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IN PRAISE OF THE RECORD MAN

Come fly with me: Cornyn, Russ Thyret, Joe Smith, Chrysalis' Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, Mo Ostin

The recent passings of Stan Cornyn and Bruce Lundvall brought back a flood of memories, because, in very different ways, these two legends exemplified the golden age of the record business. Each exuded class, and each in his own way was a quintessential record man. California native Cornyn was the witty voice of Warner Bros. Records, the hip, artist-friendly, nontraditional West Coast label, whose earliest hits were comedy records. New Yorker Lundvall was the kindest, gentlest representation of CBS Records, the archetypal major label, definitively East Coast, buttoned-down and by-the-numbers, its repertoire rooted in show tunes, MOR, big-band music and classical. It was the contributions of Lundvall and Cornyn that helped transform CBS and Warner Bros. into hotbeds of creativity, masterfully balancing art and commerce.  

The fact that these two companies were so different in their styles and cultures rendered their fierce ongoing competition all the more dramatic, as they wooed the top talent and battled for dominance in sales and airplay. It was the suits versus the sweaters, Black Rock on Sixth Ave. versus the ski lodge in Burbank, uptight versus laidback. CBS was run by a succession of New York lawyers—Clive Davis, Walter Yetnikoff and Dick Asher. WB’s top tier was occupied by forward-thinking patrons of artistry in accountant turned mogul Mo Ostin, raconteur Joe Smith and second-generation bizzer/gifted producer/A&R man Lenny Waronker.

The long-smoldering rivalry between the two labels came to a head in 1977 when Yetnikoff signed away James Taylor from Warner (“steal” was Ostin’s term for the move) for a $2.5 million advance and a $1 million advance per album. The score was evened when Ostin brought Paul Simon to WB with a guarantee of $13 million despite Yetnikoff’s efforts to overturn the deal. (These details can be found in Marc Eliot’s Paul Simon: A Life.)

Yetnikoff (r), with Lundvall, displays his prize, James Taylor; a photo of Paul Simon is displayed on the wall behind them. 
 
 

Typically, Warner made deals with artists, and CBS made deals with businessmen and entrepreneurs, but both strategies paid off handsomely, because the decision makers, college grads and high school dropouts alike, shared certain traits, having cut their teeth as songpluggers, schleppers and hit chasers. They knew how to get their records in the stores and how to get them played. They came up through the ranks, whether corporately or through entrepreneurial endeavors. At their cores, they were all record men.

At the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment in the early ’60s, there were just two bona fide majors in the U.S., both based in Midtown Manhattan: CBS and its less successful rival RCA. Capitol, co-founded by Johnny Mercer in 1942 and bought by British company EMI in 1955, was the closest thing to a major on the West Coast—let’s call it a mini-major. The rest of the record-biz universe was made up of indies scattered around the country, specializing in particular genres, from doo-wop to bluegrass. But the biggest, most successful independent labels were in New York and L.A.

Ostin and Waronker (r) with WB artist and employee Van Dyke Parks and friends.

Among the top East Coast independent labels were R&B/jazz power Atlantic, led by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and later Doug Morris, and Jac Holzman’s folk-oriented Elektra. Their West Coast counterparts included Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert’s A&M, which parlayed a string of faux-Latin instrumental hits (played by Jewish musicians, no less) into an eclectic, world-class operation, and Frank Sinatra’s Reprise, initially an outlet for records from members of the Rat Pack, but springing to life after it was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1963, with Reprise veteran Ostin eventually
taking the reins. In the early ’70s, after Holzman had moved Elektra HQ to La Cienega Blvd., young dynamo David Geffen started Asylum, which immediately became a legitimate rival of WB and A&M for high-end West Coast talent, remaining so following its 1972 merger with Elektra under the umbrella of Steve RossWEA, the archetypal major music group.

What all of the above-named labels have in common is the elevated quality of the individuals who made them successful, label heads and specialists alike. As different as they were from each other, they were all class acts. They possessed intellect and grace, they could distinguish between what was real and what was bullshit, and they put the music first, because they understood that music was what their business was fundamentally and ultimately all about. These record men made the music business what it is today, and the values they lived by still apply, in large part because the two major music groups are run by a pair of individuals steeped in those values. Doug Morris and Lucian Grainge are the real deal—true record men, keeping the flame alive.

Letting bygones be bygones: Smith, Ostin, Clive Davis and Berry Gordy Jr. reminisce during T.J. Martell luncheon 
at L.A.'s Le Bistro in 1980.

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