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MO OSTIN: THE 2017 INTERVIEW, PART TWO

In part one of an in-depth conversation with the architect of the Warner/Reprise dynasty, Mo Ostin recalled his Brooklyn childhood, the family’s move to L.A., his undergraduate studies at UCLA and his first job, at Norman Granz’s Verve Records, which served as a crash course in the complexities of the music business.

That training came in handy when, in 1960, Ostin was chosen to run Frank Sinatra’s start-up label, Reprise Records. Mo then recounted the 1963 merger with Warner Bros. Records; his battles with Sinatra, whose loathing of rock 'n' roll was hampering the development of Warner/Reprise; Frank’s relationship with JFK and patriarch Joseph Kennedy; and the company’s initial foray into the exploding rock business with The Kinks, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.

The narrative picks up in 1966 with the arrival of the talented exec who’d be ampersand-close to Mo for the next four decades.

When did Lenny Waronker become a factor in this interaction?
Lenny wasn’t there in those early days. He didn’t come until 1966. He had been going to USC. But his father, Si Waronker—who was a brilliant violinist and also contracted musicians and conductors and composers for 20th Century Fox—decided to start his own record company; he founded Liberty Records. So Lenny was born into the business, and whenever he would have time off, he’d spend it at the record company. During summer vacations, he worked for Metric Music, which was Liberty’s publishing company, so he got a sense of what good songs were. And he did demos, so he had a little production experience. And then his father sold the company to Al Bennett, and Lenny decided to leave. And when we became aware of the fact that he wanted to leave, we hired him. The guy who actually recommended him was a guy that Jimmy Bowen had hired by the name of Dick Glasser. He had worked with Lenny at Liberty and saw the potential.

So the foundation was really your doing, along with Joe’s, in terms of this first generation of mid-’60s rock bands and artists. I would think that the Hendrix signing was monumental.
We’re talking about the time of the British Invasion, mid-’60s, and I was very conscious of how important England was becoming as a source of talent. We had great success with The Kinks, so I started keeping an eye on what was going on in England. I read all their publications; I followed their charts; I had contacts there who I would talk to about what was going on in English music. We had a company over there, so we would discuss all of what seemed to be important in the English music scene. One day, when I was reading one of these British music papers, I saw a piece on Hendrix, and also a picture of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the trio, and it really caught my interest. I loved the look and I thought I would follow up. And I found out that Hendrix had made a record for Track Records, a company that was started by the managers of The WhoKit Lambert and Chris Stamp, Terrence Stamp’s brother—and they put out the Hendrix record. So I got ahold of the single, which was “Hey Joe” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” I listened to it and then started talking to friends of mine in England, and they told me there was a lot of buzz about Hendrix, particularly his live performance, and that a lot of the most important artists were going to see his show. McCartney was there; Keith Richards was there; Mick showed up. In fact, it was McCartney who recommended Hendrix to Lou Adler and John Phillips for the Monterey Pop Festival. So when I got all this information, I started inquiring further, and it turned out that the licensee for Atlantic Records was British Decca, and Track was one of their labels. Atlantic had a deal with British Decca that they would get the first shot at any artist who became available for the United States. So they heard Hendrix and, for whatever reasons, turned him down. Somebody there said he sounded like a second-rate B.B. King. So that opened the door for me, and I immediately called Mike Jeffries, who’d been the manager of The Animals. Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s producer, had also been part of The Animals. I flew Mike Jeffries to the United States and told him I wanted to sign Hendrix, and we negotiated a deal. I ended up paying him $50,000 for three LPs.

That was a good deal at that time.
It was a fantastic deal, although I’m not sure that the people at Warners agreed with it, because $50,000 was big money in ’67. But Mike Jeffries was a scurrilous character, and even after we made a contract, every time he had a new album, he extorted me for something more if we wanted the album [laughs]. He would always extract a pound of flesh from me. One time, he asked me to fund a film called Rainbow Bridge, which was later a successful album for us, in addition to the three albums that we got from the Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland.

When we first presented Hendrix at our distributor convention—we were with independent distributors—they couldn’t understand it. It was not the kind of music they could relate to. So we had one distributor order eight records, the absolute minimum. The record was released, Hendrix appeared at Monterey, he exploded there and the rest is history.

It’s remarkable when you think about the span between ’60 and ’67 in terms of what was coming your way and how your sensibility was expanding.
Right. In ’67 we signed Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention—and also made a label deal with Herb Cohen for Bizarre Records, which we then changed to Straight Records. The next year was James Taylor, Neil Young, Van Morrison… We just went on a run. Everything positive that you could pray for was happening for us.

And the more hip acts you signed, the more Warners became a magnet for other hip acts.
It was absolutely transformative. It changed the whole identity of the company.

So what the public could see was this array of extraordinary game-changing artists, and as a fan I became aware of the identities of certain labels during that time. I knew Elektra had cool stuff; I knew Columbia had Dylan and The Byrds, and then Warners was this treasure trove. So somehow it was being transmitted to me as a fan that something extraordinary was going on, and behind the scenes were the people who made all that possible. The culture was being transformed, and it was populated by these people who eventually became legends in their own right.
We had this terrific advantage, because at Warners we had strong executives—we brought them over from Reprise—and as far as I was concerned, every one of those guys was outstanding. We had Joe Smith, who was our executive VP, and we had a partnerial relationship, although there was some underlying competition because he was running Warners and I was running Reprise. And, of course, Eddie Rosenblatt, who was our VP in charge of marketing and promotion—he had hired Russ Thyret. He even participated in a signing: he brought in Seals and Crofts. I would say that if you look at the employees, even though they may not have been credited with signings, in many cases they should have been, because they were amazing.

Stan Cornyn broke ground with his marketing campaigns. That’s probably why Warners’ image evolved so enormously, with the free records and the advertising he thought up. He had numerous talents. He was a fabulous administrator, a superb executive. He also had great creative talent in terms of the whole marketing area, and he wrote liner notes for which he won Grammys. He even wrote a film. He was an English and drama major, and he went to UCLA and Yale, so he had a great background.

When I tried to sign Jethro Tull—some guy by the name of Lenny Poncher brought in a record and played it for me, and I said I’d like to sign them, and we had contracts being drawn up—somehow, Atlantic got wind of Jethro Tull, and they went after them as well and invited them to New York. So Terry Ellis, the manager, went to visit the Atlantic offices and met the Atlantic people. And then he couldn’t make up his mind as to who he wanted to sign with, and he called me and said, “Look, I just visited Atlantic. I know I had committed myself to signing with you guys, but I have to think this out, so I’m going to go back to London and get back to you in a week or two.” And he called me back two weeks later and said, “We’ve decided we’re going to sign with Warners. And the reason we’re going to sign with Warners is not because of you but because of Stan Cornyn and the advertising and all the campaigns he’s done marketing records.”

He was the first record executive whose name I knew, because of those campaigns.
Yeah, he had so many things he did well. He was really smart, an intellectual type. Eddie, on the other hand, was much more street. He had worked in distribution all of his life, so they were complementary to one another but came from different backgrounds and had different kinds of skills and strengths. And then you had Bob Regehr, who was a superstar. He came out of the PR world and got involved in artist development. And we had also hired Carl Scott and Jo Bergman, who were working for Bobby Mitchell and Tom Donahue. Carl and Jo were part of our artist-development group, and they actually managed acts. They handled all the touring. They had product management under their wing, which was run by Steve Baker, who was fabulous. Every one of those guys was just absolutely outstanding. Bob Merlis, who’s as good a press agent as you’re going to find, was the head of the publicity department, and then in New York we had Liz Rosenberg, who is also fantastic. She worked with Madonna and so many others on the East Coast.

We also had great financial guys. Murray Gitlin was an accountant with soul. He understood that it wasn’t only about money and overhead and counting your pennies—so that took a lot of pressure off the company. And then we had Dave Berman, the head of business affairs, who did a fabulous job. He was responsible for calling my attention to Island, because he had worked for Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp under Abe Somer, and they represented Island. And David Altschul, another superstar—two great business-affairs guys.

Derek Taylor was a star executive without portfolio. He could do everything. He had marketing and A&R ideas; he had amazing contacts; he was the most charming man in the world; he had incredible wit. People would gravitate to the Warner building just to sit down with Derek Taylor. He was just a fabulous guy. I had hired him, and he ran our London company, and then I brought him to the United States. And then we had Jeff Ayeroff. You’re not going to find a better marketing man in the business. And Jeff Gold, who was groomed by Jeff Ayeroff. Pete Johnson… There were so many good people, and that was the key to our success. I was there when Jimi Hendrix died, when James Taylor moved to Columbia, when The Who broke up, when Sinatra retired. And for whatever reason, the company continued to grow and become stronger. And the common denominator was the people who worked there.

And we haven’t even talked about the people in A&R.
My God, they were an entity unto themselves. But one thing that’s interesting about Steve Ross was that he was so into executive talent that he used to warehouse executives. He hired Bob Pittman before he had a job for him. I borrowed from that when I made a deal with Steely Dan—three albums before their contract expired at ABC. And I did the same thing with Tom Petty—three albums before his time ended with MCA.

So Petty and Tony Dimitriades were the only ones who knew the deal was in place.
Tony Dimitriades signed secretly with us. This was show business—you can never keep a secret, but we had it under lock and key. The only people who knew about it were the business-affairs guy who negotiated the contract, Allen Lenard, who was Petty’s lawyer, Tony Dimitriades, Petty and me. That was it, until the very last album with MCA, and then it leaked out, but by then it was too late.

In the NBA, they call that tampering.
Not if you honor their existing contract and sign them after they have fulfilled their commitment.

Steve Ross’ impact was obviously considerable in terms of culture-building—or talent-stockpiling in this case.
Steve Ross was as good an executive as there has ever been, in my estimation, in the history of business—the guy was just phenomenal. He was a fabulous thinker and a brilliant businessman. He was fantastic in terms of establishing relationships. He understood the value of talent. Whenever we needed him, he was there. And one of the key reasons Warners was so successful was because of the tremendous corporate support we had and the fact that Steve treated us so well; we were like stars to him. He compensated us incredibly well. He gave us complete autonomy if we were doing a good job; it was like you were running your own business.

He’s described in godlike terms by the people who worked for him.
He was a special person. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody like him. He had a great influence on just about everybody he worked for. All the top executives revered him. So he created an atmosphere that encouraged and motivated you to do your best stuff. He was important in so many ways. For a guy who came out of the parking-lots world, he was brilliant in terms of his knowledge of the film business; he was great in the music business; he was great with cable, and on and on. I’ve always said that in order for a company that is part of a bigger corporation or record label to be successful, they have to have complete corporate support, and we couldn’t have had any better support.

So you had the ultimate corporate suit.
Nobody could touch us in that department. I mean, with all due respect to Bill Paley, Bob Sarnoff, Glenn Wallichs, whoever, we had a phenomenal situation. And he helped in making it successful.

There were very few false moves in terms of the people you brought in during that fruitful period.
We were very, very fortunate; the quality of our people was fantastic. And it always struck me—Steve would always say to me, “The most important asset you have is not on your balance sheet; they go home every night.” It was one of our highest priorities, always trying to hire the best people we could find. Because if you surround yourself with great people, it’s gonna make you great.

Well, that worked. It’s funny that that blueprint is no longer applicable to the business.
It’s applicable to every business.

Well, it should be.
Few people are practicing it, but it should be part of their basic philosophy.

The quality of life there must have been on a very high level.
That’s why nobody ever left—they loved the place. Where else are you going to be associated with not only the artists we had but also the employees?

While you were building the company in terms of executive talent, you certainly didn’t skimp on the creative side. One thing I found distinctive about Warners is the in-house producer talent you had. And these guys actually made most of the records.
Yeah, we had our own studio. And Warner’s philosophy was that its most valuable assets were its artists and their records, the catalog. These were the people who created the music, and they started the whole thing from the time they started making records. We had this idea that we were artist-oriented; the artist always came first. Because of that, we built an incredible artist roster. And the A&R staff was special.

It was a time when all the other companies were reducing their in-house producers. They just wanted A&R executives. We expanded; we continued to look for great A&R people. Lenny was the architect, and he certainly helped to define our culture. Ted Templeman—you know the great things he’s done. Russ Titelman was on the staff. We had Tommy LiPuma, Steve Barri, Gary Katz, Richard Perry. Jimmy Bowen stayed until he started his own label. Sonny Burke did the older artists, and he was great. We had Michael Omartian on the staff, and Jim Ed Norman was a phenomenal producer and executive in Nashville. Andy Wickham was a terrific A&R guy. They were non-producing A&R executives. Michael Ostin actually ran that group. His first signing was Christopher Cross, who won six Grammys on the first album. But Michael was a fabulous executive and executive-produced records by Madonna and many of the artists and, in effect, ran the A&R staff, because the Templemans and Waronkers of the world were in the studio. They were his superiors, but it was Michael who was really in charge of the staff. And that staff was strong.

Andy Wickham only produced one record—a Van Dyke Parks record—but other than that, he was responsible for signing Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, A-ha. The Joni Mitchell thing was interesting because Andy had listened to a Tom Rush record. Tom was on Elektra. He was friendly with Tom and when he heard the record, there were two songs on there, “Urge for Going” and “The Circle Game,” that caught his attention. We found out the writer was Joni Mitchell, who was living in Detroit, married to a guy by the name of Chuck Mitchell. So he got hold of a bunch of her songs and played them for all of us, and we wanted to try to sign her. We went to Detroit, and she had left Chuck Mitchell, and we had no idea where she was. We looked all over the place trying to find her. We called Mary Martin in Canada because of her Canadian background. We talked to Albert Grossman about her. We contacted as many people as we could who we thought might give us some hints as to where to find her, and nobody knew her whereabouts.

We had an artist that we released out of a soundtrack. His name was Noel Harrison, and he did a song called “The Windmills of My Mind,” which was written by Michel Legrand and the Bergmans. We put it out and it was a hit, and we put out an album. Now, the film producer who was responsible for the film also had these guys in his management group who were in the music business. Elliot Roberts was one of them. I got a call from this producer, Irwin Winkler; he did the Rocky film. He called me and said, “Look, you’re the only guy I know in the record business. I don’t know who else to call.” He called out of the blue, right? He said, “My kids found a girl that they think is fantastic, and all we want to know is if you’re interested, and if you would give her a $25,000 advance and we’ll sign her with your company.” And I asked who it was, and it turned out to be Joni Mitchell. It’s just amazing how luck plays such an important part in the success of a record company and whoever else is involved; just by chance I happened to know the guy.

We were talking about the A&R people. I think it’s worth mentioning Roberta Peterson, who is a fabulous A&R executive, and Karin Berg, working in our New York office. She signed The Cars. Then Jerry Wexler joined our staff; after he left Atlantic, we hired him. He participated in the Dire Straits signing, and as a matter of fact, produced one of the Dire Straits albums. Then there was Benny Medina. He’s now representing J.Lo, but he ran our Black-music staff and he was very effective. And then, in London, we had Ian Ralfini, Max Hole and Rob Dickins, who were all contributing to our A&R in some way or another. Ralfini directly, Max Hole was head of A&R and Rob Dickins was the chairman and ran the record company. But they were all part of what I would call our A&R group, aside from our labels.

What I thought was great about the A&R staff was that they were incredibly collaborative; they really had a sense of being part of a team; they helped one another; there was no chicken-shit politics. There might have been some competition, but it was minuscule. Every place has some politics, I suppose. But they all were positive in terms of working with one another, and they made a lot of great records. The staff—since they were involved with their music-making—were as important as you could have in a company. They were that good.

The other source of artists for us—aside from those that we directly signed through A&R or because I was involved or some other individual in the company—was the labels. That was just an attempt on my part to expand our sources of talent. You can’t be at all places at all times. There are different kinds of tastes and different kinds of music. So if we could broaden our base, we’d have access to artists that we were not directly signing, and that just enhanced our roster and also the success of our company. When you look at the label deals, we were very good at making deals with labels and the people who were involved. I mean, when you have Capricorn, you have Phil Walden and Frank Fenter. When you’re dealing with Chrysalis, you’ve got Terry Ellis and Chris Wright. With Curb, Mike Curb made incredible pop records. Island, what can you say about Chris Blackwell? He was as good as they come. And Herb Cohen and Zappa brought in Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart.

And Little Feat.
And weird things like Wild Man Fischer and The Plaster Casters. Then there was Qwest. I mean, Quincy Jones was iconic. As a matter of fact, Quincy’s first album for Warner Bros.—I think it was called Back on the Block—featured a lot of hip-hop artists, some of whom were our artists, some of whom were outside hip-hop artists. He said to me, “Mo, this is the new bebop.” So he really had great insight about the future of that genre. And SireSeymour Stein is one of the most amazing and ubiquitous heads of a company I ever knew. Then, of course, there was David Geffen. I convinced him to come out of retirement and do a joint venture with us, although he’d already had experience in the music business; he started Asylum with Ahmet and then went to the movie company and then retired, and I talked him into coming out of retirement and starting a new joint venture with us called Geffen Records. And then we had Giant with Irving after he left MCA, where he did a damn good job. We had Tommy Boy, which was great because it gave us our early presence in the hip-hop and rap area. Tommy Silverman had Queen Latifah and Naughty by Nature. He understood that area of the business. We had Def America with Rick Rubin, who had The Black Crowes, Slayer, Johnny Cash—whatever he brought in. We had another company called Slash, which had The Blasters and Los Lobos. And to strengthen ourselves in the hip-hop and rap area, we brought in Cold Chillin’, and they had Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, things like that.

When Seymour came in, you got Talking Heads, The Ramones and Madonna. Then you signed DEVO. Van Halen came in the door through Ted Templeman, George Benson…
I think it was Bob Krasnow who told us about DEVO. George Benson was Bob also.

So he’s an unheralded A&R guy too.
Bob was an underrated record executive and did a fabulous job at Elektra. He had a lot of talent. And when he left Blue Thumb, he was without a job and he had three kids and was married, and Albert Grossman came to me and said, “Look, you know Bob Krasnow, don’t you?” And I said, “Very well.” He’d worked for us in a previous period, and he’d done R&B work in the A&R department. He signed The Olympics. I forget what else. But I knew how talented he was. Tommy LiPuma had worked with him at Blue Thumb, and I talked to LiPuma, and we decided that we would put him on the staff, and he turned out to be invaluable.

At any rate, to be able to be in business with those people—all of whom were big brains, were entrepreneurial, were successful in terms of building their label up to the point where it got to a certain stage—was so beneficial to making Warner Bros. an even bigger and more successful record company. Just the names are enough to tell you how important those label deals became. Walden covered the South for us. Chris Blackwell—even though we had an English company—had a company in Island that was so unbelievably impressive that it was a great coup to be able to make a distribution deal with them. And when you look at all the label deals we had, even with Irving and Giant—it may not have been a huge success, but there were some pretty good records there. And MCA had hired David Geffen, and Geffen had left us, so we wanted to fill that void. In any event, we felt strongly about label deals and probably were more successful in terms of the label deals that we had than any other company.

Were those equity deals, straight distribution deals or a combination?
A combination. We bought Sire and Tommy Boy. The deals varied. With Geffen, we were partners. Usually they were joint ventures, but we had an equity interest.

It must have been tough for the other labels to go against you when you were that loaded.
The thing that was great was, if you were competing against our group, an artist would meet with me and then go to a completely separate label with no connection—with Ahmet or Jerry, or go to Elektra and meet with Jac Holzman, Joe Smith, Bob Krasnow—and then along came David. So we had four shots or more. Whereas a company that was like one company would meet with Walter Yetnikoff or Clive or whoever, and they may have Epic and Columbia, but they all were part of the same company. In our case, we had all of these different executives with different personalities, different kinds of appeal, different interests and strengths, so that we had far more shots. And then you have the labels. It’s pretty hard to compete with that—as Walter will attest. We had formidable competitors within our own umbrella, and we certainly had strong competition with CBS. We were also competitive with Capitol. A&M in its own way, even though it was a smaller company, was very, very effective. They were very strong and had great artists. There were a host of strong competitors out there.

I worked at A&M during the ’70s. That was the best job ever. 
Everybody who worked there loved it. We had a lot of people who left A&M and came to us—Jeff Ayeroff, Tommy LiPuma, Jeff Gold, Chuck Kaye, on and on.

Did you view Yetnikoff as a true rival?
No question.

Do you want to tell the Paul Simon/James Taylor story?
Yeah, I guess so. What happened was, we were originally distributed by independent distributors. You had these independents in maybe 25 leading cities in the country. They handled lots of labels. We didn’t own them. We had no control over their personnel. We couldn’t make decisions for their companies. We were very much in their hands in terms of our success. We were looking at Columbia, and I kept seeing that Columbia was doing such a great job and was selling more records than we were, that they could do a better job than we could on some records. And part of their ability to do that, that strength, came out of the fact that they had company-owned distribution. So I went to Steve and said, “We’ve got to have our own distribution operation.”

I had been after buying Elektra for some time. In ’65, when I first met Jac Holzman, I tried to buy Elektra, but he never wanted to sell. But as things were getting rougher in independent distribution, he had a change of heart. He and I were at a Gavin Convention together, and he said, “You know, Mo, I’m finally open to talking about selling my company.” And by buying Elektra and having Warner and Reprise and Atlantic, we then had the power to be able to support our own distribution operation. Ahmet and Jerry were somewhat opposed because they grew up with the independent distributors; those distributors helped build their company. They had very strong personal relationships with them, and they had some misgivings about leaving those distributors. But Jac and I fought very hard to establish our own distribution, and finally we agreed to do that.

In 1971, we established WEA. Once we started our own distribution company, we started an international company at the same time. Previously, we were licensing to companies overseas—it really changed us from being a good, strong group of companies to really big-time players. We really got in the game and could compete with anybody. In the first six years, we grew more rapidly and had more gold and platinum records than any other record company in the business. We had two albums—Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the EaglesGreatest Hits—that were at one time the biggest-selling albums in the history of the business, before Thriller.

In our first 20 years, once we started rolling and building, we had the #1 share of market in 15 of those 20 years, and that had always belonged to Columbia. Columbia was the label, right? I mean, with all due respect to Capitol—which was a great company—and RCA, Columbia was the company that you more or less emulated and wanted to be like. And when we started showing up as strongly as we did with this incredible roster, terrific sales, strong marketshare and so on, it drove Columbia crazy. And Walter Yetnikoff was a guy who needs to win—he was very combative and angry and also had other issues—and he was really upset about the fact that we were so successful. So he decided to declare war on Warners, and in doing so he was going to go after our artists, our employees, whatever he could do. But the most important thing was to try to raid the roster, and he went after James Taylor.

James was living in New York. He was married to Carly Simon. Peter Asher, who was his manager out here, knew he was talking to Columbia and told Geffen about it. Geffen told me about it. When I learned he was negotiating with Columbia, I flew to New York to meet with him, along with Ted Templeman—who had produced Carly—and Lenny. We talked to James, and it was almost tearful; it was really emotional. But in the last analysis, he ended up going with Columbia. I don’t know whether it was Walter’s checkbook or the fact that he was a New York resident or whatever the case may be. And, of course, when he did that, it really got me upset, and I decided that if the occasion arose, I would go after his artist too. And along came Paul Simon.

We met with Paul; we offered him a very strong deal with large advances, and he was quite impressed with us. I had known him before; I had gone to Simon & Garfunkel sessions with Clive. Although Clive and I were competitive, we were friendly competitive. Walter was the opposite. But Paul certainly was intrigued by our offer. And then he was in Hawaii with his girlfriend at the time, Shelley Duvall, and I got a call from him and he said to me that he was coming through L.A. and wanted to meet with me. So we had dinner when he arrived in L.A. at Pepone’s—with Shelley—and he said, “Look, Mo, I think your company is great. I think you’re great. You made me a magnificent offer. But I was signed by Goddard Lieberson, I’ve been with Columbia all my life and I’m a New Yorker; I’m gonna re-sign with Columbia.” Of course I was sick about it, but there was nothing I could do.

Then I got a call from his lawyer, Mike Cannon, some weeks later and he said, “We’re having some problems with our negotiations with Columbia; there’s an opening here. If you want to fly to New York, you may have a shot at Paul.” So I flew back to New York and we ended up making a deal. And that’s how we ended up with Paul Simon.

But Walter was relentless. He had a doll—a voodoo doll—which he said was me; he stuck pins into it. I’m sure it was a source of humor for him. At the Columbia convention, they would have people with signs marching back and forth saying, “Fuck Warner Bros.” It was very, very heavy, and Walter was incredibly tough. And that continued all the while that Walter was there. You understand the competition—some of the silliness was a little bit out of line. But it seemed like it came from anger, frustration and hatred. So there you have part of that story.

Did you hear Paul Simon’s most recent album?
I did; it’s great. He used to make great records. It’s amazing to me that at his stage in life—I mean, he’s 75 years old—the quality of his records still sustains. He may not sell what he did, but at the same time, he still makes great records. Because he’s such a great songwriter and artist. And he knows how to make a record, even though he usually has a producer with him, as well as anybody I know. And he’s such a perfectionist. I’ve seen him dealing with lyrics where he’d struggle over a word.

Randy Newman is another guy over 70 who continues to make great records. They may not be commercial, but they are qualitatively as good as they come. There’s nobody smarter and funnier, and he’s wonderful to engage in a conversation with, as is Paul.

Where do you place Neil Young among the artists you’ve worked with?
Oh my God. He’s as important an artist as I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve been with some great ones—and also an incredible magnet in terms of attracting artists. I mean, your roster is so valuable as a way of bringing artists to your label. R.E.M. came because of Neil. So many artists have told me that one of the things that attracted them to Warner Bros. was Neil Young.

You made it clear how significant Prince was to Warner Bros. in our first conversation.
As I said, he was so enormously talented that it was mind-boggling. It’s hard to say who was the greatest artist on Warner Bros., but Prince certainly belongs at the very, very top of the list.

I don’t know if you ever saw this quote, but Barney Hoskyns, the British writer, in his book Hotel California described you as “a bean counter with soul,” which I thought was a fairly inspired description.
You know, there was some misunderstanding about the fact that people thought that I was an accountant. I actually was an economics major—not that I ever actually was a CPA or anything like that. But when I was hired by Norman Granz at Verve, Norman wanted me to have a title that would have some clout. So he gave me the title of controller, and that followed me for the rest of my career because most controllers are accountants.

Well, 67 years later, we can finally set the record straight.
Oh, that’ll be good.

Wow, what a ride, huh?
Yeah, nothing like it.

This has been awesome, Mo, so illuminating and so much fun. I really appreciate it.
OK, and I’m happy that you did it, because, as you know, I am so loath to do these things.

THEY'RE NO
JUAN SOTO
KD and Kyrie got nothin' on these two ballers. (8/16a)
GRAMMY CHEW: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BRUNO
Giving Encanto its due. (8/16a)
HITS LIST, YUP
They're the cat's meow. (8/16a)
ON THE COVER:
MO OSTIN
The greatest (8/16a)
WE'RE SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BUT WE JUST HAD TO TELL YOU
Oh, no, not again. (8/12a)
GRAMMY SEASON
New categories! New rules! New WTF!
THE BIG DEAL
It's the one you didn't see coming.
RAID AT MAR-A-LAGO
"Who took my passports?"
HITS' 36TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
Allow us to apologize in advance.
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