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Stan Cornyn, Visionary Warner Bros. Records Exec, Dead at 81

Stan Cornyn didn't make music. Rather, the longtime Warner Bros. Records executive made words about music -- usually with a literary skill and advanced wit that established an industry standard for…

Stan Cornyn didn’t make music. Rather, the longtime Warner Bros. Records executive made words about music — usually with a literary skill and advanced wit that established an industry standard for marketing and branding.

“He was the Socrates of the music business,” music publicist Bob Merlis, a 29-year WBR veteran, tells Billboard. “He was more analytical about it. He was an Ivy League guy in a ‘dese’ and ‘dose’ business, but his philosophy was really transcendent.”

Cornyn, who was an executive vice president with WBR’s creative services department and a senior vice president with the Warner Music Group, died on Tuesday at the age of 81 in Carpinteria, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. Regarded as a legend by his peers, he leaves behind a legacy of clever advertisements and scholarly — but not stilted — liner notes that scored two Grammy Awards and multiple nominations. Cornyn also penned the revealing 2003 tome Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group as well as three genealogy books and two screenplays.

“Stan Cornyn was absolutely the best at what he did,” says former WBR CEO Joe Smith. “He was this very shy guy but he gave an image to this company as a very hip, forward-looking operation. We had a record company that went all the way from Van Dyke Parks to the [Grateful] Dead to Jimi Hendrix to Sinatra — all these acts — and [Cornyn] knew how to bring it all together and get through the fog of our record industry thing, and he added a style to it.”

Former WBR and Sire Records executive Seymour Stein adds that, “Had (Cornyn) worked on Madison Avenue instead of Burbank, Stan would have wound up one of the lead characters portrayed on Mad Men. He was more responsible in building the image for [WBR] than anyone. I think that labels like Island and Chrysalis had to be induced to join WBR by Stan’s imaging. I know it was his build up of Warner/Reprise that most influenced me to want Sire Records to be with Warners.”

Cornyn was born in Oxnard, Calif., and attended Pomona College and Yale University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences before joining WBR in 1958. (He subsequently earned a Masters Degree in Theater from UCLA in 1962). He was more of a jazz fan than rock; Merlis recalled that “his big musical hero was Stan Kenton,” but that also gave Cornyn a useful perspective on his chosen line of work — especially as WBR began filling its roster with rock and pop artists. “He was an outsider, really,” Merlis notes. “He looked at it like, ‘Who are these strange people and what are they doing?’ He enjoyed it a lot; he was not a snob about it. He was just curious about, ‘How does it work?’ He had the time to kind of think about what the universe was like versus just the specifics of ‘How are we gonna move the next 10,000 albums?'”

Cornyn campaigns included a lookalike contest for the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan; a “Win a Fug Dream Date Competition” sweepstakes; mail-in orders for a pile of dirt from Laurel Canyon during its heyday as an artist haven; and a “Joni Mitchell Is 90 Percent Virgin” ad that was a reference to her sales in comparison to Joan Baez (which Mitchell reportedly hated). Nevertheless, Smith says, most of the label’s artists “just loved what he did.”

“The whole idea of the label having a personality was Stan’s doing,” adds Merlis. “If you’re Impulse Records, your personality is defined by your music. Warner/Reprise was not just one thing musically, but he gave it a personality — the rock stuff for sure, but even stuff like Frank Sinatra, Trini Lopez, he put the Cornyn touch on it too.” 

Cornyn won his first Grammy for Best Album Notes in 1966 for Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night. He won again the following year for Sinatra at the Sands. He also created a series of two-LP Loss Leader sampler collections that Warner Bros. released during the ’70s to further expose the label’s new releases. During 1989, Cornyn helped develop the early multimedia format CD+G and after leaving WBR in 1990 he went on to work with Media Vision Multimedia Publishing and also did some work for Rhino Records. He continued writing and consulting until the past year.

Cornyn is survived by his longtime companion Meg Barbour and sons from two marriages, Christopher Cornyn and Thomas Guy Cornyn. 

“I always say he was one of the lucky one — he had a long [life] and a good one,” says Christiopher Cornyn.

The family is planning a private memorial service. Contributions can be made to Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care