Remembering a music industry giant responsible for Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and countless others
I stuck two dollar bills in an envelope, sent it off to Burbank, California, and weeks later received a double-LP called The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook.
The cover promised “23 Different Acts – 40 Selections – Old & New.” Inside the gatefold was an excerpt from an article that Paul Williams wrote in the May 1968 issue of Crawdaddy, attributing the remarkable rise of Warner-Reprise to artists like Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell, label executives like Stan Cornyn and Andrew Wickham, and “most of all Mo Ostin who has been signing most of this new talent,” which Williams said would make the label “the most important force in the music business in 1969.”
A half-decade earlier, that statement would have been unthinkable; Warners and Reprise had hit records here and there, but were nowhere within striking distance of music industry dominance. Mo Ostin, who just this week passed away at the age of 95, turned the joint label into a creative and commercial powerhouse, by banking on talent.
Songbook, and its successors such as Record Show and The Big Ball, were dazzling displays of what the team in Burbank was up to. If I had to play one album for anyone who wanted a snapshot of where rock and pop music was at the turn of that decade, I might very well go the shelf and put on one of those samplers. Like side two of The Big Ball: Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac (the 9-minute mono version of “Oh Well”), The Pentangle, Jethro Tull, The (Small) Faces (with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood), Family, The Kinks (a previously unreleased track!). Or side one of Record Show, with Neil Young, The Grateful Dead and The Everly Brothers. Where else but on a W-R sampler would Miriam Makeba share an album side with The Electric Prunes? Even Schlagers, a collection of the labels’ less-rocking artists, was an eclectic toybox: Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Dion, Joni, The Association.
It didn’t start out as a particularly promising venture. Frank Sinatra was itching to bolt Capitol Records at the end of his contract, and wanted his own record label. He tried to buy the jazz label Verve, but that deal didn’t happen, so Sinatra did the next best thing and hire away one of Verve’s top executives, Mo Ostin, to run a new label, which was dubbed Reprise. The calling card of Reprise, the very reason for its existence, was Mr. Sinatra himself, of course. There would be a steady output of albums starting with Ring-a-Ding-Ding. One problem: Sinatra did not care much for the music the kids were into, so none of that rock’n’roll for Reprise. Instead, the label was a home for grown-ups. Franks’ pallies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. signed on. There were albums by The Hi-Lo’s and Ethel Merman, Nelson Riddle and Soupy Sales, Ellington and Basie, a comedy LP called Sing Along with JFK.
AUDIO: Sing Along With JFK “Ask Not Waltz”
Meanwhile, back in Burbank, Warner Brothers was having its own identity crisis. There were the occasional hit albums – Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Newhart – but aside from signing The Everly Brothers to a handsome deal, Warners wasn’t having much luck capturing the youth market. Then in 1963, Warners bought Reprise, Ostin was put in charge of the whole shebang, and convinced Sinatra to lighten up and let some rock’n’roll come through the door. Ostin heard “You Really Got Me” and signed The Kinks. Warners made a deal with San Francisco’s Autumn Records, which brought in The Beau Brummels and Harpers Bizarre (who on Autumn were The Tikis). Nepotism gave the label Nancy Sinatra and Dino, Desi and Billy. Then the deluge: Hendrix (Ostin heard and dug “Hey Joe,” picked up the record for the U.S., then saw the Experience at the Monterey Pop Festival, and was blown away), the Dead, Joni, Randy, Pearls Before Swine, The Fugs. Was there ever a cooler record label than WB/R in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s? Frank Zappa had a label deal there (that’s how Alice Cooper got to Burbank), Van’s Astral Weeks, Van Dyke’s Song Cycle, Neil’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the Everly Brothers’ Roots, the Beau Brummels’ Triangle, Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim…
Warner-Reprise seemed cool and casual about the whole marketing thing. When they had an underperforming album, like the Beach Boys’ Sunflower, Song Cycle, Joni Mitchell’s and Randy Newman’s debuts, they ran ads, written by the brilliant Stan Cornyn, that owned up to their disappointments, and offered incentives. Win a Date with a Fug! Trade in your old Surfin’ Safari LP for a brand new copy of Sunflower! Even their hype was hip.
When I read about Mo Ostin’s death, the first thing I did was pull my samplers off the shelf, about a dozen of them. Like the 3-LP extravaganza Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (the first time I encountered Black Sabbath, alongside Captain Beefheart, Ry Cooder, Jimmy Webb, a non-LP cut from Hendrix), ‘71’s Hot Platters with T. Rex, Fanny and Deep Purple, and 1980’s Troublemakers, featuring the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, Devo, and the Modern Lovers. In the ‘80s, Bob Merlis put together one-LP samplers in the old tradition, Attack of the Killer B’s and Revenge of the Killer B’s, that brought the story of Mo Ostin’s label up to The Pretenders, Talking Heads, the Ramones and Madonna (all through Seymour Stein’s Sire), The Blasters (courtesy of Slash Records) and Roxy Music. Oh, also in the ‘80s, Ostin signed Prince. Only in his career would that not be the lede.
There are any number of people I know, Gregg Geller, Russ Titelman, Bob Merlis, who could tell great Mo Ostin stories, who knew what it was like to be on the inside working with him. I’ve already seen posts on social media that testify to the uniqueness of that experience. I only saw what he accomplished from a fan’s distance, devouring Stan Cornyn’s liner notes that made me want to work in some capacity in the music business, buying every sampler.
And even once I got into the record biz myself, observing – with envy and admiration – what was going on in Burbank. Under Ostin, Warner-Reprise looked like a kind of paradise, where Dean Martin, The Fugs, The Meters and The Everly Brothers, hell, even Jimmy Durante and Rod McKuen, were all welcome.
It was a golden time, and with the passing of Mo Ostin, a part of that history is gone.
VIDEO: Mo Ostin UCLA Opening Ceremony