Russ Regan, the golden-eared A&R man best known for signing some of pop music’s most decorated singer-songwriters — Elton John, Barry White and Neil Diamond for starters — has died following a series of health problems. He was 89. The 30-year industry veteran had been hospitalized this spring following surgery for a pacemaker, and his battles with cancer and other ailments even led to a GoFundMe campaign to help his family cover hospital expenses.
Regan, born Harold Rustigan, started his long and colorful career in music in the late-1950s as a producer and singer-songwriter, a short foray that produced the novelty song “The Happy Reindeer” and another single under the name Davy Summers. The latter was produced by Sonny Bono, Regan’s singing partner in a short-lived group called the Checkmates.
He made the fortuitous switch to the business side of music in 1960 in the promotions departments at Buckeye Distributors and Record Merchandising in Los Angeles before moving to the label side as a promoter at Motown and Era Records, where legend has it he coined the name “The Beach Boys” for an up-and-coming surf band from Hawthorne, Calif.
In 1965, he joined the Warner Bros. soul imprint Loma as general manager, and two years later took over at the fledgling Uni Records, owned by MCA, where he proceeded to transform it into a powerhouse by signing both Diamond and John, as well as guiding other artists like Strawberry Alarm Clock (“Incense and Peppermints”) and Hugh Masekela to mainstream success.
Regan signed John to Uni in 1970 and played an integral part in introducing the British piano man to United States audiences during the elaborate promotional campaign for his second studio album (but first in the U.S.), which included breakthrough single “Your Song.” On Twitter, John paid tribute to Regan, saying thanks for “believing in me and helping launch my career.”
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) May 29, 2018
Diamond had already carved out a successful songwriting career — and several solo hits — before signing with Uni in 1968 ahead of his third solo album, Velvet Gloves and Spit. Though that album failed to produce a hit, his next release for Uni, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show, included a little track called “Sweet Caroline.” Diamond stayed with Uni until transferring to MCA in 1972.
In its first two years alone, Uni had nine gold albums, two platinum albums and 11 gold singles.
While at Uni, Regan also formed a lasting partnership with artist and producer Barry White, having released an album by the singer’s backing trio Love Unlimited in 1972. When Regan jumped ship to launch 20th Century Records that same year, he immediately brought White — at that time just a producer — with him with the goal of launching his singing career. It didn’t take long, as White scored a No. 1 R&B hit with his first solo single, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby.”
White’s other hits at 20th Century include “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” among others.
A 1974 Billboard magazine feature recognizing Regan’s first two years at 20th Century called the exec a “near-unique combination of golden-eared a&r man, doggedly effective promotion legend and informal but all-around record company administrator.” Regan added “it’s hit product that counts” as his professional creed. “If you don’t put out records that deserve to be hits, your company can’t be effective no matter how good” your promotions department is.
In 1977, Regan left 20th Century and launched Parachute Records in a working partnership with Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records (“I always liked Neil. Both of us are street people, promotion-minded,” he said at the time).
Through the course of his career, Regan also worked with Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra and others. He also did extensive work as a music supervisor or consultant for numerous films including The Karate Kid, Breakin’, All the Right Moves and Flashdance, among others.