For many music fans, Don Kirshner was the straightfaced host of his own "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" -- so matter-of-fact that his introductions were famously, and lovingly, lampooned on "Saturday Night Live." But Kirshner was much more than that, a songwriter, manager, publisher and music executive whose successes earned him nicknames such as "The Man With the Golden Ear" and "Starmaker Supreme."
Kirshner, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007, died Monday (Jan. 17) from heart failure in Boca Raton, Fla., at the age of 76, leaving a legacy of music that includes the likes of Neil Diamond, Bobby Darin, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, the Monkees, the Archies and Kansas.
Kansas drummer and manager Phil Ehart said that his band "owes its 38-year career to Don Kirshner, who signed us to his label in 1973. We were six bumpkins for Topeka that wore jeans, t shirts, overalls and cowboy boots, and our music was complicated with all kinds of time signature changes. But he saw and heard something in us that no one else realized, and we as a band are very grateful that he did. Thank you, Don. We will miss you."
"Don Kirshner was all over the place," Diamond, who worked with Kirshner at New York's Brill Building, remembered in 1993, when he released his album "Up on the Roof: Songs From the Brill Building." "He was like the mayor of the Brill Building, a real mover and shaker. But if he liked something you wrote, you felt good. You knew it had a real chance to be a hit."
In a statement, Sedaka, who was discovered by Kirshner when he was 18, said that "Donny worked for many years promoting my songs. It was Don's introduction to Connie Francis, who would go on to record 'Stupid Cupid,' [that propelled] my songwriter career. He was a great friend, a pioneer, and a father figure for many of us young songwriters. He will be missed."
The Bronx-born Kirshner got his start during the late 50s with partner Al Nevins and their Aldon Music publishing company, whose roster of songwriters included the likes of Diamond, Sedaka, Darin, King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Howard Greenfield and more. As a manager, Kirshner was influential in pushing several of them to become artists in their own right.
Kirshner also tapped his stable of writers when he was hired as music director for "The Monkees" TV show, assembling songs that appeared on the program and on the group's first two albums. The group, however, became frustrated at the lack of control over their output -- Mike Nesmith famously punched a hole in the wall of the Beverly Hills Hotel during a meeting with Kirshner and Colgems Records attorney Herb Moelis -- and Kirshner was gone from the project in late 1966.
Kirshner went on to helm the Archies, the studio band for the TV cartoon series "The Archie Show" that had hits such as "Sugar, Sugar" and "Bang-Shang-a-Lang." He also established the Chairman Records and Calendar Records label during the 60s, while in the 70s his Kirshner label launched the career of Midwestern rockers Kansas.
The syndicated "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" grew out of his involvement as a creative consultant for ABC's "In Concert," with Kirshner insisting that the acts play live rather than lip-synching their performances. The show launched on Sept. 27, 1973, with the Rolling Stones' first American TV appearance in more than four years. Its 230 episodes, which ran through 1981, featuring a wide array of artists such as Kiss, ABBA, Sly & the Family Stone, Peter Frampton, the Ramones, the Eagles, Rush, Kansas and many others, all introduced in what Kirshner pal Paul Shaffer described in his memoir as "a scared-stiff discourse slowed down from 45 rpm to 33 1/3 and delivered in trembling voice, eyes wide open." Shaffer, who was on "Saturday Night Live" at the time, wrote that he "knew I was carrying a killer impersonation in my back pocket" that he used on the show to increase Kirshner's stature with the general public.
"Mr. Kirshner on network television became bigger than his syndicated version of himself," wrote Shaffer, who also appeared in the short-lived CBS sitcom "A Year at the Top" which Kirshner co-executive produced with Norman Lear. Blue Oyster Cult, meanwhile, sampled Kirshner's "Rock Concert" voice on the song "The Marshall Plan" from its 1980 album, "Cultosaurus Erectus."
Funeral services for Kirshner are being arranged in Florida. He is survived by his loving wife of 50 years, Sheila, his children Ricky and Daryn and five grandchildren. The family asked for donations to be made to the Don Kirshner Scholarship Fund for emerging songwriters (70 West 36 Street, Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10018).