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MO OSTIN,
1927-2022


Mo Ostin, a towering figure in record-business annals who led the storied Warner/Reprise label throughout its glory years, died on Sunday, 7/31, at the age of 95.

Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York City on March 27, 1927, Ostin attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and studied economics and law at UCLA. He entered the music business in the mid-1950s as controller of Norman Granz’s Clef Records, which was renamed Verve during his tenure. After Frank Sinatra tried to buy Verve, which was eventually sold to MGM Records, Sinatra formed his own Reprise label in 1960 and hired Ostin to head it. In 1963, Reprise merged with Warner Bros. The first rock act Ostin signed to Reprise was The Kinks. He signed Jimi Hendrix in 1967 after seeing him perform at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Universally viewed as an industry titan, Ostin led Warner/Reprise for nearly a third of a century. He spearheaded the acquisition of Jac Holzman’s Elektra label by Warner Communications, which led to the formation of WEA Corporation. In 1994 he founded and led DreamWorks Records, the music division of DreamWorks SKG. Ostin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and received the Recording Academy President's Merit Award at the 2006 Grammy Salute to Industry Icons.

Ostin kept a low profile in recent years, but he consented to speak to HITS at great length in 2016 and again the following year, his remarks excerpted as “Mo Speaks: Prince and the Duke,” “Mo Releases the Doves,” “More Sinatra Stories” and “A Mo-mentous Occasion.” Full Q&As linked below as they're posted.

“Mo was a great mentor," says Sir Lucian Grainge. "He lived by a set of values that taught me so much about business and how to be a leader and about life. My respect for him as both an executive and family man was total. His ‘nose’ for talent was the stuff of legend, but he was also an incredible connector of people, something sorely missed in the business—and the world—today. My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family."

"Mo Ostin was one of a kind," reads a quote from Clive Davis. "And the company he chaired was totally unique in its very special management and, of course, the depth of artistry that affected contemporary music and culture so profoundly and so historically. Yes, he and I competed with each other for many years, but my friendship with him extended to our respective families and I will always cherish our very close relationship.”

Warner execs issued the following statements: 

Tom Corson, Co-Chairman & COO, Warner Records & Aaron Bay-Schuck, Co-Chairman & CEO, Warner Records: “Legendary music executive Mo Ostin passed away peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 95. Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time and a prime architect of the modern music business. For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision. One of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Warner Music Group, in the 1960s Mo ushered Warner/Reprise Records into a golden era of revolutionary, culture-shifting artistry. Over his next three decades at the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him. Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry he helped create and by the countless artists and colleagues whom he inspired to be their best selves. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for everything he did and for his inspiring belief in our bright future. Our condolences go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Max Lousada, CEO, Warner Recorded Music: “In an era when creative entrepreneurs are revered, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a pioneer who wrote the rulebook for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records wouldn’t exist without his passion, vision and intelligence. He not only helped build one of the world’s greatest music companies, but he inspired a culture driven by bravery and ingenuity. Mo saw artists for who they really were and gave them the space and support to fully realize their originality. Our condolences to Michael and the whole Ostin family. Mo was a legend, and he will be deeply missed.”

An in-depth remembrance from Corson and Bay-Schuck follows:

Born in New York, Mo moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he attended Fairfax High School and UCLA. He began his music career at Verve Records before Frank Sinatra hired him in 1960 to run a new label he had formed, Reprise Records. Sinatra’s philosophy became the philosophy that Mo carried with him throughout his career: “to create a company in which the artist was the highest priority.” In 1963, Reprise was acquired by Warner Bros. Records, bringing Mo into the pop culture mainstream just as a musical sea change was unfolding. With the British Invasion in full swing, one of the first acts Mo signed was The Kinks, and before the decade was out, he had brought iconic artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young into the Reprise fold.

In 1970, Mo became President of Warner Bros. Records, and he began to oversee both the Reprise and Warner labels, building a groundbreaking company driven by risk-taking, a free-wheeling culture, a keen sense of humor and an unrelenting support of original artistry. As Mo said, “We developed an artist roster that changed the music and the music business.” Longtime Warner/Reprise artist Randy Newman echoed the feeling: “They trusted us enough to allow us the freedom to make the records we wanted to make.” And legendary producer Quincy Jones noted, “What makes Mo Ostin a great music executive is his ability to always remember rule number one: Let the artist be an artist.” In 1972, Mo was upped to Chairman, with longtime colleague Joe Smith becoming President of Warner Bros. Records.

The list of artists signed during Mo’s tenure is an extraordinary reflection of the label’s eclectic and visionary presence: Ry Cooder, Arlo Guthrie, Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Captain Beefheart, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Black Sabbath, The B-52's, George Benson, Devo, Dire Straits, George Harrison, Chaka Khan, Tom Petty, Curtis Mayfield, The Sex Pistols, Paul Simon, T. Rex, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and the list goes on and on. Not to mention Mo’s acquisition of Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, which brought the company The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Madonna and many others.

Mo with Lenny Waronker and Michael Ostin

Famed Atlantic Records producer and executive Jerry Wexler once noted, “Mo confected what was possibly the most tasteful and commercial record label of its day” with “an overriding intelligence, an unflappable cool and patience forever.” Under Mo, Warner was not only a bastion of artistic freedom, but he also inspired a generation of label staffers to devote their lives to the music business. As Lenny Waronker—Mo’s executive partner, lifelong friend and producer/A&R guru—once said, “When you work for Mo, you actually work with Mo. It truly is a partnership. His patience is remarkable and affects all of us who work with him, because he allows us the freedom to make mistakes and be creative.”

Mo was not only behind the creation of one of the world’s great labels, he was also a major force in the development of Warner Music Group. In 1970, with both Warner Bros. Records and Atlantic Records already part of the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company, Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records joined the Warner family. And shortly thereafter, Mo—along with Jac and Atlantic’s Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun—spearheaded the formation of a game-changing global distribution company, WEA, giving the labels the power and freedom that came with controlling their own destiny.

Mo was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, when he fittingly received the Ahmet Ertegun Award, named after his WMG colleague. In the program for the ceremonies, Stan Cornyn—who had been Warner’s pioneering creative services head—wrote, “Mo sought the dedicated nonusual artist, and he stuck with the ones he signed,” going on to note, “Mo was brilliant, so brilliant he never told any of us how to do our job.” In 2017, Mo received the Trustees Award from the Recording Academy, presented “to individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording.”

Among his many philanthropic activities was major support for his alma mater, UCLA, where his contributions included The Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, which provides students with access to the latest advances in music technology; the Mo Ostin Basketball Center, the cutting-edge home for the men’s and women’s basketball programs; and the Mo Ostin Academic Center for Student-Athletes, which will further his legacy.

Mo once famously said, “We’re not a record company; we’re a music company.” That same spirit lives on at Warner Music Group today. The “music first” philosophy he nurtured and the business principles he pioneered are part of our DNA. We are forever in his debt, and he will be deeply missed.

Photos: Mo in the Traveling Wilburys days with George Harrison, Frances Preston, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty; with Prince; Mo and Lenny riff with ZZ Top; Mo with Joan Jett; with Paul Simon; with Curtis Mayfield; with Madonna

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