Publishing Visionary Chuck Kaye, the Force Behind Warner Chappell, Dies at 80

Chuck Kaye
Abby Ross

Chuck Kaye

"He was a champion of songwriters, and an extraordinary strategic thinker and technological leader who was always the first to see where the business was headed," Warner Chappell co-chairs Carianne Marshall and Guy Moot said in a joint statement.

Chuck Kaye, the music publishing visionary who orchestrated the formation of Warner Chappell Music and later headed publishing at DreamWorks, died due to complications from COVID-19 on Monday. He was 80 years old.

Over his more than 30-year career in the music industry, Kaye led a series of seminal publishers which also included Almo/Irving, Geffen/Kaye and Windswept Pacific. He is remembered by his peers as a driving force behind songwriter-publisher relationships with a remarkable ability to stay ahead of future trends and build company after company from the ground up.

"Chuck Kaye was a visionary architect of modern music publishing, and the force behind the formation of Warner Chappell Music 34 years ago," Warner Chappell co-chair/COO Carianne Marshall and co-chair/CEO Guy Moot said in a joint statement. "He was a champion of songwriters, and an extraordinary strategic thinker and technological leader who was always the first to see where the business was headed [...] Our company wouldn’t be what it is today without Chuck’s inspiration, creativity, foresight, boldness, and his sheer love of songs and those who write them."

Legendary musician and music executive Herb Alpert, who worked with Kaye at Alpert's A&M Records, added: "I had a profound shock when I learned about Chuck Kaye’s passing. Not having seen him in years, my image of him was always that he would be the last man standing. His energy sucked you into his orbit in a beautiful way. Bright, quick wit, and authentic to the core. What a man. What a legacy."

Simply put, "Anyone who knew him knows his legacy is too large to define," Kaye's stepbrother and Windswept Pacific business partner, film music executive Joel Sill, tells Billboard. Growing up in Los Angeles, music "was always around us," adds Sill, who still remembers the first concert the two attended together: Ike & Tina Turner in a small club on Sunset Boulevard. Kaye's stepfather, Lester Sill, was a music executive best known as Phil Spector's partner in Philles Records. Songwriter Jerry Leiber lived with the family for a time, which is how a young Kaye became the inspiration for The Coasters' hit songs "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown" -- an early sign of the various marks on music history Kaye would leave behind.

Kaye began his music industry career in the 1960s with stints at Philles Records and Dimension Records, the label outlet for publisher Aldon Music. He entered the publishing business at Screen Gems-Columbia, then built Almo/Irving Music, the publishing arm of Alpert and Jerry Moss's A&M Records. From there, he went on to partner with David Geffen on the publishing company Geffen/Kaye, which Warner Communications acquired in 1980.

Like others who knew Kaye, Sill notes that his stepbrother could "see around corners" to predict industry trends before they happened. After becoming head of Warner Bros. Music in 1981, Kaye oversaw the implementation of a new computer system to track royalties and improved the copyright management process, launching a period of major growth and technological advancement at the company. Kaye also understood that the burgeoning home video and cable businesses would dramatically boost revenues for film song copyrights in the 1980s, and pitched and landed many songs for placement on top soundtracks, including "Up Where We Belong" for An Officer and a Gentleman, "Maniac" for Flashdance and "Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)" for Arthur. He also brought in Greek composer Vangelis, the force behind the award-winning scores to Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.

Kaye's next major deal came in 1982, when he led Warner's acquisition of the 20th Century Fox publishing catalogs, including John Williams' scores for the first two Star Wars films and work by legendary composers like Bernard Hermann, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin. Kaye also welcomed a string of major rock acts into the Warner fold during his tenure, including Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Whitesnake.

But Kaye wasn't finished making music industry history, and his most significant deal was yet to come. In 1987, after a fierce bidding war, Warner acquired the music publishing company Chappell-Intersong, bringing together two of the world's largest and most powerful publishing firms to form Warner Chappell Music.

Kaye soon departed Warner Chappell to build yet another publishing company, forming Windswept Pacific in partnership with Sill. Then, in 1997, he reunited with Geffen to become head of music publishing at DreamWorks.

It's not altogether surprising to learn that in his spare time, the executive known for exploring uncharted paths loved to sail. "He loved music, he loved life, he loved family and friends, [and] as a sailor he traversed over 100,000 miles of open ocean around the world," Sill says. "I wish he could have had more. We all would have been better for it."

Kaye is survived by his wife, Rebecca, daughters Darcy, Molly and Emily, brothers Joel and Lonnie and grandson Charlie.