R.I.P. Don Kirshner, legendary music publisher and host of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert
Legendary promoter and publisher Don Kirshner—a guiding force throughout three decades of pop music as the manager of the Brill Building school of songwriters, founder of three record labels, and host of the 1970s TV series Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert—has died of heart failure. He was 76.
Kirshner got his start co-writing jingles for commercials with Bobby Darin, eventually transitioning to a behind the scenes role as a co-founder of the powerful Aldon Music publishing company, home to many who made up the so-called “Brill Building Sound.” In its time, Aldon published some of the biggest hits of the ’50s and ’60s from songwriters like Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Howard Greenfield. Kirshner’s success there led to his founding Chairman Records and eventually Calendar and Dimension Records, all of which had minor success.
It also led to his being hired by the producers of The Monkees to develop the band’s songs: Kirshner called on the best of his talent to pen and perform on Monkees hits like “I’m A Believer” and “Last Train To Clarksville,” a mutually beneficial relationship that ended when Kirshner released their recording of Neil Diamond’s “ A Little Bit Me, A little Bit You” without the band’s consent. After Kirshner’s departure, The Monkees had more exacting control over their songs and performed on all of their recordings; sales dropped by nearly half.
Buoyed by the success of The Monkees, Kirshner assembled his own fictional band, The Archies, an animated garage group (based on the characters of the Archie comics and featured on Saturday morning's The Archie Show) whose songs were written by those in Kirshner’s stable and performed by studio musicians he personally selected. The Archies’ most famous single, “Sugar Sugar,” became the No. 1 song of 1969.
In 1973, Kirshner made his own move to television, appearing as the host of the syndicated Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, an influential program that featured some of the biggest bands of all time—the Rolling Stones, Curtis Mayfield, David Bowie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Devo—performing live in concert, as opposed to the lip-synched and prerecorded fare that was the norm. It also introduced Don Kirshner to America, and soon his flat, wooden delivery was being lovingly mocked on places like SCTV (which substituted Lee Iacocca as a host with equal rockin’ charisma) and, most famously, on Saturday Night Live, where Paul Shaffer imitated Kirshner by way of introducing the first-ever appearance by The Blues Brothers.
The show ended in 1981, and after that Kirshner more or less spent his remaining years in quiet retirement. He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2007.