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MO OSTIN: THE 2017 INTERVIEW, PART ONE

Interview by Bud Scoppa

Mo Ostin, who died on 7/31 at the age of 95, rarely granted interviews in recent years. But Mo chose to break his silence following the death of Prince on April 21, 2016, and he proceeded to share his recollections with HITSBud Scoppa during a series of extensive conversations that continued into 2017. These conversations—which would turn out to be his final words on the record—haven’t previously been available online.

We begin with the first half of the 2017 interview. The concluding half will appear on Wednesday, to be followed later this week by the initial Prince-focused conversation from the previous year. Together, these conversations amount to a vivid oral history of Warner/Reprise Records, the company Mo led to greatness.

We always think of you as the quintessential West Coast label head. During your youth, did you feel more like a New Yorker or a Californian?
I got here when I was 14 years old. It was a month before Pearl Harbor. I was born in Brooklyn, and my primary involvement was school, being with friends and being on the streets of Brooklyn. But when I got to L.A., I went to high school at Fairfax, then went to UCLA and began to develop a lot of my interests and ideas. At Fairfax, I had the beginnings of musical interests. My friends and I would listen to records. We would go to dances at the various nightspots here—the Palladium, Casino Gardens—primarily big-band stuff and Frank Sinatra. I was also the president of the music society at Fairfax. So that was the beginning of stirring up my interest in the field of music. But I never had any ambition to be in the music business; that happened fortuitously.

I was an economics major at UCLA and took a lot of literature and philosophy courses. Around that time, I started going to jazz clubs, concerts, films, theater, museums, all that kind of stuff. And I was a member of a fraternity, and a couple of my fraternity members turned out to be in the music business. One was a composer, Mark Sandrich, who was the son of the famous Mark Sandrich who directed all the Astaire and Rogers films. Another was Pete Mack, who later did a lot of stuff with Barbra Streisand. My working life has been spent entirely in L.A., and that provided me with most of my exposure to all the things that have formed my thoughts, ideas and business interests.

What was your first job out of college?
I went to work for Verve Records. That was pure accident. I had graduated from UCLA, I needed a job and I had a good friend who lived in the very next house to me. His name was Irving Granz, and his brother Norman had a record company, Verve Records. At that time, it was called Clef Records. He told me that his brother might be interested in hiring me, so I went for an interview and was able to get the job. That was really the beginning of my musical experience. And being a small company, it was a great place to learn the music business because you weren’t pigeonholed in any particular area. We had maybe 20 employees. So that exposed me to almost every act on the music horizon.

Norman Granz was a brilliant creative guy and businessman. He was responsible for Jazz at the Philharmonic, which was a concert organization that toured all over the world. He started by giving little concerts at the jazz clubs. And he was involved with Nat Cole and a lot of the early jazz artists as they were beginning their careers. He also had an incredible visual sense, so I learned a lot about visuals, including the art area. He was a very important collector; he had befriended Picasso in his travels and became quite close to him. He used to get first dibs on all of Picasso’s paintings every time he created a new one. It was a fantastic situation. And of course we had great photographers and fabulous artists who did our covers; Verve was noted for outstanding album covers. They also had a great logo. So Norman Granz had an enormous impact on me, and that situation taught me a great deal about the music business.

You went straight from Verve to Reprise, right?
Yeah, there was a continuum in terms of the labels that I was with. But we were essentially a jazz label, and we had perhaps the best roster of jazz artists in the business, including Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holliday, the Count Basie Group, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz; we had every great instrumentalist who played jazz. And because Granz was also doing concerts, he was exposed to all of them and he could give them a lot of work. And then he decided that he would start a label and of course started it with jazz artists.

Jazz artists were not very big sellers. If we sold 20,000 LPs, we did very well; if we had a 50,000-single seller, that was a hit. And then one day, Barney Kessel—who was part of the Oscar Peterson Trio and a very important guitar instrumentalist later on—came to him and said, “You want to cut a pop record?” And Granz said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.” And Barney went into the studio and recorded Ricky Nelson. He did a single—the A-side was “A Teenager’s Romance” and the B-side was Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.”

Wow. This was before he was on Imperial?
Before Imperial. And what happened was that the single was performed by Ricky on The Ozzie and Harriet Show, and we sold a million records—it was unheard of. You can imagine how everybody felt in the company. And after that success, Ozzie Nelson and a guy from MCA came up to see Granz and said to him, “Look, my son has had success. We have just a normal beginner’s record deal. I think by virtue of that success, he’s entitled to get an increase and a better deal." And Granz said to him, “Look, we’ve only put out a single. Let’s put out an album and see how well that does. And after we get the album out, we’ll be able to make a proper evaluation of just what kind of a deal we should make.” Ozzie said, “No. I insist that you give him a better deal right now.” And Granz said that he wasn’t gonna do it. Ozzie said, “If you don’t do it, we're gonna leave the company.” And Granz said, “You can’t leave the company—we have a contract.” But unbeknownst to us, Ricky was a minor, and in order for a contract to be valid, it had to be court-affirmed, and it never got court-approved.

So he split from the company, and it just devastated us. That was an unbelievable and difficult loss. Granz told me to fire the lawyer who represented us at the time and hire another lawyer. I interviewed a bunch of lawyers and then ended up hiring a guy by the name of Mickey Rudin.

Here we go…
This leads us to the Sinatra situation. Mickey represented us, and then Granz started thinking about selling the company. So he talked to Mickey about it and Mickey suggested that maybe Frank might be interested in buying it. Frank was under contract at Capitol at the time; he had three albums left on his commitment, and he was always trying to get a better deal. He had come to Glenn Wallichs and asked him if he would improve his royalty, and Wallichs refused him. Not because he didn’t think Sinatra deserved it but because he didn’t want to set a precedent, and he was afraid that if he gave Sinatra a better royalty, Nat Cole, Johnny Mercer and Peggy Lee would come marching into his office and demand the same thing. Capitol had an incredible roster at that time.

So Wallichs turned him down, and it angered Sinatra. So Sinatra decided that he would see if he could find another way of putting out his records, and he loved Verve and those artists because they were so hip—Dizzy, Bird, people like that, just amazing jazz artists—and he loved jazz. So he met with Granz. They agreed that they would try to make a deal, but they never really finished the negotiation, and Granz was approached one day by MGMArnold Maxim was the president—and MGM asked him whether he wanted sell his company. And Granz said, “Look, I can’t; I’m under negotiation right now.” And Maxim said, “Well, if it falls out, get back to me.” He then went to Rudin and told Rudin about this and said, “Look, either we should make a deal on the terms that I am requesting or else I have another deal waiting for me.” And Rudin may have thought he was negotiating—maybe bluffing—and said, “If you have another customer, why don’t you check it out?” And he didn’t tell Sinatra about that conversation. Granz went to Maxim, and they gave him exactly what he was asking.

So he ended up selling Verve to MGM, and Sinatra, when he learned of this, thought that Granz had reneged on the deal and was very, very angry. In order to cool him down, Rudin said, “Look Frank, instead of spending all that money to buy a record company, why don’t we start one from scratch? I have just the guy who can run it.” So that was what brought me to Sinatra.

Man, the planets lined up for you, didn’t they?
It was an amazing series of events. I met with Rudin and Hank Sanicola, who was Frank’s manager, and they agreed to hire me as the executive vice president—Frank was gonna be the president and chairman—to run the company at a salary of $500 a week. In 1960, that was a good salary, a big bump from what I was getting when I was at Verve. I was so excited about it that when I finally closed the deal, my wife and I ran out and bought a house in Encino.

Sanicola and Rudin agreed to hire me, but they had to get final approval from Frank. So Rudin took me to meet Frank, who was making a movie at Columbia Pictures, The Devil at Four O’Clock, with Spencer Tracy. And when we got on the set, we were faced with Sinatra in a screamfest with the director. He was angry, abusive, practically throwing a tantrum—he was so difficult. Scared the hell out of me. And Rudin said, “Mo, let’s leave here and go find his dressing room.” You can imagine how I felt. Here was a career-defining opportunity, and I had to get Frank’s approval in order to get the job. We waited about 30, 40 minutes, and when Frank came into the room, he did a complete 180. He could not have been more enthusiastic; he was so excited about starting a record company. He talked about who he could sign, who we should hire in A&R. We had what I would consider a wonderful meeting, and I was hired. So that was the way in which I went from Verve to Reprise.

It’s great that you saw the two extremes right from the get-go.
I knew a little bit about his reputation, although I’d never met him before; this was the first time I’d ever met him, but being exposed to that, I saw the anger and I saw the charm, enthusiasm and excitement. It was great. So it was a good initiation into the Sinatra world.

And then you became steeped in it, I would think, over the next year or two.
Yeah, we started the record company. I think Sammy [Davis Jr.] might have been our first signing. Dean [Martin] was still on Capitol, but then finished his last commitment and came over to Warners. And we signed a lot of acts that were in the big band/adult-oriented genre. And we were struggling, because we weren’t being competitive. It was the beginning of rock 'n' roll, of contemporary music, and we were in the wrong place musically. So I went to Frank and said to him, “Look, we are not going to be able to survive unless we become competitive. And the only way we can is if we do rock 'n' roll music”—which he had banned us from getting involved with. He hated rock 'n' roll music; he hated the musicians, hated the artists and actually imposed a prohibition against us signing any rock 'n' roll acts. But he was pretty savvy businesswise. He realized that what I was saying made a lot of sense, so he lifted the ban against signing rock 'n' roll acts. That was a big, big turning point in terms of our later success.

And what was your first undertaking?
Well, first, one of the most important things we did was after he OK'd our signing rock 'n' roll musicians… We had Sonny Burke and Neil Hefti on our A&R staff, who came out of the Sinatra world—the big-band world—and then we hired Jimmy Bowen. Jimmy Bowen was a disc jockey. He was in a rock 'n' roll band. He produced some records for Chancellor. He was young, but he was savvy in that field, and he was a very smart guy to add to our staff. He was just fantastic. So when you talk about turning points that may have given us some confidence that we were going to become a very successful company, those two factors, plus the acquisition by Warner Bros., were part of what enabled us to get our first sense that we would become successful.

Why did Sinatra sell to Warners?
He sold to Warners because he didn’t have a lot of capital. We started Reprise with $300,000, which came from a loan from City National Bank. They were very strong and had great entertainment connections. And the guy who ran the bank knew Frank, and they lent us $300,000 to start the company. So we were terribly undercapitalized. And then Frank was involved in the Cal Neva Hotel in Vegas—he owned it—and they had a problem with the Las Vegas Gambling Commission because Sam Giancana—who was on the list of people who were banned from any kind of gambling activities, or even being in any of the Las Vegas or other Nevada casinos—went up there to visit his girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire of The McGuire Sisters, and they found out about it and called Frank on the carpet. They had discussions that were acrimonious, and they took away his gambling license. So he had to give up Cal Neva, and he was strapped for money.

Frank had just made Ocean’s Eleven for Warner Bros. It was an incredible hit, and Jack Warner absolutely loved him and wanted to make a long-term deal with him. When Warner approached Frank about coming to the film company, Mickey thought it was also a way to do something with the record company, so he forced them to buy the record company. That was part of the deal. So Frank ended up getting cash and also getting a one-third interest in Warner Bros. Records and giving them two-thirds of Reprise Records.

That was pretty savvy of Mickey Rudin.
Fantastic. It was a great move on his part, and there was one other thing that was quite interesting. In the course of the negotiation—just to show you how smart Mickey was—they were $500,000 apart on the price, and in order to reconcile the difference, Mickey said, “I’ll tell you what: I will sell you the company for the price you are presenting if you give us ownership of Sinatra’s masters.” So by that device, Sinatra from that point forward owned all his masters. And you know how valuable they were.

That’s huge. What are your best Rat Pack stories?
I didn’t work with Frank until 1960, which was after the height of the Rat Pack days, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Rat Pack. But I certainly have interesting Sinatra stories. When I first came to work for Frank, JFK had just been elected president of the United States, and they were going to have an inaugural gala, and Frank was asked to produce it. So he pulled together a star-studded concert, as you can imagine. He had everybody from all over the world. He brought in Laurence Olivier; he had all kinds of big movie stars. He had great artists and opera stars like Helen Traubel. It was an amazing amount of talent. One day, Frank said, “You know, Mo, I think we’ve got to make a record, because it’s gonna turn out to be a fantastic performance. What we’ll do with the record is, we’ll put it out and then give all the proceeds to the Democratic Party. I want you to liaise with the White House.” And my liaison was the father of the president—Joe Kennedy.

I was 31 years old. I’d just come out of this little label that was sold for $3 million-plus, and suddenly here I was working for the biggest artist in the world and dealing with the president of the United States. Imagine how mind-boggling that was.

You were in the land of the giants.
So I started the liaison with the [former U.S.] ambassador [to the U.K.]—and we were very formal. I would call him "Mr. Ambassador" or "Mr. Kennedy"; he would call me "Mr. Ostin"; this was not "Mo" and "Joe." And as we were going through various stages of finishing off the recordings, the ambassador asked me to send him the work in progress. I would send him test pressings, and he would call me the next day telling me, “Look, I played this for the president, and these are our comments.” And he’d say Helen Traubel’s aria was too long or there was too much applause on Nat Cole’s performance, whatever.

They were A&Ring the record.
They were making their notes. And one day, he said, “Mr. Ostin, I’ve got to apologize to you. The president didn’t have a chance to listen to the record last night because he was too busy.” But in any event, my conversations with him were fascinating. He called me one time and said, “Who would you like to have write the liner notes?” And I said, “Do you have any suggestions?” And he asked, “What do you think of Carl Sandburg?” And I’m thinking, "My God. The poet laureate of America and great Lincoln biographer. That would be phenomenal." I said, “That sounds wonderful. How do I get in touch with him?” So he said, “Call Pierre Salinger”—who was then the press secretary—“and I’ll give you a phone number. But I don’t want you to have a secretary call him; I want you to personally dial the phone and call him.” So I did exactly that, and Pierre Salinger himself answered the phone. It was a red phone. I told Salinger what I wanted; he got back to me in a couple of days and said, “You’ll find Sandburg in North Carolina, and here’s the phone number.”

So I called Sandburg and told him what I wanted, and Sandburg was a curmudgeonly, very activist kind of guy. He said in his gruff voice, “Before I respond, I want you to promise me that you’ll repeat, word for word, everything I say to you to the ambassador.” And I said, “Of course I will; it’s my job.” And he said, “Let me tell you about the Kennedys.” And he went off on a rant. “You can’t trust them. They have no loyalty to anybody. Your man tried to buy this election.” He just couldn’t have been angrier. I was taken aback. I kept thinking to myself, "What can I tell Joe Kennedy?" And Sandburg turned us down, of course.

So I called Kennedy back and didn’t want to tell him what he had said because to me there was no point in it. Why repeat all these insulting things? So I merely told him that he turned us down; he was too busy. And without batting an eyelash, Joe Kennedy says, “I’ll tell you what; let’s get hold of Theodore White.” Theodore White wrote The Making of the President. He was also an editor at Time magazinevery important at Time. And when I got hold of Theodore White, he said to me, “I’m really flattered by your asking me to do this, Mr. Ostin, but nobody invited me to the inauguration.”

Shocking stuff like that was happening. And then we had to get waivers from each of the artists in order to be able to use their performances on the record, and they were not going to be paid. And when I got to Harry Belafonte, he refused to sign the waiver. He said, “Look, this money is going to go to the Democratic Party. How do I know it’s not going to go into some slush fund that might support some bigot in the South? Unless you tell me specifically where this money will be earmarked, I refuse to sign the waiver.” So I called the ambassador, and he said, “Here’s Bobby Kennedy’s phone number—call him. He has good connections; see if he can help.” And then I got a call back from Steve Smith, who was married to one of the Kennedy sisters, Jean, and he told me that Bobby had got in touch with Belafonte, and Belafonte said he would sign the waiver. So who knows what deal they made, or what assurances he gave him about how the money would be used.

In any event, things like that would happen all the time. After the election, Kennedy and Frank became friends, and he agreed that he and Jackie would come to Palm Springs and spend time in Sinatra’s home there. And Sinatra was really excited about that. He built a separate home for JFK, the Little White House. He was really looking forward to spending time with Jack Kennedy on this kind of a basis. It had exposed him to a whole new world. As powerful as he was in the entertainment world, suddenly now he was close to the president and involved in the political world.

But what happened was, the ambassador, Bobby and J. Edgar Hoover were concerned about “Sinatra’s connections,” and they pleaded with the president not to go to Frank’s house as a guest. So JFK turned him down. Peter Lawford was the message carrier. And you can imagine how angry Sinatra was. He was so angry that he said he was not going to release the album.

So we never released the album. And when you reflect on it, Sinatra had done concerts to raise money for the Kennedy presidency. He’d produced the inaugural gala. They had some issues during the nominating process where they didn’t know how they would do in West Virginia, and West Virginia was a swing state that would’ve been very important. Humphrey and Kennedy were running neck and neck, and Ambassador Kennedy knew that Sinatra had connections with the teamsters, who were very powerful in West Virginia. So he asked Sinatra to get in touch with those connections and see if he might help influence them. And indeed, Kennedy ended up winning West Virginia, which was a turning point for him, and that made him the Democratic nominee. So Sinatra had done all this, and now they dumped him. And when I reflect again on what Sandburg had said, I think, "My God, he might have been right on!"

I had dinner with Tina Sinatra one time some years ago and told her this story. And I said, “Do you have any idea where those records are? Because they’re invaluable. Not only are they great performances from a musical and show-business standpoint, they’re a part of our history.” So Tina decided she would put on a search. She hired whoever, but they couldn’t find the records anyplace. So no one knew where they were. And I happened to get a call from Clive Davis just last year, and he asked me what I was doing for the summer. I told him that I would be in the South of France, and he said he’d be on a boat, but he was coming to Monte Carlo, which was about 20 minutes away from where I was staying. He said, “I’m going to have a dinner with all of my guests. Will you join me for dinner?” And I said, “I’d love to. Michael and Joyce are with me; can I bring them?” He said, “Absolutely.”

So I went to the dinner. I was at Clive’s table, along with Michael and Joyce and a bunch of other very interesting people, including Tita Cahn. She’s Sammy Cahn’s second wife, and I knew her. The conversation was really fun and interesting, and everybody had a great time. Tita lived here in L.A., so when we got back, she said, “Why don’t you and Angie Dickinson and I have lunch and we can talk about Sinatra?” And I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” So we had that lunch and I tell them this Kennedy story, and I tell them that nobody knows the whereabouts of the tapes. And Angie says, “I know where they are—Pat Lawford has them.” And then Tita started thinking about it, and she said, “You know, Sammy was married to his first wife during the inauguration, but he was there and he recorded all of it, so we have tapes.” So this whole circuitous thing I just related to you, with all of these different circumstances that transpired, led us to finally finding those tapes.

They belong in the Smithsonian.
Well, I said to Tita that she should give them to Tina, because Frank has his archives at USC. And Tita said, “No, it’s bigger than that; it should be in the Kennedy Library,” which I think may be where they are now. I haven’t heard definitively whether they found them or not.

There’s no way it’s ever going to be released, is there?
I can’t imagine. What the status of all those documents, waivers, contracts and whatever is, I have no idea. I don’t know whether it can be done legally or what. But, look, once they locate the tapes, maybe they’ll find a way.

Wow. That would be extraordinary. That’s a great story. When JFK was assassinated, that must have still shaken Frank up.
Oh my God. He was grief-stricken; he was in terrible shape. He just holed himself up in Palm Springs and wouldn’t see anybody. It was a big blow to him because Kennedy was really important to him.

I bet you have many other Sinatra stories.
Well, one that was kind of interesting was when we did “Strangers in the Night.” When Jimmy Bowen came to work for us, he was involved in contemporary music. He recorded Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and Jack Nitzsche, but he also recorded Dean Martin, and he cut a record with Dean using the kinds of sounds Sinatra couldn’t abide. That song “Everybody Loves Somebody” turned out to be a #1 record. And then Jimmy had a host of big hits with Dean, so Sinatra decided he’d also like to take a shot at Jimmy, because he hadn’t had a hit in a long time. And Jimmy brought in the song “Strangers in the Night.” Frank didn’t particularly like it. As a matter of fact, when he recorded it, he made fun of it at the end of the recording—the “doobie-doobie-doo” part. But it turned out to be a worldwide hit, #1 in many countries, and it was Sinatra’s first hit in a long time, so even though he may not have liked the song, he was thrilled by the fact that it was so well received.

And then he was watching television one day and he saw this guy—I think it was Jimmy Komack—doing a recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din,” where the guy blows the bugle at the end and the shots kill him, and the bugle whimpers away. He got such a kick out of it that he decided he wanted to make a record of it. So I said to him, “Frank, you can’t follow up ‘Strangers in the Night’ with ‘Gunga Din.’ He said, “Mo, I think it’s fun and I want it out. Get it out.” So I started preparing for the release, but I told our head of manufacturing that he should sit on it, not rush it out. Sinatra got word of that. I’m playing golf with Bob Cavallo and another couple of guys on the El Caballero Golf Course. We’re on the eighth hole, and some guy comes running out on the golf course and says, “Mr. Ostin, Mr. Ostin, Frank Sinatra is calling you. It’s urgent.” There was a phone on a tree, so I went over to the tree and picked up the phone, and he blasted me. He said, “How dare you hold up my release! I told you to get it out immediately. You countermanded my instructions. I want it out.” He really laid into me. I didn’t want to show that I was shook up. So I went back and took an eight on a par three. When we got back to the clubhouse, I called the head of manufacturing and said, “Get this out immediately.” So we sent out the record. And I get all these phone calls from distributors, promotion men and radio people, saying, “What is this? What is he doing? This is terrible.” Fortunately, the record had not yet shipped from the distribution point, so it was still not out to retail, and I called Sinatra and I told him that we were getting all of these negative responses to it. And he said to me, “Maybe you’d better call it back”—after all that.

Then what happened was, Bert Kaempfert, who was the writer of “Strangers in the Night,” came with his publisher Hal Fein to Las Vegas to a Sinatra opening, and I happened to be there too. Kaempfert was a German guy. He flew from Hamburg on a red-eye without any sleep to come to Vegas to see Sinatra, and then he had difficulty hooking up with him. The publisher came over to me and said, “We’ve been trying to get hold of Sinatra, and he won’t return our calls. What shall we do?” I said, “Let me see if I can help.” So I called Frank and he says, “OK, bring him to the dressing room.” So I brought Kaempfert to the dressing room. And it turned out that Dean had closed the night before and Frank opened that night. So Dean and Frank were both there, and Dean was going to perform on Sinatra’s first night. And when we walked into the dressing room, they were both watching something on television, and I told Sinatra, “Frank, this is Bert Kaempfert.” And he didn’t even take his eyes off the television set; he merely said, “Nice song you wrote, kid.”

But after the show, Sinatra usually had a table and a lot of his friends at the table, and I took Kaempfert with me to Sinatra’s table. Sinatra sat right next to him and could not have been nicer. Charmed the pants off him.

Meanwhile, you were trying to get a foothold with Warner/Reprise and eventually did so by committing to rock 'n' roll in earnest. What were the factors that led you to begin having success with these signings?
After The Kinks, Joe Smith signed The Grateful Dead and I signed Hendrix. All these things were beginning to develop, and we started getting a sense that this company was really happening and we can be quite successful.

Did you have a sense that Warner/Reprise had a particular personality, identity or culture?
These records that I’m describing really affected our culture. People began to view us differently than just being an over-the-hill kind of company with artists from the past.

To be continued.

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