In 1958, Don Kirshner was an unknown 23-year-old kid from the Bronx. Two years later, he was on his way to becoming one of America's most powerful and influential music producers. In five years, through his company Aldon Music, Kirshner launched Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Darin, among others, to superstardom and ushered in a new era of rock and roll.
"Those five years represented rock and roll's last gasp of innocence," writes Rich Podolsky in his recently published "Don Kirshner: The Man With The Golden Ear." "They were the last songs written before the Beatles changed the landscape of American music forever. They were great years for me and 60 million other baby boomers."
Kirshner went on to develop the Monkees and the cartoon band the Archies, whose "Sugar, Sugar" became a classic. In 1973, he produced and hosted "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert," a hugely popular live (not lip-synched) weekly TV program that went off the air the year that MTV was launched. On April 14, Kirshner will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We caught up with Podolsky to talk about the man who changed rock and roll forever.
Don Kirshner had such a huge impact on an entire generation. What was it about him that gave him such remarkable savvy and the capacity to hone in on people who would become giant stars?
Kirshner had an incredible ability to inspire people to get them to do their best. He couldn't play an instrument, read a note, or carry a tune, but as Steve Lawrence once said, he sure knew one when he heard one. And that's simply what it came down to. He had a tremendous ear and eye for talent. And he knew how to inspire people. He had a way to get people to really compete against each other. He would call his musicians into a room and say, "The Drifters are going to record an album in two weeks, and there are two spots open on that album. We're going to get those two spots. Now go back and write your best songs for the Drifters. I want to hear them on Friday."
And they'd go into their cubicles and they'd just go crazy trying to write the best songs they could. Then they'd meet in his office and play their songs. They broke their backs for Kirshner.
You mention that Kirshner pursued what was then a really radical idea: that teenagers should write music for teenagers. Why was that so radical at the time?
That was radical in 1957 and 1958. Music publishers really didn't like rock and roll. In 1955, I believe it was, only twelve of the top 100 songs were rock-and-roll songs. They were putting out songs like "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and Perry Como's "Hot Diggity Dog." Those three songs became #1. At the same time, there was "Earth Angel" out there, and every teenager wanted to hear more songs like that. But music publishers didn't trust that there was a teenage market strong enough to support more rock and roll, and it drove Kirshner crazy.
Kirshner would run into these kids -- these artists and songwriting teams - and he knew how great some of their songs were. But nobody was listening to them. He knew that if he could ever get enough money to rent an office and start his own song publishing firm, he could launch the first rock-and-roll song publishing firm. This was his great vision in the beginning.
Aside from a corporate culture that didn't recognize the big teen market waiting to be tapped, what other obstacles did Kirshner face?
In the beginning he was unknown, but that changed once Sedaka and Greenfield came into the picture. His strategy was unique. Other publishers would only pay musicians 25 or 50 dollars for a particular song that they liked and say goodbye. Kirshner gave them 50 dollars a week as future royalties. He worked with them and showed them how to write hit songs. That's the amazing thing about Kirshner -- he believed in their talent and was there for them 24/7. He told them that he'd place their songs with record companies and help them get on the air. These kids were running around trying to sell these songs. All they wanted was drive around in a car and hear their songs on the radio. That was heaven to them.
So his biggest obstacle was just getting known. Once Sedaka had his success, word of mouth got around that there was this publisher who actually liked rock and roll and was willing to work with teenagers. That's how he got to Carole King.
He had a huge impact on Carole King's career.
Everybody seemed to love her. Kirshner flipped for her, too, but for some reason Carole King and Gerry Goffin struggled to get their first hit song. And Kirshner not only paid them the equivalent of $50 a week; he wound up paying their rent. They went close to a year and a half without having a hit song. They wrote 45 hit songs that Kirshner published, and he placed many of them with some really sterling artists like Ben E. King, but they just couldn't catch a break. Nothing was working.
Anyone else would have given up on them after five or six flops. They had 45 of them, but he stuck with them. He bought them baby furniture. He continued to pay their rent. One day Kirshner said to Carole King and Gerry Goffin, "I want you to write a follow-up for the Shirelles." They ended up writing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which of course was a huge hit.
Carole King really owes her career to him. She could have wound up doing something completely other than songwriting at that point. She was already onto her second child when "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" became a hit. She was only 18-years-old.
Apparently the Monkees were his undoing. What happened in that relationship?
Screen Gems came up with the idea for the Monkees. Kirshner recommended Davy Jones -- he'd signed Jones to a contract when he was on Broadway -- and they hired him along with the others. Kirshner picked all the songs and organized everything. He had his songwriters create some of the great music; somehow he got Neil Diamond to write "I'm a Believer." Diamond already had two songs in the top 10 and wanted to record the song himself. I still don't understand how Kirshner talked him into it.
So the more successful the Monkees got because of their TV show and records, the more they got fat heads. At the same time, Kirshner's ego was no small thing. Time magazine at that point had come out with a story with the headline "The Man With the Golden Ear." It was all about Kirshner, and the Monkees didn't like that.
You have to remember that the Monkees were hired as four actors who could sing a little. Only two of them could play an instrument when they first started. Mike Nesmith was the first to make a big stink. He called a press conference and said that they weren't allowed to play their own instruments and had to fake it when they went out and performed live. That was very embarrassing. They tried very hard to get Kirshner fired and eventually they did. Even though every song they recorded with Kirshner was either #1 or #2. He produced two albums for them that sold a combined total of around 3 million copies. Everything he did musically for the Monkees was brilliant except for getting along with them, which apparently nobody could.
After that, he put the Archies on the map.
Yes. Shortly after he got fired by the Monkees, he got a call from a couple of animators who said they were doing a Saturday-morning animated show based on the Archie comic books. Kirshner said, "The first thing you have to do is have them sing. You have to call the group the Archies. And I've got the perfect people to do it." He also had the perfect song: "Sugar Sugar."
You've been a sportswriter most of your career. What motivated you to write Kirshner's story?
My father took me to this record-industry event, and Kirshner was there. It was like there was a halo around him. He was a god in the music business. All the great songs that were produced by him were the songs I loved and grew up with through junior high, high school and college. They turned out to have legs and become standards.
I dreamed of writing this book for years and years. Finally in 2004 I saw an Off Broadway show by Barry Man and Cynthia Weil that included some of the hit songs that they'd written over the last 40 years. They told the story of how they met while working for Kirshner in 1961 and what a great place it was and how Kirshner inspired them all. All this joy came out of it. And right then and there I said, "Now's the time. I have to write this book."
It's fair to say that Kirshner had not only a golden ear but a golden touch.
That's true. In my book I quote a songwriter who didn't become a famous, a guy named Brooks Arthur. Arthur is talking about Aldon Music, Kirshner's music publishing company, and he perfectly sums up the whole time and culture. He said: "Aldon was like an instant neighborhood, an instant crowd, an instant friendship that occurred there, an instant bond. Every once in a while, God plants a miracle right in front of your face and says, 'This one's for you.'" Everybody who worked there went on to became enormously successful.