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I.B. BAD GOES DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, PART 1

As we approach the 30th anniversary of HITS, which will culminate this summer with a special issue commemorating the milestone, I.B. Bad will look back on key chapters in music-biz history. What follows is part one of the first episode of the series.

DEEP PURPLE

Signed in 1977, Prince was the archetypal new & developing artist of an earlier era, while Warner Bros. Records, which gave the 18-year-old an unprecedented three-albums-firm deal, drew up the blueprint for patient, nurturing artist development. The company was in the business of locating potential career artists, committing all of its resources to their artistic and commercial maturation and deftly applying pressure until

the breakthrough came. In the best-case scenario—and Prince is a shining example—stardom followed.

Between the early ’60s and the mid-’90s, under legendary record man Mo Ostin, a leader of rarefied sagacity and leadership skills, no company was more successful at artist development—or operated with more sophistication—than Warners. Artists wanted to be there, as did executives.

It wasn’t easy to get a job at the company, because its standards were extremely high, but if you were fortunate enough to be hired, you had a job for life, or so it seemed.

IN THE BEGINNING

Warner/Reprise was the baby of the WEA labels; Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler launched Atlantic in 1947, while Jac Holzman founded Elektra with his friend Paul Rickolt in 1950. Warner Bros. Records was formed in 1958 by Jack Warner’s Warner Bros. Pictures, with ex-Capitol exec Jim Conkling as its top exec and teen star Tab Hunter as its flagship act. In 1960, WB notched its first #1 single, the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” and #1 album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. That same year, Mike Maitland replaced Conkling and hired Boston DJ Joe Smith as head of promotion.

Mo Ostin entered the picture in 1961, moving from his gig as Controller of Norman Granz’s Verve Records to the helm of Frank Sinatra’s WB-distribbed Reprise label after Ol’ Blue Eyes left Capitol. Initially, Sinatra signed his Rat Pack pals including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as contemporaries like Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Lou Monte and Redd Foxx, putting Reprise and its President at a disadvantage in competing with labels that were loading up their rosters with younger rock and R&B acts. Frank—whose nickname “Chairman of the Board” derived from his active role at the label—famously despised rock & roll and continually denied Mo’s entreaties to back off from his edict.

That changed in 1963, when Sinatra, fed up with Reprise’s anemic sales, sold the label to Warner Bros. Pictures for $1.5m, while Sinatra was given the rights to all of his masters plus a 33% share of the combined Warner Reprise. The sweetening came out of Jack Warner’s desire to entice Frank to make movies and consult for WB.

In the half decade since its founding, Warner Bros. Records had gradually caught up with the times, putting out hit records by Trini Lopez, Peter, Paul & Mary and comic Allan Sherman. Maitland was in- stalled as the chief exec of the merged Warner/Reprise, with Ostin second in command and the personable Smith heading national promotion and becoming the de facto face of the company to the industry. While the old-school Maitland served as a figurehead, Ostin—described by author/archivist Barney Hoskyns in his book Hotel California as “a bean-counter with soul”—began making the creative decisions in tandem with Smith and young A&R exec and staff producer Lenny Waronker, the son of Liberty Records co-founder Si Waronker (the grandfather of present-day Interscope Vice Chairman Steve Berman). Together, Mo, Joe and Lenny transformed Warner/Reprise, signing and having success with such acts as The Kinks, Petula Clark, Harper’s Bizarre and The Association, followed by The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac and Alice Cooper.

In the midst of this artistic and commercial coming of age at Warner/Reprise, Ray Stark and Eliot Hyman’s Seven Arts bought Jack Warner’s controlling interest in Warner Bros. for $32 million and paid $17.5m for Atlantic; the newco was renamed Warner-Seven Arts. At the time, 1967, Atlantic was in the midst of its own magical era, with artists such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, The Rascals, The Bee Gees, Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Sam & Dave, Bobby Darin, Booker T. & the MG’s and The Bar-Kays. The planets lined up two years later, in 1969, with the $400m acquisition of Warner-Seven Arts by Kinney Corp., whose CEO, Steve Ross, turned out to be one of the most enlightened entertainment moguls in history. A year later, Kinney picked up Elektra for $10m, bringing The Doors, Bread, The MC5, Nico, Carly Simon and The Stooges into the now-complete Warner Elektra Atlantic—WEA for short.

“We got the break of our lives,” Joe Smith told Hoskyns. “Steve Ross believed that the management of creative companies was the key. The artists will come and the artists will go, but Mo and Joe and Ahmet and Jerry will be there. He just let us do it.”

GOLDEN YEARS

It was also in 1970 that Ostin replaced Maitland as head of Warner/Reprise, with Smith as his #2 and Waronker overseeing A&R. By that time, Warner/Reprise’s Mo & Joe Show, in partnership with Waronker, had created a distinct culture characterized by wall-to-wall creativity, an artist-first mentality and impeccable taste in the building of its roster, putting the company at the very center of rock’s golden era. 

TEAMWORK

Their supporting cast of Stan Cornyn, Eddie Rosenblatt, Bob Regehr, Russ Thyret, Bob Krasnow, Murray Gitlin and Dave Berman, followed by Steven Baker, Rich Fitzgerald, Bob Merlis, Howie Klein, Jeff Gold, Stu Cohen, Karin Berg, Jeff Ayeroff and Michael Ostin, among others, comprised a formidable executive ensemble. So did the company’s stable of A-list staff producers, including Waronker, Russ Titlelman, Ted Templeman, Tommy LiPuma, Steve Barri and Gary Katz. All were canny talent scouts, as were the heads of Warner’s distributed labels and joint ventures, Phil Walden (Capricorn), Albert Grossman (Bearsville), Herb Cohen (Bizarre/Straight), Chris Blackwell (Island), Chris Wright and Terry Ellis (Chrysalis), Seymour Stein (Sire), Quincy Jones (Qwest) and David Geffen (Geffen). Collectively, it was a mind-blowing supernova of A&R sources, unprecedented at the time and never subsequently rivaled. Among the bands and artists they brought into the fold, aside from those previously mentioned, were James Taylor, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, America, The Doobie Brothers, Ry Cooder, Lowell George’s Little Feat, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, along with later signees The Ramones, Talking Heads, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Sex Pistols, Devo, George Harrison, Dire Straits, Van Halen, Prince, The Who, Donald Fagen, R.E.M., Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

 In every respect, Warners fielded the most individually talented and well-coordinated team on the West Coast from the late ‘60s through the ‘80s. No other L.A. label could compete, apart from Moss and Alpert’s classy but smaller A&M and Holzman’s Elektra—which, under the guidance of Geffen, Smith (who switched labels within the renamed Warner Communications Inc. in ‘75) and Krasnow (who made the move in ’83), gave off a WB-like vibe, but on a lesser scale.

The rivalries extended to the East Coast. When CBSWalter Yetnikoff stole James Taylor in 1977, Ostin retaliated by stealing Paul Simon—signaling that the boys from Burbank were ready, willing and able to challenge the behemoth at Black Rock for worldwide supremacy.

On the other side of the negotiating table were the top managers of the era—Geffen, Elliot Roberts, Azoff, Howard Kaufman, Shep Gordon, Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, Bill Graham, Peter Rudge, Dee Anthony, Don Arden and Robert Stigwood, among others—every one of them an entrepreneur. These guys played a huge role during the glory days, in large part because they were among the most astute talent scouts in the business—after all, they brought the acts to the labels. The important managers loved confrontation; Mo and Joe held the whip and the chair whenever they went to the mat with this roiling cauldron of aggression, ambition and ego.

 

 

First and third photos courtesy Warner Bros. Records Archives

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