Philip Kives, the founder K-Tel — once one of the most recognizable brands in the world — died Wednesday, Apr. 27 in Winnipeg, Canada from natural causes, while surrounded by his loved ones. He was 87.
Kives, for all intents and purposes, was the inventor of late-night television direct marketing in the early ’60s, selling such products as Veg-O-Matic, Dial-O-Matic, the Feather Touch Knife and the category-founding K-Tel music compilations.
Kives “came from living with his family in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor as a child in Canada to building K-Tel, once one of the most recognizable trademarks like the Kleenex brand,” says Owen Husney, a music industry veteran who worked for K-Tel on three different occasions, the last as Chief Operating Officer.
Kives death “marks the end of an era,” Husney says. “He was as dumb as a smart fox. He could go into a room and everyone would want to know who this guy was; and when he left the room, he would know everything in everyone’s else’s brain.”
Kives was born in Saskatchewan, Canada of parents who escaped from Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe. He grew up on a farm before leaving for good in 1957, according to his biography on the K-Tel website. Kives took various jobs — taxi driver, short-order cook, and door-to-door salesman, even working as a “barker” on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
When Kives returned to Canada in the early ’60s he was still selling door-to-door, hawking a then-new “space age” invention: teflon non-stick frying pans. In the Spring of ’62 he appeared on television for the first timing, presenting a live, late-night commercial selling teflon pans. “He got the time for free from the local TV station, with the understanding that he would split the profits with the station,” says Husney.
Around 1966 Kives tried selling music on late night TV, selling compilations — at that time a new format, and a new income stream for the record business. He started off with 25 Country Hits, following up with his first million-seller, 25 Polka Greats, according to the K-Tel website.
In the late ’60’s Kives launched K-Tel and continued to sell both household appliances like the Miracle Brush, while beginning music compilation lines like Hooked On Classics.
Along the way, the company built a large headquarters in Minneapolis, where it remained for many years. The site had a block named after it, K-Tel Drive, which is still there today. Sales grew from $23 million in 1971 to $178 million in 1981, according to his daughter Samantha Kives. “He had a profound effect on pop culture — SNL and SCTV did skits on K-Tel.”
Recently, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl cited the 1976 Records Blockbuster compilation as “the first album he ever owned during Grohl’s keynote address at the South By Southwest Festival in 2013. “It was this record that changed my life,” Grohl said.
While the company initially began in the music business by putting together compilations of licensed hits and other music, it also began having original artists re-record their hits. The company also bought original versions of hits, like Jewel Aiken’s “Birds and Bees,” and the Trashmen’s “Surfing Bird.” Today, the company has a catalog of 6,000 original hit recordings and re-recordings that are used to license for commercials and in movies. They are also available on most digital services too, with the company now run by Kives’ children.
Kives is survived by his wife, Ellie to whom he was married for 45 years; his children Samanta, Kelly and Danial; and his grand-children Austin Abigail and Lily.