Gil Friesen, the record executive who built A&M Records with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss – helping to introduce the Police, Janet Jackson, Soundgarden and the Carpenters to the world – died Thursday at his Los Angeles home. He was 75, and had battled leukemia.
“He helped create the culture that was A&M,” says Moss, who met Friesen in the late Fifties, through legendary rock & roll DJ Alan Freed, when both were record-promotion men. A&M’s philosophy was to sign talented artists and let them follow their creative instincts; the label’s independent run lasted 27 years, from 1962 until its sale to PolyGram in 1989. The label racked up numerous multi-platinum hits, from Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! in 1976 to Blues Traveler’s Four in 1994; along the way, it allowed more individualistic artists such as Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading and Joe Jackson to grow on the label even without blockbuster sales. “A&M always prided itself on being independent, and artists and managers recognized there was something about that quality, that characteristic, that uniqueness, that independence, that was attractive to them,” Friesen said in 2006. “It made them less vulnerable to big business.”
While Alpert handled A&M’s creative affairs and Moss specialized in sales, Friesen was the day-to-day exec who made everything run. Alpert, reached during a vacation in Hawaii, recalled Friesen driving the taxi in the Tijuana Brass’ “Tijuana Taxi” video and dating Dolores Erickson, the beautiful, cream-covered model in the band’s iconic Whipped Cream and Other Delights cover photo. “He was an all-purpose guy,” Alpert says. “When we started doing concerts, he came out with us several times – he was manning the lights.”
In the Eighties and Nineties, when compact disc sales turned the record business into a multibillion-dollar industry, Friesen took a business course at Harvard University and learned to adapt. “The profitability of the CD gave the industry enormous profits,” Friesen said. “But that was the beginning of the downfall of the record business as guys like myself knew it to be. It became a profit-driven business and not an artist-driven business.” The sale price for A&M to Polygram was $500 million.
Friesen discovered his first record-business job via a classified ad in the Fifties, while he was studying at UCLA, and began working in the mailroom at Capitol Records in Hollywood. Stars like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole walked in and out of the famous building at Hollywood and Vine; at one point, Friesen was enlisted to pose in the background of one of Sinatra’s classic album covers, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. He drifted into record promotion, pushing singles by Peggy Lee and others to radio stations.
Friesen foundered in the early 1960s, managing pop singer P.J. Proby in England. But in 1964, Moss offered Friesen a job as touring chief of trumpeter Alpert’s Tijuana Brass; Friesen would eventually become president of A&M Records, then a partner (Friesen liked to say that he was the ampersand in A&M, which stood for Alpert and Moss). In the Eighties, Friesen began producing films, including The Breakfast Club; his last project was Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backup singers premiering next month, on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. He also co-founded the Classic Sports Cable Network and was on the board of Sting’s Rainforest Foundation.
Erudite and perfectly groomed, often the only man in a suit in a room full of rockers, Friesen was known for his refined tastes in music, art, literature and history – his home in the hills of Los Angeles’ posh Brentwood neighborhood was packed with it. “Gil was a man of remarkable intellectual curiosity,” says Warren Zanes, formerly of the Del Fuegos, who worked with Friesen on Twenty Feet from Stardom, in a lengthy statement. “Beyond his human warmth, he was a mind guy, in love with ideas. I remember seeing a stack of Harold Bloom’s criticism by his bed. . . . He could tell you about West Coast pop art, differentiating it from British and New York work. And this same guy could wear a suit better than Cary Grant and sell records.”
Along with Moss and Alpert, Friesen impressed these qualities on both label employees and artists. “Once people came through there, the depth of their artistry deepened because of their association with these guys. They just had this thing about them. They were so fucking cool,” says Jim Guerinot, an executive at the label in the early Nineties who would leave to manage artists such as No Doubt and Nine Inch Nails. “They took something that would otherwise be uncool and high society and made it hip and urbane.”