare the two styles." Mann also recalled the frenzied working conditions at Aldon. "It was insane. Cynthia and I would be in this tiny cubicle, about the size of a closet, with just a piano and a chair, no window or anything. We'd go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole and Gerry would be doing the same thing, and in the next room after that, Neil or somebody else. Sometimes when we all got to banging on our pianos you couldn't tell who was playing what. Kirshner was like a father figure to us all. Everyone's first thought, as we sweated over our battered old pianos, was whether Donny would be pleased. I suppose the competition, and the pressure, brought out the best in us."

There must have been a lot of pressure. But Kirshner managed a unique balancing act. As he placed his stable's songs with topline artists, so more talent wanted to join him. Thus, by 1962 his stable had broadened to include new writers like Neil Diamond, Toni Wine, Kenny Karen, Gary Sherman, and others whose names are now forgotten, although it was still the three teams who delivered the bulk of the hits.

In 1962 Kirchner was unstoppable. He launched Dimension Records, on which Goffin and King wrote, arranged and produced a string of hits with the Cookies, Little Eva, and Carole herself. After less than a year the label was sold, along with Aldon, for several million dollars to Screen Gems, while Kirshner was put in charge of the whole show. This move gave him a West Coast stable - including people like producer Lou Adler, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, David Gates, Harry Nilsson, and a young piano man named Jerry Moss - and the Colpix label whose roster included many TV and film personalities like Paul Peterson, Shelley Fabares and James Darren.

He made best use of this new opportunity, flooding the charts with songs by his enlarged team of writers and more in-house records. But the best thing about his new position was the access he now had to Hollywood. And the folks at Screen Gems were thinking along the same lines.

"There was a television show that was given to me to put together. They called me up and said, we have four kids who are primarily actors that we want to build a musical hit show and simultaneous hit records around - go make a miracle."

Kirshner gave them their miracle. The four actors were whipped into shape and appeared on television screens and in the record shops as, of course, the Monkees. In addition to providing a lucrative outlet for lots of songs by Goffin and King, Boyce and Hart, and Neil Diamond, the Monkees showed Kirshner how much more could be done with the help of TV's captive audience of tens of millions.

From there it was an obvious move to repeat the success, this time without any troublesome actors. The Archies was Kirshner's own concept and, following the same formula, he made 'Sugar, Sugar' the largest selling single in RCA history. Now thoroughly hooked on the power of the tube, Kirshner was active in network rock programming by 1972, and although his songwriting mill had fallen apart in 1966 (due to his star teams breaking up, moving to California, and going on their own careers), Kirshner kept developing new writers, placing songs, and all the other things he knew best how to do, while diversifying madly. In the early Seventies, Kirshner Records found a chart act on their hands in the adult oriented rock band Kansas, and with all that and his weekly TV show, Don Kirshner has never needed to look back.

His success, ultimately, was that of a whole era and of a wide group of people who looked to him for inspiration and to do the wheeling and dealing while they wrote the songs. But of course there were many songwriters (some of whom actually worked in the Brill Building) who also contributed to the era without being part of the Aldon empire - Jeff Berry and Ellie Greenwich, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, and the brilliant Bert Berns (aka Burt Russell) - not to mention Phil Spector, who plucked out New York's most talented writers with whom he wrote his masterpieces.

The New York songmills arose at a time when producers like Spector were able to take a good song and build a little gem of a recording around it, using controlled studio conditions, session musicians, and singers who were interchangeable and, in the end, disposable. With the Beatles in 1964 came a world in which the artists wrote their own material and, increasingly, controlled their own destinies. Yet, though it couldn't have lasted, the authoritarian industry of the early Sixties left its mark in hundreds of wonderful songs, the product of a discipline which has seemed to be lacking in the years since then.

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