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Mo Ostin, Legendary Warner Bros. Records Chief, Dies at 95

The pioneering executive led the careers of Joni Mitchell, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and others at the label.

Mo Ostin, the legendary label executive who led Warner Brothers Records through a storied time of both artistic and commercial success for more than 30 years, died in his sleep July 31, at the age of 95.

Ostin, who signed and/or worked with such artists as The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, R.E.M., Randy Newman and many more, was “one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” said Tom Corson, co-chairman and COO, Warner Records, and Aaron Bay-Schuck, co-chairman and CEO, Warner Records, in a joint statement.

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“For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision,” their statement continues. “One of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Warner Music Group, in the 1960s Mo ushered Warner/Reprise Records into a golden era of revolutionary, culture-shifting artistry. Over his next three decades at the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him. Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry he helped create, and by the countless artists and colleagues whom he inspired to be their best selves. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for everything he did, and for his inspiring belief in our bright future. Our condolences go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Ostin, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and who received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy in 2017, was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York and moved to Los Angeles, attending Fairfax High School and UCLA.  After starting his career at Verve Records, Ostin was recruited by Frank Sinatra to run his Reprise Records in 1960. Three years later, Warner Bros. Records bought Reprise and Ostin quickly captured the pop zeitgeist, signing The Kinks. Quickly thereafter, he brought Hendrix, Mitchell and Neil Young to the label.

“He was a great guy. He had a great deal of respect for all the artists on the label, from Hendrix to Sinatra—but not in that order,” Newman tells Billboard.

Ostin became president of Warner Bros. Records in 1970, presiding over the Warner and Reprise imprints until he retired as chairman/CEO in 1994.  With an artist-first mentality, the labels became the home to an astonishing range of artists during his tenure, including Van Halen, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, the B-52s, Paul Simon, ZZ Top, George Benson, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Green Day, Van Dyke Parks, Dire Straits, Chaka Khan, and, famously, Prince, who signed with the label in 1977.

Though Prince left the label in 1996, after accusing it of “slavery,” only to return in 2014, Ostin regarded Prince as a genius, comparing him to Sinatra in a 2016 interview with Billboard following Prince’s passing. He recalled the first time he heard Prince and how Warner Bros.’s attitude towards artists–and a canny offer– led to Prince choosing the label: “Our head of promotion [at the time], Russ Thyret, got a demo from our promotion guy in Minnesota, Owen Husney — he later became Prince’s manager. We were absolutely blown away and wanted to sign him immediately. There was a lot of competition because other people knew about him — A&M and Columbia were trying to sign him, and it became very competitive. But A&M wanted his publishing and he wouldn’t give it up, so he passed on them. Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe[d] in him so strongly. And also, because we valued artists, he signed with us.”

Many artists stayed close with Ostin for decades, even after he left Warner Brothers, including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, who paid tribute on Instagram: “Mo Ostin was a true gentleman. He was honest, kind, and beloved. I am so grateful that he was a part of my life; his stories, his humor, his love for his work, he is the greatest person I ever met in the music business. He made me feel valued, understood, and welcome, when I was a confused kid with a lot of growing up to do.”

Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar added a comment on Flea’s Instagram, “Signed some of the greatest artist of all time nothing but love and respect…wonderful post Flea.”

 

“Mo was a tremendous, one-of-a-kind music executive, there was nobody else like him,” said Stevie Nicks in a statement provided to Billboard. “His love of artists created a truly magical world at Warner Bros.  I have a crystal clear memory of Fleetwood Mac walking in the front door of Warner Bros offices in 1975 and I can honestly say that my world changed instantly.  Mo was loving and nurturing and had excellent musical tastes with boundless ideas and vision.  He listened to artists and always put them first.  It was such a joy to be in his world, but I knew the feeling was mutual and he felt it was a joy to be in OUR world too.  I don’t know that there will ever be another like him and I am so lucky to have shared a journey with him.  I was always equally captivated by Mo’s extraordinary wife Evelyn, who we all aspired to be like and who we loved immensely.

Ostin ran Warner Bros. from a storied multi-leveled brown wood building, nicknamed the Ski Lodge, in Burbank. He made it a haven for creativity, with artists frequently dropping by to visit and play new music. “Rickie Lee Jones came in with a guitar and played about two and a half songs, which was all it took to realize she was great,” Lenny Waronker, Warner Brothers vp of A&R, recalled in a 2019 Billboard oral history on the building before Warner Bros. moved to downtown Los Angeles. “I think it was just Ted Templeman and myself. That was a no-brainer. Van Dyke Parks came into my office before his first record, when he was working with Brian Wilson. He had his stuff, and for me, it was amazing, him sitting at the piano… though that may have been at the old building. One time, when Russ Titelman and I were releasing Rickie Lee Jones’ first record [in 1979], we had a meeting with her in Russ’s office, which was adjacent to mine, and she had a new idea for an arrangement for ‘Chuck E.’s in Love,’ which was basically to slow it down. It gave it real attitude.”

After Jac Holzman‘s Elektra Records became part of the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company (following Warner Brothers Records and Atlantic Records), Ostin, Holzman and Atlantic founders Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun helped form WEA, the global distribution system that handled their releases and brought distribution in-house.

Ostin’s contemporary, Sony Music Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer Clive Davis, remembers him as a fierce competitor, but closer friend. “Mo Ostin was one of a kind. And the company he chaired was totally unique in its very special management and, of course, the depth of artistry which affected contemporary music and culture so profoundly and so historically,” he said in a statement. “Yes, he and I competed with each other for many years but my friendship with him extended to our respective families and I will always cherish our very close relationship.”

Similarly, Doug Morris, former chairman of Warner Music U.S., told Billboard, “Mo was the best of the best. I thought Mo set an example for all of us who followed him. My heart goes out to [Ostin’s son] Michael and those near and dear.”

Executives a generation after Ostin are remembering him as an influential force. YouTube/Google global head of music Lyor Cohen, who served as Warner Music Group’s chairman from 2004-2012 told Billboard, “The great news is he lived an incredible life. He was a fabulous husband, father and lived a healthy musical life. My heart goes out to Michael and the family. Let’s celebrate his life by listening to the many artists he supported. We should all be as lucky as Mo!!”

“Mo was a great mentor,” said Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge in a statement. “He lived by a set of values that taught me so much about business, and how to be a leader, and about life.  My respect for him as both an executive and family man was total.  His ‘nose’ for talent was the stuff of legend, but he was also an incredible connector of people; something sorely missed in the business—and the world—today.  My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family.”

“There will only ever be one Mo Ostin and we all stand on his shoulders and benefit from his incredible feats,” wrote Hipgnosis co-founded Merck Mercuriades on Instagram. “It’s very difficult to not pick his Warner Records as the greatest label of all time. From @sinatra to @neilyoungarchives an incredible man who impacted the careers of so many legends. None of us today can touch the hem of his garment. Love to Michael and the Ostin family.”

Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music added, “In an era when creative entrepreneurs are revered, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a pioneer who wrote the rulebook for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records wouldn’t exist without his passion, vision, and intelligence. He not only helped build one of the world’s greatest music companies, but he inspired a culture driven by bravery and ingenuity. Mo saw artists for who they really were and gave them the space and support to fully realize their originality. Our condolences to [Mo’s son] Michael and the whole Ostin family. Mo was a legend, and he will be deeply missed.”

After his retirement from Warner Bros., Ostin stayed busy, including co-founding and running the music division of DreamWorks SKG from 1996-2004. Later, he served as a consultant and board member for the music schools at his alma mater, UCLA, as well as USC. In 2011, he donated $10 million to UCLA for a new facility called the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center.

Ostin’s wife, Evelyn, and two of his sons, Randy and Kenny, preceded him in death. He is survived by his son, Michael.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Ostin’s low-key style comes from former Warner Brothers’ executive Stan Cornyn, who lauded Ostin during his Rock Hall induction for trusting the people he hired to work their magic under him:  “Mo was brilliant. So brilliant, he never told any of us how to do our job.”

Assistance on this story provided by Dan Rys.