Remembering Don Kirshner, Who Influenced Pop From the Brill Building to Bubblegum

'He was such a character, so colorful,' says Paul Shaffer. 'If he loved a record, he’d call people from the studio and hold up the phone to the speaker'

The Aldon Music Staff at the Brill Building in New York, circa 1963. Back (L-R) Jack Keller, Artie Levine, Lou Adler, Al Nevins, Sheila Kirschner, Don Kirshner, Emil La Viola, Morris Levy, Howard Greenfield.
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Most music fans knew Don Kirshner, who died Jan. 17 at age 76 of heart failure, as the straight-faced host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, the rock TV show that ran between 1973 and 1981. But Kirshner was more than just a TV presence — he was also an illustrious music publisher and manager, not to mention the man who helped launch bubblegum and American prog.

As Kirshner told RS in a 2009 interview, there was no better example of his renown than his negotiations to book the Rolling Stones on his show in 1973. “I was a nervous wreck because the Stones were being offered a million dollars by the other networks,” Kirshner said. “I got Mick Jagger on the phone and he says, ‘So what are you giving me?’ I said, ‘300.’ He says, ‘300 grand?’ I said, ‘No, $300 a man.’ He laughed and said, ‘Chap, I love your work and I’m gonna do it for you.’ The Stones and the Beatles, they were into our American songs and writers.”

Dubbed the “Man with the Golden Ear” by Time in 1966, Kirshner couldn’t play an instrument but was a key figure in the early days of rock and pop. Although he harbored dreams of becoming a pro athlete while growing up in New York, he started writing songs in the late Fifties with his friend Bobby Darin, which led to the creation of Aldon Music, a publishing house Kirshner co-founded with Al Nevins. Among Aldon’s stable of writers were then-unknowns like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Coffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Neil Sedaka. “I believed they were the future Gershwins and Rodgers and Hammersteins,” Kirshner told RS. “I felt if I had a break, I could build that dream.”

By hustling their songs to other artists, Kirshner made his dream come true: It’s hard to imagine the Sixties without Aldon and Brill Building gems like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “The Loco-Motion."

“He was such a character, so colorful,” says Paul Shaffer, who worked on a TV pilot with Kirshner in the Seventies and became a longtime friend. “If he loved a record, he’d call people from the studio and hold up the phone to the speaker. He’d describe how excited he was when Neil Diamond came in with ‘I’m a Believer.’ He really loved this music.”

When Kirshner sold Aldon to Columbia-Screen-Gems in the mid-Sixties, Kirshner was given creative control over one of the company’s new TV series, The Monkees, resulting in their early hits “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”

Kirshner’s tenure with the Monkees didn’t last long; the group grew to resent his control over their music. But even then, Kirshner emerged triumphant. At a meeting with the group at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Kirshner presented them with a new song he urged them to cover: “Sugar, Sugar.”

“Mike Nesmith said, ‘It’s a piece of junk — I’m not doing it,’” Kirshner told RS. “I came home and my son Ricky was reading an Archie comic book, and I thought that if I could give a voice to Archie, Jughead and Veronica, I could do the same thing, so I created the Archies.”

The all-cartoon band’s version of “Sugar, Sugar” was Number One for four weeks in 1969 and helped launch what became known as bubblegum pop. “That’s all because the Monkees wouldn’t do my song and got me PO’d,” Kirshner said.

Kirshner’s influence extended to the following decade. Rock Concert prided itself on live — not lip-synched — performances by nearly every major band of the time. For many rock fans in the Seventies, the show was their first exposure to David Bowie, the Allman Brothers Band, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Ramones and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Shaffer affectionately parodied Kirshner’s famously wooden delivery and wide-lapel suits on Saturday Night Live. (“He got a kick out of it,” Shaffer says. “He would tell me, ‘Ed Sullivan was stiff, too, but he got the gig too.’”) Kirshner also signed Kansas to his label, Kirshner Records, during which they had their biggest hits, like “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son.”

At the time of his death, Kirshner was retired and living with his longtime wife Sheila in Boca Raton, Florida. Although he felt overlooked in the annals of rock history, Kirshner prided himself on his vast song catalog (recently estimated to be worth $1 billion) and the lessons he’d passed along to those who came after him, like controversial Beatles and Stones business manager Allen Klein. “One of the things I taught Allen in the beginning was that the value of a song copyright was like real estate,” Kirshner told RS. “I kept telling him, ‘There’s nothing greater than a song.’”

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