Success in the music business requires a certain self-promotional flair. But Don Kirshner, who died at 76 of heart failure on Martin Luther King Day, wasn't exaggerating when he echoed Time Magazine's description of him as "the man with the golden ear." A publisher, producer, impresario and entrepreneur, Kirshner was key to the development of American popular music from the 1950s into the '80s.
But my first and most vivid memory of "Donnie" had more to do with basketball and the phone book than music.
Kirshner's storied career included essential contributions to the success of such icons as Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, the Monkees and many of the greatest songwriting teams in pop history -- including such Brill Building-era greats as Goffin-King and Mann-Weill. He's in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor that ought to be echoed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When Kirshner dabbled in bubblegum -- The Archies ("Sugar Sugar") were his creation -- it was the best bubblegum. When he did a rock TV show -- Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, which, for 10 years beginning in 1973, pioneered the live performances of such top acts as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the Ramones -- it was the rock TV show. And when he was parodied, as here on Saturday Night Live by Paul Shaffer, it was a parody for the ages.
I first met Donnie in the early '70s, when I was a cub reporter for a music trade magazine and he summoned me to his lavish mid-Manhattan offices, promising an interview with one of my sports heroes, basketball immortal Jerry Lucas, star at Ohio State, the 1960 Olympics, the Cincinnati Royals and the New York Knicks.
Donnie -- a basketball nut himself who'd played college hoops at Upsala -- wouldn't give any more info over the phone, and as I walked up Broadway, notepad in hand, I worried what I'd do if the master had lost his touch and Lucas turned out to be a tone-deaf singer or a lousy songwriter.
As it turned out, there was no music connection beyond Donnie's imprimatur. Well over six feet tall, Kirshner was a larger-than-life mogul with a perpetual tan that made George Hamilton look like a ghost. Lucas was a spectacular rebounder planning a future rebound from NBA retirement. They'd joined forces for a series of ventures, including a TV special (The Jerry Lucas Super Kids Day Magic Jamboree) to showcase the 6'8" star's magical off-court abilities, which included imaginary card tricks, memorizing a large chunk of the Manhattan phone book and counting all the stripes on freeways as he drove long distances. (Lucas told Sports Illustrated that most highways have just 132 painted center stripes per mile, but California's have 208 and Kansas' 144. )
I returned to the magazine's offices wondering how to write a story that would make sense for a music trade. I had little time to ponder the question, though, because Donnie's relentless, infectiously buoyant calls to me and to the magazine's owner -- a bracing dose of what writer Ken Emerson would, decades later, call Kirshner's "invincible optimism" -- quickly settled the issue: the owner, who enjoyed Kirshner's generous advertising support, anticipated Nike by 15 years by ordering me to "Just do it."
Lucas went on to co-found a series of schools, write many articles and books -- including co-authoring the million-seller The Memory Book -- and lecture on magic and memory.
And I learned that in a business that depended largely on the enthusiasms of teenagers, you could move mountains if, like Donnie Kirshner, you retained your own child-like spirit.