Skip to main content

Don Kirshner took pop music to new heights

Don Kirshner could smell a hit from a mile away. His music empire created hundreds of hits and provided the soundtrack for much of the '50s and '60s.

By Jeff Marcus

Another year, another list of Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees and another debate among critics and music fans as to why some artists have been inducted (Madonna, anyone?) and others left out (The Doobie Brothers, for instance.)

I’ve heard all the arguments related to the inclusion of the late Don Kirshner, who received the Rock Hall's Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012. He wasn’t a singer. He wasn’t a musician. He was the guy who supervised the music for “The Monkees” TV show and created The Archies, for crying out loud. To those who object to his inclusion, these achievements are not considered “real” rock and roll.

Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction 2012

But to many, Don Kirshner was the man with the golden ear. He was the Don Draper of the music world, heading Aldon Music with his partner, Al Nevins, in New York’s famed Brill Building. The Aldon publishing offices employed a stable of talented songwriting teams: Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield; Carole King and Jerry Goffin; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Burt Bacharach and Hal David; Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. At the height of Aldon’s productivity, 18 writers were on the staff, which included the likes of Neil Diamond and Jack Keller. Collectively, this one-of-a-kind talent factory was the soundtrack for much of the late 1950s through the late 1960s.
Kirshner could smell a hit from a mile away, and his music empire created hundreds of gems for artists ranging from Connie Francis and Elvis Presley to The Animals and Manfred Mann, not to mention the teen opuses made by Phil Spector and his stable of artists.

What would this world be like without classics such as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” “The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep-Mountain High,” Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” or Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”? I hate to think of it!

Kirshner’s career began when he joined forces with his Bronx High School classmate, Walden Robert Cassotto, to write commercial jingles. When Cassotto blossomed into singer Bobby Darin, Don Kirshner approached Al Nevins, of The Three Suns, about forming a music publishing company.

Aldon’s first major success was the writing team of Neil Sedaka and Howard

Don Kirshner with Ron Dante and Toni Wine

Known as the Man With the Golden ear, Don Kirshner (left, with Ron Dante and Toni Wine, the real-life voices of Kirshner's animated pop group The Archies) made many marks on popular music. From his Brill Building songwriting operation to The Monkees TV show to Don Kirshner's Rock Concerts and beyond, he was involved in a variety of ventures that shaped popular music. Photo courtesy Jeff Marcus.

Greenfield, who penned Connie Francis’ hits “Stupid Cupid” and “Where The Boys Are.” Aldon writing teams were issued a cubicle with a piano. When Sedaka and Greenfield wrote their first hit, they were awarded an office with a window. “That was a big deal!” Sedaka told me.

The walls at the Brill Building were thin, and, as a result, a healthy competition was born among writers.
“I wanted them to learn about hooks, riffs, timing, where they were more musically inclined than I was. And everybody was rooting for each other,” Kirshner once said.

Hits were what drove Kirshner, and he would not let anything stand in the way of letting one slip by him. Don Kirshner always made himself accessible to his writing staff.

Keller, who likened his experience at the Brill Building to working in the Garden of Eden, said that Kirshner was probably one of the best song
pluggers who ever lived. How Kirshner prioritized his business duties also was telling.

“I went in there (to Kirshner’s office), and to the right they had five attorneys with Nevins and Kirshner. And I say, ‘Hey, you gotta hear this song!’ Donnie stands up and walks out of the room, and I play him the song. Never said no to hearing a song,” Keller said.
Aldon Music grew by leaps and bounds. In 1962, it held court on the entire 10th floor of the Brill Building. Aldon was a busy place, as the firm produced artists, signed and managed talent and, of course, published songs. And yet, the record companies earned the lion’s share of the money. The production company traditionally earned 2 percent of record sales, so Aldon rolled out two record labels that year: Companion and Dimension. Chubby Checker’s runaway hit, “The Twist,” set off a mammoth dance craze movement, and Kirshner was keen to tap into that genre. Dimension’s first big hit was the No. 1 “The Loco-Motion,” sung by Little Eva (real name Eva Boyd), who baby sat for the tune’s writers, Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

The Monkees perform

The Monkees perform

Aldon Music was like one big family, at least for awhile. The times, as Bob Dylan sang, were a-changin’. More and more rock performers, like Dylan and The Beatles, were writing their own material. It didn’t help matters when Kirshner and Nevins sold Aldon Music to Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. Nevins became a consultant for Columbia Pictures, while Kirshner was dubbed the executive vice-president in charge of all Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems publishing and recording activities. Writers like Jack Keller were now cranking out TV themes for shows like “Bewitched.” When Screen Gems launched “The Monkees,” Kirshner became the musical supervisor for the show, and writers like Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Neil Diamond supplied the fictional group with hits like “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “I’m A Believer,” respectively. The Monkees project essentially was a license to print money, and “corporate rock” firmly planted its seeds in the soil.

Kirshner eventually was let go during a power struggle, when Michael Nesmith, in particular, grew tired of being used as a puppet and won more control over the group’s musical direction. When Kirshner awarded each member of The Monkees a check for $250,000 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Nesmith erupted, put his fist through a wall and told Kirshner, “That could have been your face.”
“That actually happened,” said “Headquarters” producer Chip Douglas.

Kirshner immediately hired top Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams and sued for breach of contract for $68 million.

“Don felt that when you’re hired to do the music and everything goes to No. 1, I think you did your job,” Douglas said.

The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Monkees’ TV show lasted only two seasons.

“The Monkees killed themselves,” Keller said. “They killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

After the experience with The Monkees, Kirshner decided that his next musical success story would exist only in theory. Hiring top session musicians and a demo singer named Ron Dante from the Brill Building days, Kirshner created The Archies — and promptly struck the bubblegum-pop jackpot.

In 1972, the ever-productive Kirshner launched “In Concert,” a television program that featured live musical performances. A year later, he segued the show into “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” and along with “The Midnight Special,” it was the only way you could see your favorite artists perform in the comfort of your own living room in a pre-MTV world. An interesting project, to be sure, when you consider the stoic, almost accountant-like delivery of Don Kirshner introducing the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Ramones. The program ran until 1981 — the same year that MTV launched.
Although he eventually retired, Kirshner never completely parted ways with the industry he loved. He joined Rockrena, a company that promotes new musical talent online, as a creative consultant. Unfortunately, Kirshner didn’t get to see the fruits of his labor with Rockrena. He died of heart failure Jan. 17, 2011; he was 76. Rockrena launched shortly after his death.

If there is, indeed, a Rock and Roll Heaven, as The Righteous Brother once sang, and you know they have a hell of a band, then we suspect Don Kirshner is busy picking out their hits.

Marcus is author of the two-book series “American Record Sleeves” Vols. 1 and 2. Visit his site at