Don Kirshner, the impresario behind Brill Building pop, the Monkees, the Archies and his own music-television show, has died of heart failure.
Kirshner was 77 and died in Boca Raton, Fla., according to a statement from his publicist cited by Billboard.com. He was born on April 17, 1934, according to Ancestry.com, which would have made him 76.
Called “the man with the golden ear” by Time magazine in 1966, he wrote songs with Bobby Darin as a college student. In the late 1950s he co-founded Aldon Music, a publishing company whose songwriters included the hit-making teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.
“Kirshner was like a father figure to us all,” Mann was quoted as saying in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll” (1980). “Everyone’s first thought, as we sweated over our battered old pianos, was whether Donny would be pleased.”
After selling Aldon to Columbia Pictures, Kirshner moved into TV. He supervised the music for “The Monkees” and “The Archies” series and produced “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” a live-performance television show.
Record labels were also part of his empire. The Beatles recorded “Chains,” a song originally released by his Dimension Records. Another of his labels, Kirshner Records, signed the band Kansas in the 1970s and had hit singles with “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind.”
When “Rock Concert” ended in 1982, Kirshner retired. He made a comeback attempt two decades later with a publicly traded company, Kirshner International Inc., whose efforts to create an Internet TV channel and a media player were unsuccessful. He was in bankruptcy proceedings for six years, ending in 2008.
Kirshner was born to Gilbert and Belle Jaffe Kirshner in New York City’s Bronx borough. His father was a tailor. He attended Bronx High School of Science and Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey.
Darin, another Bronx Science graduate, met him through a mutual friend. They teamed up to write radio commercials as well as songs. Connie Francis, who later had hit singles with Aldon, sang on some of the advertisements.
The duo pitched a song to Francis’s manager, George Scheck, and the attempt led to Darin’s signing with Decca Records. Decca dropped the singer after releasing four singles, and he moved to Atlantic Records’ Atco label with Kirshner’s help.
Five of their songs were included on Darin’s debut album, released in 1958. The partnership ended as the singer became more successful, although he married actress Sandra Dee in Kirshner’s apartment in 1960.
Kirshner also enabled Allen Klein, a fellow Upsala student, to get into the music business. Klein was hired as an accountant and later moved into management. He was the Beatles’ manager at the time of the band’s split.
To start Aldon, Kirshner joined forces with Al Nevins, a songwriter and musician. The company set up offices at 1650 Broadway in Manhattan, across the street from the Brill Building, a pop-music center since the 1930s.
“Donny would play one songwriter against another,” King was quoted as saying in “The Sociology of Rock,” a 1978 book by Simon Frith. “He’d say, ‘We need a new smash hit,’ and we’d all go back and write a song.”
Works by Goffin and King included the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” a No. 1 pop hit. Mann and Weil wrote another No. 1 single, the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” with Phil Spector. Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” was written with Greenfield.
Columbia Pictures bought Aldon in 1963 for $3 million. Screen Gems, its film and TV production unit, named Kirshner as an executive vice president in charge of publishing and the Colpix label.
The Monkees, called the Pre-Fab Four because Columbia created the group for the TV series, made their debut in 1965. Kirshner served as musical director and received 15 percent of record-sale royalties, triple the total payout to its members.
Kirshner followed the Brill Building model by having the Monkees record songs written by others. Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer,” one of three singles that climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” by Goffin and King, reached No. 3. Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, another songwriting team, put together many of their other hits.
As the show became more popular, the Monkees took greater control of the music. Kirshner was fired in 1967 after putting out a single without the band’s consent. The dismissal led to a $35 million lawsuit, settled out of court, against Screen Gems.
Kirshner rebounded later that year with “The Archies,” an animated series portraying comic-book characters as a pop group. He supervised the music and put together a studio band.
“Sugar Sugar,” a No. 1 single for the Archies in 1969, was a song he pitched to the Monkees before his ouster. In the same year, he spent about $3 million to buy the rights to half a dozen Broadway musicals from producer Alan Jay Lerner.
Kirshner’s next foray into music television was the ABC network’s “In Concert,” showcasing rock artists. He was the executive producer of the series, which premiered in 1972.
The next year, he started his own production company and brought out “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” where he appeared so uncomfortable on camera that musician Paul Shaffer parodied him on the “Saturday Night Live” comedy show.
“He raised the curtain for dozens of bands, all in a nasal drone, his gaze just off to the right of the camera as he read from a teleprompter,” the Washington Post recalled in a 2004 story. “Kirshner looked startled and stiff.”
Move to Florida
Kirshner’s son, Ricky, and daughter, Daryn, hosted “Rock Concert” in its final season. Ricky later produced Super Bowl halftime shows and the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Kirshner had both children with the former Sheila Grod, whom he married in 1959. The couple lived in New Jersey before moving to Boca Raton in 2002.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame presented him with the first Abe Olman Publisher Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Music Industry in 2007.