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NEAR TRUTHS:
THE MO ERA

FAREWELL TO A GREAT: Mo Ostin, who departed this life on 7/31 at age 95, was inarguably one of the most important music executives of the 20th century, a trailblazer in the business and a legend in the identification and cultivation of talent. For three decades he led Warner/Reprise, sustaining one of the greatest hot streaks in industry history, inking artists who not only sold mountains of records but helped reshape popular culture. Meanwhile, he and his incredible team were the very definition of corporate synergy and invention, blazing trails in A&R, marketing and distribution.

IN WALKED MO: The man born Morris Ostrofsky, raised in L.A. and a graduate of Fairfax High and UCLA, began his music career at Norman Granz-led Verve. His first title was controller, the basis of music scribe Barney Hoskyns’ famed sobriquet “a bean-counter with soul” (based on the misapprehension that Mo had a financial background). He assisted Granz with the massively influential Jazz at the Philharmonic series and found in the elder exec a crucial mentor. Granz, a vital manager and promoter before launching his labels, was both a magisterial discoverer and nurturer of talent and a relentless champion of equality—he fought valiantly, and successfully, to integrate both bandstands and audiences and ensured that Black musicians’ pay and perks were commensurate with those of white players. He oversaw the creation of some of the greatest recordings of all time, including Ella Fitzgerald’s Great American Songbook albums and timeless sets by Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, A.C. Jobim, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and many more.

Granz played a pivotal role not only in Mo’s professional development but in helping him build his ability to relate to and facilitate the work of artists and to be comfortable in the presence of brilliant creators—the understanding he gained in the process would fundamentally inform his extraordinary career.

Mo hired powerhouse attorney Mickey Rudin, who represented Frank Sinatra (not to mention some other, um, colorful characters). Frank hoped to buy Verve, but MGM stealthily bought it first.

HIS WAY: Sinatra then launched the Reprise label and brought Mo in to run it in 1960. Three years later, the company was absorbed by Warner Bros. In addition to the Chairman and newly recruited Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., the label had success with Ellington, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Trini Lopez and Nancy Sinatra (whose “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” hit #1 in 1966) and comedy records from the likes of Allan Sherman, Bob Newhart, Bill Dana and Redd Foxx. Sinatra’s ear for talent, hard-nosed negotiation style and volatile temperament were all hugely instructive for Ostin.

Ostin helped shift the direction of the business by persuading Sinatra—who loathed rock music—to allow him to sign the wild-haired guitar bands and troubadours that were having a seismic impact on youth culture. By inking The Kinks, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix—and, subsequently, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Van Morrison—Mo and Joe Smith made Warner/Reprise a leader on the rapidly evolving rock landscape.

Under WBR President Mike Maitland, Mo ran Reprise and Smith (a former Boston DJ who came up in the promo world) led Warner Bros. In 1969 the company was acquired by Kinney National Services (publisher of DC Comics and Mad Magazine). New corporate boss Steve Ross forced Maitland out in 1970. David Geffen came in to run Elektra/Asylum after Jac Holzman sold his Elektra label to WMG.

When Mo ascended to chairman/CEO in 1972, Smith was named president. Warner/Reprise became the Mo and Joe show, but there was a friendly rivalry between the two execs—at least until Joe was tapped to take over Elektra/Asylum for the exiting Geffen in 1975.

SKI LIFT: Steve Ross was that rara avis, a suit who empowered his music people and trusted their decision-making. He also took care of his key players financially. Under his rule, the WMG team flourished.

During the golden years that ensued, Bob Krasnow, Russ Thyret, Eddie Rosenblatt, Stan Cornyn, David Berman, Murray Gitlin and Bob Regehr, to name a few key players, as well as producers Tommy LiPuma, Gary Katz, Steve Barri, Russ Titelman and Ted Templeman, were variously part of a virtually unstoppable machine at the label’s iconic Burbank “ski lodge,” a mid-century marvel of both work and play. In Lenny Waronker, Mo had one of the most intuitive and insightful A&R execs of all time. Waronker took Michael Ostin under his wing and made him a vital part of the A&R team.

Distro deals brought Terry Ellis and Chris Wright’s Chrysalis, Albert Grossman’s Bearsville, Chris Blackwell’s Island, Phil Walden’s Capricorn, Herb Cohen’s Zappa-fueled Bizarre and Straight and more into the ever-expanding Warner/Reprise family, while acquisitions and JVs added Seymour Stein’s Sire, Quincy JonesQwest, Tom Silverman’s Tommy Boy and Irving Azoff’s Giant.

In tandem with the WMG team and exec Joel Friedman, among others, Ostin spearheaded the establishment of WEA, Warner’s in-house distribution wing, which further solidified the company’s domination and had a massive impact on the business, altering the distribution landscape. Indie distribution had hitherto ruled the sector, but once WEA was established, a domino effect resulted in vast consolidation. Friedman died in 1977 at age 52 and was succeeded by Henry Droz, whose name would be synonymous with major-label distro for years to come.

A cadre of top managers also constellated around and inked various deals with the Warner group, including Elliott Roberts, Bob Cavallo, Shep Gordon, Irving Azoff, Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, Freddy DeMann, Arnold Stiefel and Tony Dimitriades.

PUSHING BUTTONS: The streak would only continue, encompassing The Doobie Brothers, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Gordon Lightfoot, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Seals & Crofts, Arlo Guthrie, George Benson, Randy Newman, Rod Stewart, Steely Dan, Tom Petty, Van Halen, Dire Straits, Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Prince, Madonna, The B-52’s, The Pretenders, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M., among other hitmakers, trailblazers and troublemakers.

Of course it wasn’t just about signing these artists; WBR let them make their records their way. The company also devised new approaches to marketing and publicity that established a house style for the label that was hip, irreverent and playful. Mo’s benign, owlish countenance became part of the company’s external image, an unusual thing—see his “big button” trade ads and the “why are these men smiling?” billboard that placed his and Smith’s beaming faces above the Sunset Strip.

There was robust competition, even rivalry, within the Warner Music Group as WBR, Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic and Elektra vied for talent. But Ostin’s feud with then-CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff became legendary for its brutality, with the latter—then very much at his lunar-howling peak, weaponized by Colombian marching powder—making very public, unusually personal attacks. When Walter poached James Taylor from Warner in 1979, Mo, a notoriously tough negotiator, immediately went after one of Big Red’s flagship acts, Paul Simon. After initially demurring, Simon inked with Warner, which eventually put out his 1986 masterpiece, Grammy Album of the Year winner Graceland, among others.

AFTERMATH: When Ross succumbed to cancer in 1992, WMG lost its protector, and in 1994, after the merger with TIME, Robert Morgado couldn’t come to terms for new deals for Mo and Krasnow, which cascaded into more than 20 years of turmoil and mismanagement.

Morgado installed Doug Morris at the top of WMG, which never returned to its dominant position after Mo’s exit, though some of his top lieutenants remained and attempted to pilot the ship. Morgado (who was later canned for letting Mo get away) and his successor, Michael Fuchs, share credit for dismantling the legendary Warner group, from which disassembly the company has only recently begun to recover. Terry Semel and Bob Daly added music to their oversight of WB Film and TV, replacing Fuchs. Less than a year after Morris was hired, he too was fired (he then took his team to run what would become UMG). The suits brought in the highly respected Roger Ames, who hired Tom Whalley to run WBR. The label group was then sold to Edgar Bronfman, Jr., who put Lyor Cohen in the driver’s seat—with disastrous results. The decline was complete. (Though some believe Cohen’s Warner story hasn’t quite ended yet.)

Mo and Lenny were tapped to lead DreamWorks Records as part of the Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen media superstructure; it ran from 1996-2003.

Ostin’s place in biz history had by then been etched in stone. A giant has left us.

TAGS: Mo Ostin | Joe Smith | Steve Ross | David Geffen | Bob Krasnow | Lenny Waronker | Norman Granz | Barney Hoskyns | Ella Fitzgerald | Charlie Parker | Duke Ellington | Oscar Peterson | Dizzy Gillespie | Stan Getz | A.C. Jobim | Lester Young | Sarah | Vaughan | Wes Montgomery | Jimmy Smith | Mickey Rudin | Frank Sinatra | Dean Martin | Sammy Davis Jr. | Bing Crosby | Rosemary Clooney | Trini Lopez | Nancy Sinatra | Allan Sherman | Bob Newhart | Bill Dana | Redd Foxx | The Kinks | Jimi Hendrix | The Grateful Dead | Neil Young | Joni Mitchell | James Taylor | Van Morrison | Paul Simon | Mike Maitland | uss Thyret | Eddie Rosenblatt | Stan Cornyn | David Berman | Murray Gitlin | Bob Regehr | Tommy LiPuma | Gary Katz | Steve Barri | Russ Titelman | Ted Templeman | Terry Ellis | Chris Wright | Albert Grossman | Chris Blackwell | Phil Walden | Herb Cohen | Seymour Stein | Quincy Jones | Tom Silverman | Irving Azoff | Joel Friedman | Henry Droz | Elliott Roberts | Bob Cavallo | Shep Gordon | Irving Azoff | Cliff Burnstein | Peter Mensch | Freddy DeMann | Arnold Stiefel | Tony Dimitriades | The Doobie Brothers | Alice Cooper | Frank Zappa | Gordon Lightfoot | Fleetwood Mac | Black Sabbath | Deep Purple | Seals & Crofts | Arlo Guthrie | George Benson | Randy Newman | Rod Stewart | Steely Dan | Tom Petty | Van Halen | Dire Straits | Steve Martin | Richard Pryor | Prince | Madonna | The B-52’s | The Pretenders | The Red Hot Chili Peppers | R.E.M. | Ahmet Ertegun | Walter Yetnikoff | Bob Morgado | Michael Fuchs | Terry Semel | Bob Daly | Michael Ostin | Edgar Bronfman Jr. | Lyor Cohen | Steven Spielberg | Jeffrey Katzenberg | Roger Ames | Tom Whalley | I.B. Bad
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