Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: 'Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear'

In a business that canonizes artists, writers, and producers, Don Kirshner is the rare pop music publisher to achieve household name status. Much of his fame is due to his hosting of his own tremendously successful music series, “In Concert”, during the ‘70s. It is also due to the unusual role he played pioneering the ‘60s bubblegum sound, first as the dominating music coordinator behind The Monkees, then as a veritable Gepetto who brought cartoon band The Archies to life by helping “them” score a massive hit with “Sugar Sugar”. But even without such odd side roads, Kirshner would still deserve his own chapter in the Rock & Roll history books for assembling the reserve of songwriters who sweated over their pianos in Manhattan’s Brill Building to craft classics like “Uptown”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and countless others for Kirshner and partner Al Nevins’s Aldon Music company. These writers—Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, Jack Keller—may not have had the successful careers they enjoyed had they not caught the “golden ear” of Don Kirshner.

Rich Podolsky’s new book Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear is not as much a straight biography of Kirshner as it is a vivid account of the post-‘50s, pre-British Invasion years in which Aldon hits infused the air waves. And it is as much the story of that stable of writers as it is Kirshner’s tale. This is integral since the supporting players of Don Kirshner are a more colorful than the straight-laced title character, who often fades into the background after, say, discovering Connie Francis or surmising that “I Love How You Love Me” would be a hit without hearing more than the song’s title. Kirshner’s staid exploits aren’t as attention snatching as Goffin and King’s volatile relationship and preternatural artistry.

The extensive interviews Podolsky conducted are the backbone of his book, which is a bit freewheeling stylistically. He begins in narrative mode, using dialogue to entertaining effect, before shirking off that inspired conceit to tell his story in a more conventional biographical manner. Although the shift means the storytelling becomes less interesting, the story remains essential, and Podolsky does a terrific job of setting the early-‘60s record industry scene, when singers and songwriters were rarely the same people. The Brill Building comes to life as a family home overseen by Papa Kirshner, for whom Podolsky clearly has tremendous affection, referring to the publisher as his “hero” right from the book’s introduction. The writer sometimes takes his hero-worship a bit too far, bending facts to overstate Kirshner’s achievements. Podolsky claims The Monkees never had another number one hit after they fired Kirshner in early 1967 (“Daydream Believer” was number one for a month at the end of the year), and seems to agree with producer “Snuff” Garrett’s assessment that the boys were “assholes” for wanting the freedom to make music they way they wanted to make it. What young artist doesn’t want that? He credits the ‘70s series “In Concert” with launching the career of Van Morrison (who had a top ten hit with “Brown Eyed Girl” back in ’67) and giving The Who their first shot on American T.V. (they’d made an explosive appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Show”, also in ’67). However, Don Kirshner is such swift, entertaining, and generally informative reading that such flaws may be worth overlooking.

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