Mo Ostin, music powerhouse who put artists first, dies at 95

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Mo Ostin, music powerhouse who put artists first, dies at 95
At the helm of Warner Bros. Records from the 1960s into the ’90s, he worked closely with some of the most successful and influential performers of his era.

by Jim Farber

NEW YORK, NY.- Mo Ostin, who in his many years as the powerful chief executive of Warner Bros. Records made a point of putting the artist first, in the process encouraging the most important works of musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Prince, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 95.

The death was confirmed by his granddaughter Annabelle Ostin.

“Between the early ’60s and the mid-’90s, under legendary record man Mo Ostin, no company was more successful at artist development — or operated with more sophistication,” the music industry trade publication Hits wrote in 2016.

The list of artists signed to the constellation of affiliated Warner Bros. labels when they were guided by Ostin reads like a dream-world music hall of fame. It includes pivotal singers of the 1950s like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr.; innovators of the 1960 and ’70s like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead; and game-changers of the ’80s and ’90s like Madonna, R.E.M. and Green Day.

“One of the great things about Warners, I always felt, was our emphasis and priority was always about the music,” Ostin told the Los Angeles Times for a profile of him in 1994.

After a corporate power struggle led to his departure from Warner Bros. in 1995, he helped form DreamWorks Records, the music arm of the entertainment conglomerate created by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. There he signed fresh mavericks like Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith and Nelly Furtado, along with veterans like the Isley Brothers and Burt Bacharach.

One crucial factor in Ostin’s scouting and shaping of the brightest talents during Warner’s most vaunted years was his ability to hire and hold onto a tight executive team, highlighted by a prolific group of producers and A&R people like Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman, Ted Templeman and Joe Smith.

Another key was his savviness in creating joint-venture deals with a variety of labels, including Sire (which brought to the stable New Wave stars like Talking Heads, the Pretenders and Depeche Mode; Bizarre/Straight (tapping the netherworld of Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart); Tommy Boy (hip-hop); Slash (punk and alternative music); and Quincy Jones’ Qwest (R&B).

For all his success, Ostin underplayed his role in public. Unlike his music-business peers Ahmet Ertegun, Geffen and Clive Davis, who swooned before the spotlight, he granted very few interviews and kept a low profile on the party circuit.

“To me, the artist is the person who should be in the foreground,” Ostin said in 1994.

Still, the industry recognized the significance of his work. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Recording Academy honored him with a President’s Merit Award in 2014 and a Trustees Award in 2017.

He was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky on March 27, 1927, in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who had come to the United States from Russia during the communist revolution of 1917. When he was 13, he moved with his parents and his brother, Gerald, to Los Angeles, where the family ran a produce market.

He was a music fan from an early age, but his introduction to the music business came by happenstance. Living next to his family was the brother of Norman Granz, who owned the jazz label Clef Records and promoted concerts in the 1940s and ’50s. During his college years at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in economics, Ostin wound up helping Granz by selling programs for his concerts. He married Evelyn Bardavid in 1948.

Earning a bachelor’s degree with honors, Ostin enrolled in UCLA’s law school but dropped out in 1954 to support his wife and their young son. A job opportunity also came about through Granz, who hired him to be the controller for Clef at a time when the label’s roster included such important jazz artists as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker.

Clef eventually changed its name to Verve; about the same time, Ostin changed his name as well.

Toward the end of the 1950s, Frank Sinatra tried to buy the label, inspired by its artist-friendly approach. But he lost out to MGM Records, a disappointment that led him to form his own company, Reprise, in 1960. He named Ostin executive vice president, with the mission to model the new company on Verve.

“Frank’s whole idea was to create an environment which, both artistically and economically, would be more attractive for the artist than anybody else had to offer,” Ostin said in 1994. “That wasn’t how it was anywhere else.”

For the first few years, Reprise’s economics did not match its artistic efforts, in part because of Sinatra’s ban on signing any of the promising new rock ’n’ roll acts. “I went to Frank and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to be able to survive unless we become competitive,’” Ostin told Hits in 2016. “He hated rock ’n’ roll, but he realized what I was saying made a lot of sense. So he lifted the ban. That was a big, big turning point.”

The first rock band Ostin signed, in 1964, were the Kinks, who scored a Top 10 hit that year with “You Really Got Me,” followed by another in 1965 and four more Top 40 entries by early the next year. By that point Sinatra, in need of cash, had sold Reprise to Warner Bros., which merged the companies and gave Ostin creative control.

Along with Waronker and Smith, Ostin signed successful pop acts like Petula Clark, the Association and Harpers Bizarre before moving on to more hard-edge rock bands like the Dead, Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull. Ostin himself signed Jimi Hendrix in 1967, drawn by the early buzz Hendrix was stirring in Britain.

That year, Ostin was named president of Warner-Reprise. By 1970, he was chairman and chief executive, a post he would hold for nearly a quarter-century.

In the early ’70s, the company greatly magnified its power by launching the WEA distribution system, filtering in the rich catalogs of Elektra and Atlantic Records. By adding more and more affiliated labels, Ostin gained enough muscle to take on the music industry’s unchallenged market behemoth at the time, CBS Records.

Rivalry between the two corporations escalated into a tit-for-tat battle starting in the late 1970s, when CBSs chief executive, Walter Yetnikoff, lured James Taylor away from Warner Bros.; Ostin retaliated by signing Paul Simon away from CBS. In the 1980s, Ostin pulled off the same feat by poaching Miles Davis from his longtime home at CBS. (By that time WEA had overtaken CBS as the market champion.)

The signing of Simon paid off particularly well in 1984, when his album “Graceland” became a major hit and, by incorporating influences from South Africa and elsewhere, stood as a game changer in Western awareness of global music.

“There was no indication whatsoever when we started that the album had any chance of a commercial payoff,” Simon told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “But Mo loved the idea and encouraged me to take the risk.”

Scores of culturally important or commercially mighty acts were nurtured by Warner Bros. in Ostin’s era. The list includes the bands Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Van Halen, Dire Straits, ZZ Top, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Sex Pistols, as well as George Benson, Rod Stewart, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Khan, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Ice-T.

During those years Fleetwood Mac went from a cult band to a historic album seller with the blockbuster “Rumours” in 1977. The next year, Ostin wooed Prince to the company. Other top labels had been vying for him, but Ostin bested them by taking the rare risk of guaranteeing Prince a three-album deal and by giving him creative control.

Of all the artists signed during the peak of his reign, Ostin singled out Neil Young and Prince as perhaps the most significant, in large part because their prestige became the incentive for important later artists to sign. “I can’t tell you how many new artists mention Neil Young when we’re trying to sign them — R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr. and tons of others,” he said.

Ostin’s departure from Warner Bros. in 1994 came in the wake of a corporate reshuffling in which he would have had to report to Robert Morgado, the new chairman of Warner Music Group, greatly limiting his autonomy. “This business is about freedom and creative control,” Ostin told The Los Angeles Times. “An executive has to be able to make risky decisions with minimal corporate interference.”

The next year, he joined with his son Michael, who had worked with him at Warner Bros., and Waronker to manage DreamWorks Records. Ostin retired from the music industry in 2004, after the DreamWorks label was sold to Universal Music Group, but he continued to do consulting work for Warner Bros.

In addition to his granddaughter Annabelle Ostin, he is survived by his brother, Gerald; his son Michael; three other grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. His wife died in 2005. Two of his sons died: Randy, a record promoter, in 2013, and Kenny in 2004.

Ostin’s unflagging support for artists led them to lionize him. Flea, whose band the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been signed by Ostin, said in an interview for this obituary in 2019: “Mo was an exceptionally kind and intelligent man. When I talked to him, I felt understood.”

That connection inspired Flea to write and record “a little country ditty,” in honor of Ostin after his departure from Warner Bros. — to Ostin’s great delight, he said.

“Mo, Mo, why did you have to go?” the unreleased song began. “You’re the first record company guy/That looked me in the eye.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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