R.I.P. DON KIRSHNER
Don Kirshner, the veteran music mogul who shepherded the work of monstrously talented young songwriters to the top of the pop charts in the 1960s, launched the career of the Monkees, then made his face familiar to millions of rock fans as impresario of his late-night live-music TV series in the 1970s, died Monday of heart failure in Boca Raton, Fla., where he had lived for several years, his family members said. He was 76.
"Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" brought the biggest names in rock and pop music in the 1970s to television in "Rock Concert" in live performances instead of the usual lip-synced sessions that often characterized rock music on television. Each week Kirshner, in his distinctive Bronx accent, dryly introduced acts, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sly & the Family Stone, Devo and countless others over its nine-year run. His monotone style led to a famous parody that musician and bandleader Paul Shaffer delivered a number of times on "Saturday Night Live."
He helped dream up the Monkees, a fabricated pop-rock quartet designed to emulate much of the appeal of the Beatles for weekly viewers of the group's TV show, which also yielded a string of hit singles and albums. But the group members' struggles to inject their own musical sensibilities into the show led to a famous battle over creative control with Kirshner.
Guitarist and songwriter Michael Nesmith famously put his fist through the wall of Kirshner's bungalow during one of the more heated sessions.
"Donny was there with his attorney," Monkees drummer and singer Micky Dolenz told the Washington Post in 2004, "basically presenting us with this money and saying, in so many words, 'Why don't you shut up and cash the check?' And that's not the sort of thing you said to Mike Nesmith at the time. To be honest, I couldn't have cared less. I was 20 years old, making money. But Mike led this revolt, and out of camaraderie, we all went along."
The Monkees won, and eventually Kirshner was fired from his role with the group. He went on to form the Archies, one of pop's quintessential bubblegum acts targeting teen and preteen fans. The Archies logged four weeks at No. 1 in 1969 with their effervescent hit "Sugar, Sugar."
Even before the Monkees got started in 1965, Kirshner was already a music business heavyweight, having helped get a career going for his friend Bobby Darin, then starting a music publishing company that hired rising songwriters, including Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and the teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
Those writers crafted dozens of pop hits in the early to mid-'60s, many of them since lauded as classics of the Brill Building era. After "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" ended its run in the early 1980s, supplanted in some respects by the new kid on the block, MTV, Kirshner went into virtual retirement and moved to Florida, where he lived for decades in seclusion with his wife.
A series of bad business deals led him to file for bankruptcy in 2000. He also periodically expressed his disappointment that he was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as its many nonperformer honorees.
"I don't want to sound like sour grapes," he said in 2004, "but I believe I should have been one of the first three or first five inducted. Seriously. I mean, they've got people in there that I trained, and I'm not in? It bothers me, on principle."
Kirshner is survived by his wife of 50 years, Sheila, children Ricky and Daryn and five grandchildren. Services are pending.
-- Randy Lewis
January 18, 2011
More at Pop & Hiss, The Times' music blog, and later at latimes.com/obituaries.
Photo: Don Kirshner, left, with Carole King and Gerry Goffin in an undated photo. Credit: From Don Kirshner