Don Kirshner was a music-industry impresario like no other.
His various roles included music publisher, music director, record-company executive and TV producer and host. Kirshner protégé Neil Diamond declared, “The music business never had a better supporter.” He started out writing songs and ad jingles with Bobby Darin. In 1958, Kirshner cofounded Aldon Music, the top music publisher of the Brill Building era, with partner Al Nevins. Kirshner had a knack for finding and nurturing talented songwriters and for matching songs with singers. Time magazine called Kirshner “the Man with the Golden Ear.”
Songwriting teams that worked for Aldon included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. He also published songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Jeff Barry. By 1962, there were 18 songwriters on Aldon’s payroll. Writers Greg Shaw and Dawn Eden described the Aldon office as “a beehive of activity, as more cubicles were added, each with its own standup piano and filled with a growing staff of young writers.” Classics of the rock and roll era published by Kirshner include the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” He also ran several record labels – Dimension, Colpix, Colgems, Chairman, Calendar and Kirshner – scoring numerous hits during the girl-group era and, in the mid-Sixties, with the Monkees. Tony Orlando, who got his start with Kirshner, noted, “This is a man who created the cornerstones of American pop music as we know it today.”
In 1963, Kirshner and Nevins sold Aldon Music to Columbia Pictures for $2 million. As part of the deal, Kirshner was made director of Screen Gems’ music division. With the launching of The Monkees TV show in 1965, Kirshner assumed responsibility for the musical side of the project. He brought the group top-drawer material from his stable of songwriters. These included “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond), “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin) and “(Theme From) The Monkees” (written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart). But the Monkees rebelled against the control Kirshner exerted over their material and recording sessions. Guitarist Michael Nesmith famously punched a hole in the wall of a Beverly Hills hotel during a meeting with Kirshner, who was fired from the project in order to keep the Monkees happy. He subsequently sued and claimed to have received a huge settlement.
The music mogul moved on to the Archies, a cartoon-themed band whose recordings were made by anonymous session musicians, including vocalist Ron Dante. After his experience with the Monkees, Kirshner cracked, “I want a band that won’t talk back.” The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” held down the Number One spot on the pop chart for four weeks in 1969 and was the biggest song of the year.
In 1972, he worked on ABC’s In Concert, and in 1973, he launched Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a late-night live-music show that remained on the air for eight years. Kirshner brought acts as diverse as Billy Joel, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, KISS, the Sex Pistols and the Police into American living rooms. Hosting the show in a memorable monotone, Kirshner furthered the union of music and television while paving the way for the rise of rock videos. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert is regarded as a critical link between The Ed Sullivan Show and MTV. At the time of his death in 2011, Kirshner was launching Rockrena, an Internet-based talent finder.
“He was a seminal figure in the modern music business,” said Hal David, chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, into which Kirshner was inducted in 2007. “His songwriting stable has been responsible for scores of classic hit songs over the years and up to the present day.
Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement
Don Kirshner (music publisher, promoter and producer; born April 17, 1934, died January 17, 2011)