Last week Mo Ostin died, at age 95. I was beyond lucky to work with Mo at Warner Bros. Records, the company he ran for 32 years, and wanted to share some memories of arguably the most important record executive ever, and the smartest person I ever met in the music business. By a mile.
My first real ‘job’ was selling records at Rhino Records in Los Angeles. At the time, my fantasy was a career in the music business, working for either Warner Bros. or A&M –the labels with a reputation for being ‘artist oriented.’
Somehow, my dream came true, and I ended up working for both. In 1981, the late great Gil Friesen, president of A&M, hired me as his assistant, and became my mentor and lifelong friend. I had a number of jobs there, eventually becoming vice president of marketing and creative services. And then in 1990, as A&M was sold to Polygram, Mo hired me to be Warner’s senior vice president of creative services.
I couldn’t believe it. Mo Ostin, the man who signed Jimi Hendrix, my favorite artist of all time, as well as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Prince, even the Sex Pistols had hired…me! To work at Warner Bros., the most important and successful label ever, and the coolest too.
I experienced a bit of culture shock moving from A&M to Warners. At A&M, I was in Gil’s office many times each day, letting him know what was going on, running decisions by him, asking for advice. At Warner Bros., things were much more decentralized. Chairman Mo and president Lenny Waronker spent a long time finding and recruiting the executives they wanted to hire, and then pretty much turned them loose. It took me a while to adjust to their hands-off approach. They assumed their staff knew what they were doing, and if you had questions, they were always available. Each week you would update them and the rest of the senior execs at the Monday vice presidents meeting, and the Thursday, four-hour long senior VP meeting (dubbed Korea, because it dragged on endlessly, like the war.)
There were many very smart people at Warners, but Mo was in a class of his own. He knew music and the business inside out, remembered everything, had a deeply strategic mind, impeccable taste, and genuinely cared about people. Unlike most record company heads, he always played the long game, never chasing the quick buck. And he always wanted to do the right thing for Warners’ artists and employees. As longtime Warners publicity head Bob Merlis noted in his remembrance in Variety, Mo made it feel like you worked ‘with’ him, not ‘for’ him.
When Mo left Warners at the end of 1994, after a truly idiotic corporate management reshuffle (details here,) my department created this Billboard magazine ad, picturing 104 artists he’d either signed, made deals for, worked closely with, or brought to the company via the label deals he’d made.
As the headline says, They all have one thing in common…and his name is Mo.
I can’t imagine anyone in the music business has ever worked with a list of artists half this impressive.
Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Tiny Tim, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, Neil Young, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Beach Boys, Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, T.Rex, Todd Rundgren, America, The Allman Brothers Band, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Rod Stewart, Curtis Mayfield, George Benson, George Harrison, Funkadelic, Steve Martin, Ramones, Talking Heads, Steve Winwood, The Band, Dire Straits, Van Halen, Prince, Devo, B-52s, ZZ Top, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Pretenders, Elton John, The Who, U2, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, Donald Fagen, Chicago, Madonna, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Los Lobos, Don Henley, The Smiths, Aerosmith, New Order, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, Miles Davis, k.d. Lang, Guns N’ Roses, Ice-T, Jane’s Addiction, R.E.M. Traveling Wilburys, Elvis Costello, Enya, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Seal, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Tom Petty. And that’s leaving a bunch out.
And unlike virtually all of his peers, Mo seemed almost allergic to taking credit. ‘Interviews have always been a personal hang-up. To me, the artist is the person who should be in the foreground,’ he told the Los Angeles Times, in his first-ever interview, given shortly before leaving Warner Bros. after 32 years.
Paradoxically, Mo was one of the best storytellers I met in all of my years in the business. In private, he loved sharing his incredible tales of the music business. Here are a few classics.
Mo was never an accountant: Many articles mistakenly stated that Mo was an accountant, whose first music business job was for jazz impresario Norman Granz, owner of the Clef and Verve labels. Mo actually studied economics at UCLA, but one of his responsibilities for Granz was calling record distributors around the country to get them to pay their overdue bills. Granz gave just-out-of-college Ostin the lofty title of ‘controller,’ figuring the distributors would pay up more quickly if the label’s ‘controller’ was calling.
The Kinks: Frank Sinatra hired Mo to run his Reprise label. In addition to Sinatra’s own releases, the label signed his friends and middle-of-the-road artists including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. When the Beatles exploded, the record business began to shift to rock, which repulsed Sinatra. He labeled the music, ‘The most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.’ Mo could see the future, but Frank steadfastly refused to let him sign rock acts. Over time, Sinatra saw the fortunes of his label decline precipitously, and eventually, he gave in to Mo. His first rock signing was The Kinks, who’s first release, “You Really Got Me,” was a Top 10 hit, soon followed by five more Top 40 hits.
Jimi Hendrix: In the UK music papers, Mo read about the young Black American guitarist whose debut single, “Hey Joe,” was charting in England. Sensing something special, he had a contact send him the record. Mo loved it, and quickly made a deal with Roland Rennie at UK Polydor to license Hendrix’s records for North America. A few days later Rennie called back, and apologetically explained he hadn’t realized that Track Records, who’d signed Hendrix to their Polydor subsidiary, had a first-right-of-refusal deal with Atlantic Records. So Mo couldn’t sign Hendrix unless Atlantic passed. Mo was understandably upset, and conveyed to Rennie how much he still wanted Hendrix, urging him to do everything he could to get Atlantic to pass. Polydor sent the single to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic with no fanfare, and Wexler passed, opining Hendrix to be nothing more than ‘lower case B.B.King.’ Mo told me this story a number of times, but refused to go on the record, even after Wexler’s death, not wanting to embarrass his old friend. Eventually, in an interview for the 2021 book Sonic Boom, Mo came clean.
Sinatra: Mo had many great Frank stories, but my favorite was about Reprise’s Chicago distributor notifying the label that they’d ‘dropped the line,’ ie, decided not to distribute Reprise any more. Mo called Frank to see if he could help, and Frank called one of his connected ‘friends’ in the city. An hour later, the distributor called back, apologizing. It had all been a misunderstanding, of course, and they didn’t drop Reprise.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: In 1990, the newly out of contract Chili Peppers were the object of a major-label bidding war. Mo wanted the group desperately, and spent a good deal of time with the band members, inviting them to his home, taking them to Laker games, and letting them know just how successful he thought they could be at Warner Bros. He bonded with the Peppers, particularly Flea and Anthony Kiedis, but Columbia Records offered more than Warners, and the band decided to go with the bigger offer. Mo, ever the gentleman, called the band members to let them know how much he’d enjoyed getting to know them, wishing them the best of luck.
Later, as their lawyer began drawing up the contract with Columbia, the band was disappointed when some of what they’d been promised wasn’t forthcoming. Evidently the terms had changed. They thought about how much they liked Mo, his reputation for integrity, and how classy he’d been, even after they told him they weren’t signing with Warners. And so they called Mo, and told him if he was still interested, they’d sign to WB. Which they did, leading to massive worldwide success.
Here’s a story illustrating just how on the ball Mo was. At a vice president’s meeting, Tom Ruffino, head of international, casually mentioned that Rod Stewart was touring Germany, and that the German company was doing a big TV advertising campaign around the tour, and releasing a Greatest Hits album for the German market only. Mo turned to David Altschul, head of business affairs, and said ‘I remember four or five years ago when we renegotiated Rod’s deal, there was a provision for a Greatest Hits album. Can you check the contract and make sure the German Greatest Hits album doesn’t get in the way of that?’
And another. In 1992, Eric Clapton had done MTV’s popular show Unplugged, where artists performed live with only acoustic instruments. Clapton’s show was a hit, and we soon heard reports of people coming into record stores, asking if there was going to be a Clapton Unplugged album. Mo told Clapton that his fans were clamoring for an album of his performance, and he agreed we could release one. Fast forward a few months. On the eve of the Unplugged release, the senior WB staff were in Santa Barbara, for an off-site meeting. During one of our sessions, someone got a message to Mo; evidently Clapton had changed his mind, and wanted to cancel the Unplugged album. Mo left the meeting to call Clapton in England. He explained to him the album wouldn’t be perceived as Eric’s new album, but rather would be a ‘souvenir’ for his fans, who’d been asking for it, and were excited it was coming. He returned to the meeting an hour or so later, having somehow managed to get Clapton back on track. You probably know the rest. Unplugged sold 26 million copies, won three Grammys, including Album of the Year, and is the best selling live album of all time. And the biggest album of Clapton’s long career.
And here’s how into music Mo was. Sometime in the early 90s, I went to see the long-past-his-prime Tiny Tim play at a small club in Santa Monica. The next day I mentioned it to Mo, who’d signed Tiny in 1968. He was truly sorry I hadn’t invited him; he would have LOVED to have seen Tiny Tim. Here was the chairman of the biggest record company in the world, lamenting that he’d missed an opportunity to see Tiny Tim!
Mo’s extraordinary run at Warner Bros. drew to a close in late December 1994. Lenny Waronker and Mo’s son Michael, head of A&R at Warners, also left– each a big loss for the label. Less than a year later, the three launched a new label, Dreamworks Records, partnering with Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. And more success followed.
In 2003 Mo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by his friends Paul Simon, Neil Young and Lorne Michaels. When Dreamworks eventually closed, Mo stayed active, as a consultant to Warner Bros., lending his sage advice to the Warners team, and serving on various boards at his alma mater, UCLA. Mo’s philanthropy included donating ten million dollars to the school to establish the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, and ten million more to build a basketball training facility.
The thing I haven’t mentioned, which was far more important to Mo than all of his business success, was his family. His wonderful wife, Evelyn, was his full partner in everything, and beloved by all who knew her–including the artists and staff of Warners. Evelyn and Mo enjoyed life thoroughly. I remember going to dinner with them in San Francisco. Mo couldn’t decide what to order; he thought everything on the menu looked great. When the waiter came, he ordered every entree on the menu, split in thirds. For the next few hours, the three of us sampled probably ten different meals, laughing at the absurdity of it.
Mo and Evelyn had three sons, Michael, Randy and Kenny, all of whom worked in the music business. Michael’s beloved wife Joyce became the daughter they never had, and the couple’s three daughters were the light of Mo and Evelyn’s life. Unfortunately, Mo outlived some of those closest to him. I can’t imagine the profound sadness the family must have felt losing Kenny, then Evelyn, Randy, and earlier this year, Joyce.
I stayed in touch with Mo, meeting up with him for the occasional lunch, and tapping into his big brain when I needed advice. He was always happy to share his insights, and I was always happy to hear more of those stories.
Mo Ostin definitely made his mark, and I–and music lovers everywhere– owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Rest in Peace Mo. You definitely earned it.
Here’s a song Mo’s great friend George Harrison wrote in tribute to Mo, on the occasion of his 60th birthday.
(And thanks to a few others who changed my life: Richard Foos hired me at Rhino and set me on my path. Jeff Ayeroff convinced Gil Friesen to hire me. Gary Borman thought I should work at WB, and introduced me to Michael Ostin, who agreed and introduced me to Mo and Lenny. Evelyn and Mo brought Depak Chopra to WB, starting me on my long meditation journey. And of course Jody.)