Mo Ostin, longtime chairman of Warner Records, dies at 95

By HILLEL ITALY
National AP Editor

NEW YORK (AP) — Mo Ostin, a self-effacing music industry giant who, with rare integrity, presided over the rise of Warner Bros. Records to a sprawling billion-dollar empire and helped discover and nurture artists from Jimi Hendrix to Green Day, is dead. He was 95 years old.

Warner Records said Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Ostin died “peacefully in his sleep” on Sunday. In a statement, the company called him “one of the greatest record-breakers of all time.”

“He remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and for the people who worked for him. Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed by the entire industry he helped create, as well as the countless artists and colleagues he inspired to perform at their best,” said Tom Corson, Co-Chairman and Director of Operations, and Aaron Bay-Schuck, Co-Chairman and CEO, in the statement.

Short, bald and sweet, “Chairman Mo” was never as famous as rival moguls such as Clive Davis or Walter Yetnikoff, but few matched his power or prestige as rock music officially became big business. For decades, Ostin has thrived on the simple, underutilized idea of ​​taking talented, quirky artists and letting them stay talented and quirky, whether it’s Hendrix and Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon, or REM and Green. Day.

“Mo Ostin was one of a kind,” Davis tweeted. “The company he chaired was truly unique in its very special handling of artists and the extraordinary depth and range of talent on its roster. Mo’s artists have had a profound impact on contemporary music and culture, deeply and historically. »

Under Ostin’s guidance, Warner signed Hendrix when the guitarist was barely known beyond the London club scene, Fleetwood Mac when they were a blues band, and the Grateful Dead when their legend was confined to the Bay. Area. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Nirvana, Madonna, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Prince, REM and Guns N’ Roses were among other artists who joined Warner during his reign.

“Bullying isn’t the answer,” Ostin told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I don’t know why, but business people tend to think in terms of immediate gratification. Sure, you can make another dollar out of anything, but that’s not what makes a record label run profitably.

He also assembled a team of elite and trusted executives, including Warner president-producer Lenny Waronker and head of publicity and marketing Stan Cronyn. David Geffen, whose Geffen label was distributed by Warner, would eventually hire Ostin to lead the DreamWorks music division.

Ostin started at Warner in 1963, became president in 1970, president soon after and rarely faltered over the next quarter century as the once fringe label eventually included Elektra, Atlantic, Sire, Geffen’s Asylum and Madonna’s Maverick Records. , among others. As companies finally embraced the music they once despised, Warner fiercely competed with CBS Records – and its frontman, Yetnikoff – for industry leadership. Ostin’s heyday was an era of high-level bidding and poaching, whether Warner took Simon from Columbia or Columbia convinced Taylor to leave Warner.

Ostin was praised for his judgment and for his patience, sticking with artists such as Simon and Van Morrison even when their albums failed to sell. It even inspired some songs, including Young’s “Surfer Joe” and Harrison’s playful ballad “Mo,” featured on a six-CD compilation of music that Ostin had helped release.

His ousting in 1994 brought new tributes. “Mo, Mo, why you gotta go? / You’re the first guy in the record label / Looked me in the eye,” Flea of ​​the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote. Many artists and executives left Warner after his departure.

Ostin had occasional conflicts with artists. Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood would recall his displeasure when the band followed up their hit ‘Rumours’ album with the experimental double-disc ‘Tusk’. Some of Prince’s biggest hits, including his albums “Purple Rain” and “1999,” were released through Warner. But Prince fought with the company for control of his master tapes and the amount of music he could release. For a while he changed his name to the artist formerly known as Prince. He appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek.

“It bothered me, but I understood where he was coming from,” Ostin told Billboard in 2016, adding that he remained in awe of the late musician. “The guy was so incredibly talented it was overwhelming.”

Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York in 1927, Ostin was the able and fortunate son of Jewish immigrants. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13 and found themselves next to the brother of jazz impresario Norman Granz, whose Verve label included Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker. While a student at UCLA, Ostin helped Granz sell concert programs, and he dropped out of UCLA law school in the mid-1950s to manage the finances of Verve (called Clef in the era).

Ostin fit in well with Verve’s friendly environment and was noticed by a superstar who, in the late 1950s, tried to buy the label: Frank Sinatra. When Sinatra instead formed his own company, Reprise, he brought in Ostin to run it.

“Frank’s idea was to create an environment that both artistically and economically would be more appealing to the artist than anyone else,” said Ostin, who shortened his name shortly afterwards. his entry into the recording industry, at the LA Times. “It was not like that elsewhere. You had finance guys, lawyers, marketing guys.

But Ostin became frustrated with Sinatra’s dislike of rock music and moved on to Warner, who had bought Reprise. He signed one of Britain’s hot new bands, the Kinks, and followed over the next few years with Hendrix, the Dead, Morrison and others. He took on heavy metal bands (Black Sabbath), light pop (The Association), country rock (the Allman Brothers), comedians (Steve Martin) and novelty artists (Tiny Tim).

His good reputation and actions helped him again and again. When Gene Simmons of Kiss learned of an upcoming Los Angeles-area band, he alerted Ostin, and Van Halen soon signed a record deal. In 1990, Ostin outbid Sony/Epic’s Chili Peppers, but still called singer-songwriter Anthony Kiedis to wish him well. Kiedis was so surprised that the band ended up dropping Sony and moving to Warner.

Ostin had a close relationship with business manager Steve Ross, chairman of Kinney National Services when the former parking company bought Warner in 1969. But Ross died of cancer in 1992 and Ostin clashed with the chairman of Warner Music Group, Bob Morgado, who believed the company needed to cut expenses.

One breaking point was rapper Ice-T’s single “Cop Killer,” which led to numerous takedown demands, with critics including law enforcement, conservative actor-activist Charlton Heston and the president of the George HW Bush era. Ice-T left Warner in 1993 after agreeing not to put the song on his last album and the fallout would have greatly weakened Ostin’s position.

In 1995, Geffen convinced Ostin and Waronker to lead the music division of the new company DreamWorks. George Michael, Nelly Furtado and comedian Chris Rock were among the artists signed before DreamWorks was purchased by Universal Music in 2003.

In recent years, Ostin was a consultant at Warners and donated $10 million to UCLA to help establish the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, named in part for his 55-year-old wife, Evelyn. , who died in 2005. Their three sons – Michael, Kenny and Randy – all served as Warner executives. Randy died of cancer at age 60 in 2013.

Mo Ostin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, with Young and Simon as presenters. In 2014, he received a Grammy “Icon” Lifetime Achievement Award, honored as “a true pioneer of the contemporary music era whose lifelong work has had a profound impact on artists that ‘he helped develop and the fans around the world who benefited from it’. of their inspired creativity.