Thursday, January 20, 2011

R.I.P. - Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner (left) with Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

Don Kirshner died at the age of 76 on January 17th. Don was perhaps best known as the musical impresario behind the Monkees and later the Archies. At the time some joked that after the Monkees fired him, Don decided to work with a cartoon band because they couldn't (fire him, that is). But looking at Kirshner's career through this sort of rockist prism sells the man and his genius for spotting and nurturing songs and talent short.

First of all, there was much more to Kirshner's career than his role as a bubblegum impresario. He started off working closely with his friend, and fellow Bronx High School of Science alumnus, Bobby Darin. He co-founded (with Al Nevins of Three Suns fame) Aldon Music, one of the most important "Brill Building" music publishing companies. Writers employed by Aldon included Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller. A few of the hits that originated at Aldon include: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Up On The Roof," "The Loco-Motion," "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," "One Fine Day," "Walking In The Rain," "Stupid Cupid," "Uptown," "On Broadway," "We Got To Get Out of This Place" and (last but certainly not least) "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)." Had he done nothing but co-found Aldon Music, Kirshner would be an important figure in 20th Century popular music.

But of course he did do more. Much more. He was hired by the producers of the Monkees to provide the pre-fab four with songs (which would be needed quickly due to the demands of television). The songs he provided them with, including "Last Train To Clarksville," "I'm A Believer," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" are rightly remembered as some of the greatest hits of the era, regardless of who actually preformed on them. And while much has been made of the fact that, yes, The Monkees did actually have their own songwriting talent (especially Michael Nesmith), it is unlikely anyone would care were it not for the outstanding material Kirshner brought to the band in the first place.

The Monkees fired Kirshner after he released "A Little Bit Of Me, A Little Bit Of You" as a single without the band's permission. Arguments about artistic integrity aside, it should be pointed out that it was a great choice for a single and one of the best songs released under the band's name. And rockist revisionist history aside, it should also be pointed out that the Monkees' sales slid precipitously after they fired Kirshner. They may have released some fine music post-Kirshner, but the the hits mostly dried up.

Kirshner's next project, The Archies, never got any respect from the rock establishment (not that it needed any), but I would still put "Sugar, Sugar" on a short list for greatest songs of the sixties. And despite the fact that the Archies failed to have as many big hits as The Monkees, many of their songs ("Jingle Jangle," "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," "Everything's Alright," etc.) hold up better than much of the "serious" rock music that was being championed by the rock music critical establishment at the time.

From 1971 until 1982 Kirshner hosted ABC's Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, which introduced such punk and new wave acts as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Devo, The New York Dolls, and The Police to American television audiences at a time when few other U.S. television and radio outlets would touch them.

Here is what Kirshner had to say about his days helping produce hits in The Brill Building:

"I believe that after I'm gone, my grandchildren will be whistling these tunes. Whether they know that I published them or not - they will be whistling these tunes the same as they do songs from My Fair Lady and Camelot, and these tunes will be part of American culture - they'll be used in movies and so on. Of all the legacies that I have given, personally to me it's very important that I was able to come out of the streets of Harlem, out of my dad's tailor shop, and have the ability to create an environment where this sound will be part of American and international culture forever."

Don Kirshner is survived by his wife of 50 years, Sheila, two sons and five grandchildren. Whistle one of the many tunes Don Kirshner helped bring to the public's consciousness in their honor.

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