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Warner Records CEO Mo Ostin Remembered by Producer Russ Titelman: ‘He Had No Ego’

The Grammy-winning producer shares memories of his time working with the legendary Warner Records head, who died July 31

Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman first met Mo Ostin, the legendary executive who ran Reprise and then Warner Records from 1960 to 1994, in the early ’60s when Titelman was still a teenager and freshly signed to Screen Gems-Columbia Music as a songwriter. Eventually, Ostin, who died July 31 at 95, and then head of A&R Lenny Waronker convinced Titelman to come to Warner Records, where he had an extraordinary run as an in-house producer for 25 years, working with such artists as Randy Newman, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Steve Winwood, Chaka Khan and so many more.

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Titelman, whose Grammy wins include record of the year for Winwood’s “Higher Love” (1986) and again for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” as well as album of the year for Clapton’s “Unplugged” (1992), talked with Billboard about working with Ostin during Warner Brothers’ glory days.

I met Mo Ostin in 1963 at Reprise Reprise in a nondescript office building in Los Angeles. He had a big smile and was open and welcoming. When Lenny Waronker went from Metric Music to Warner Bros. around 1967, Jack Nitzsche and I would go hang at his office. Ry Cooder would be there and Van Dyke Parks and sometimes Randy Newman. Occasionally I would run into Mo. One day, he invited me to go to lunch. We went to Chow’s Kosherama on Riverside Drive. It was a deli run by a Chinese couple, so it had Chinese food and smoked salmon and corned beef and fortune cookies.

He said to me, “If you ever want to do anything in the record business, the door is open here for you to do it. You’re welcome to come here.” I found a home. That was probably in ’68 or ’69. I brought Little Feat — just Lowell [George] and Billy [Payne] – to Lenny. Just the two of them. They sang a few songs. He didn’t even hear the [full] band. He said go upstairs and make a deal with Mo.

Randy Newman and I worked on Jack’s score to [1970 film] Performance  together and that was the beginning of our friendship. That led to my working with Lenny on Randy’s live album from the Bitter End, which came out in 1971. That live record started selling and was getting attention. Lenny took me out to dinner and said, “C’mon. This is ridiculous. Come on staff.” Mo guided me through the contract and made a fair contract for me.

Russ Titelman and Steve Winwood
Russ Titelman and Steve Winwood Karen Petersen/Courtesy of WMG

Lenny was my boss and it was he who said let’s do these Newman records and Mo was very open and very generous. He had this philosophy that you hire people who you think are good, who have talent, then you let them do what they do. He had the foresight to hire Lenny. He said Lenny was the architect of the A&R department. True to his philosophy, he hired the man who he trusted would know how to carry out his vision.

Mo was a creative executive and he seemed to not have an ego like some other executives. Look where he came from: Sinatra, [Verve Records founder and former Ostin employer] Norman Granz, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. All of these great jazz people. So he had to be able to navigate those waters as well.

When Eddie Rosenblatt was asked to become president of Geffen Records [in 1980], that meant that he left Warner Bros. as the head of sales and promotion. And Mo took him on a trip to Europe as a present since he was leaving. He invited me and my wife Carol along on that trip. We went to Switzerland. We went to Rome. Quincy [Jones] joined us on the trip. While we were in Rome, or Positano, Mo went to England and signed Eric Clapton. And then he came back to us.

Mo just had that presence. He signed Hendrix and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. He never went to the studio. He just didn’t want to be in the limelight at all. And people were drawn to him because he was forthright and honest. And he knew what he was doing.

He was tremendously respected by everyone who came in contact with him. I think it’s partly because he didn’t show off.  His job was to do his job and stay out of the way.

He had amazing taste. He believed in these [artists]. Lenny had Randy: that stuff didn’t sell until a little bit later. [Ry] Cooder’s records didn’t sell that much, same with Van Dyke Parks– but every other artist in the world thought these guys are the greatest.  Mo and Lenny would sign something odd and quirky, like Fleetwood Mac, and believed in them and stuck with them, the way they did with Ry and Randy, and it paid off.

The world has changed. I was fortunate enough to be part of the studio system. I got to work with my favorite artists on earth. That studio system that nurtured me and others [as in-house producers], like Lenny and Teddy [Templeman], no longer exists. There was competition, you know, but it was a camaraderie. It was friendly competition.

From Mo, I learned to be true to who you are and make the music that you love. That’s the legacy.

Lenny said something about him: He said he just was way ahead of everybody else. He was. He was just super smart. Maybe he was kind of a father figure to Lenny. I think maybe he was to all of us in that way, you know? Just like, “The chief is going that way. Let’s go.”

As told to Melinda Newman.