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RIP Music Mogul Don Kirshner | reviews, news & interviews

RIP Music Mogul Don Kirshner

RIP Music Mogul Don Kirshner

Legendary American music publisher Don Kirshner has died at age 76

The death of Don Kirshner on 17 January at age 76 is a reminder that although the age of the New York-based song factory seems to be long gone, pop is still about the backroom. Where would Lady Gaga be without a producer/songwriter like Red One? What Kirshner established with his music publishing company Aldon went way beyond getting songs to the performers. He set a template that still resonates through pop.

Music publishers don’t have pop-star glamour or rock-star chic. Headline-grabbing bad behaviour is often confined to contractual wrangling. Back in the Fifties and Sixties – before The Beatles and the singer-songwriter boom led to performers routinely writing their own material – it was the publishers and producers that furnished singers with their songs. The Rolling Stones might have sung “The Singer Not the Song”, but before the mid-Sixties it was songs and the search for them that ruled. Before his move into publishing, the multi-tasking Bobby Darin was Bronx-born Kirshner's earliest protégé. Kirshner's record labels weren’t successful though – only one had a hit: The Ran-Dells' “Martian Hop” on his Chairman imprint.

Listen to the Ran-Dells' “Martian Hop”

Kirshner’s stable of Brill Building songwriters dominated the charts: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Howard Greenfield, Laura Nyro. During the beat boom The Animals recorded Mann and Weil's “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”. Even after The Beatles had conquered the world and began changing the landscape, Kirshner’s songwriters could be happy they still had work.

See The Animals perform “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”

But some of his clients weren’t so happy with his actions. As the music man for The Monkees’ TV series, Kirshner furnished the invented band with hits like the Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart-penned debut single and instant chart topper "Last Train to Clarksville" and Neil Diamond's “I’m a Believer”. But he was ditched by the band after organising a single release for their take of another Neil Diamond song, “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You”. The Monkees hadn’t known about it in advance and that was the end of their relationship with Kirshner.

See “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” from The Monkees’ TV series

Kirshner’s next excursion into pop TV made sure that couldn't happen again – the band, The Archies, were cartoon characters and with the music obviously sung and played by session musicians there would be no chances for issues about what was released. “Sugar Sugar” was great pop, but it wasn’t what Carole King was evolving into.

See the New York Dolls on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert

The world had changed and, after The Archies, Kirshner focused further on TV. The concert series Don Kirshner's Rock Concert ran from 1973 to 1981, after which he retired to Florida. Everyone – not even those who were anyone – appeared: The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Abba, The Ramones, Devo. The show by NYC’s pre-punkers the New York Dolls was a highlight (see video above). His wooden hosting style was mocked on Saturday Night Live – see below for his take on punk rock. For television, he was also the music supervisor for Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and The Persuaders. He also filled that role for films like To Sir With Love and Born Free. He produced the obscure 1970 film Toomorrow, which launched Olivia Newton-John's international career.

See Don Kirshner introduce The Ramones on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert

Having retired early, his legacy had already been defined. He helped invent what we now know as the music business, helped form rock‘n’roll. He created environments in which songwriters could thrive. For him, it was about the song, not the singer.

Don Kirshner died of heart failure on 17 January, 2011. He was born on 17 April, 1934.

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Thanks so much for this touching yet clear-eyed tribute to an interesting man. The end of an era. Some might say the era needed to end, but he made a significant mark.

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