Rocking early days of Don Kirshner

Rich Podolsky. At 65, it's his first book.
Rich Podolsky. At 65, it's his first book.
Posted: March 06, 2012

Music fans who recall the pre-MTV 1970s will remember the name Don Kirshner.

His sobriquet was stripped across the innovative late-night television series Don Kirshner's Rock Concert from 1973 to 1981, which showed acts like the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and Fleetwood Mac performing, not lip syncing, before live audiences.

"Anytime I mention the name Don Kirshner to anyone over the age of 45, a smile comes to their face," says Northeast Philadelphia-bred Rich Podolsky, the author of Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear (Hal Leonard, $24.99), which is being published this week. "And I think the reason is, not only do they remember the name and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, but I think they were all watching it and getting high."

Kirshner - who died in 2011 and will be honored in April by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with its Ahmet Ertegun lifetime achievement award - is widely known for accomplishments in the latter stages of his career.

But The Man With the Golden Ear focuses on his early chapters, when the Bronx-born producer ran the Brill Building-based publishing company Aldon Music. There he had under contract what Podolsky calls "three of the greatest songwriting teams in rock and roll history: Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil."

The list of hits Kirshner and partner Al Nevins coaxed into being by those writers, and others like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Jack Keller, is too numerous to detail, though they include songs such as the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the Drifters' "On Broadway," and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

Kirshner went to work as a behind-the-scenes macher for the made-for-TV 1960s pop band the Monkees, hooking the kooky foursome up with songs like "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer." In 1969, when the Monkees decided they wanted to write and record their own songs, and rebelled against Kirshner, he took a tune meant for them (by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim) called "Sugar, Sugar," for his new animated TV pop band the Archies.

"Nobody, or hardly anybody, knows the prequel," says Podolsky, who at 65 has just published his first book. The author, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University), has lived in New York since taking a job as a writer for CBS Sports in the 1970s. He's been working on The Man With the Golden Ear, which takes its name from a 1964 Time magazine article on Kirshner, in earnest for seven years.

But in a sense, he started work on it almost 50 years ago, in 1962, when his father, Morris, the record buyer at the Philadelphia area SunRay drugstore chain, took him to a music-industry function at the Warwick Hotel in Center City.

As he says in the preface, which introduces the device of making the author's pursuit of the Kirshner saga part of the story, the teenage Podolsky had been given a pile of 45-r.p.m. singles by his father to see whether the 16-year-old heard any potential hits.

"Some of them were pretty terrible, so I wasn't liking the job," says Podolsky, who will appear on WVLT (92.1 FM) at 5 p.m. on Wednesday from SugarHouse Casino with Philadelphia DJ Jerry "The Geator" Blavat, a former close Kirshner associate.

Then Podolsky heard "If I Had a Hammer" by the not-yet-well-known folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. He pointed it out to his dad. "The harmonies were terrific. He bought a bunch of copies for the store, and it became a hit. And I thought I was a genius," Podolsky recalls.

His reward? He was brought along to a dinner at the Warwick, where Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp performed and the attendees included Carole King and her husband, Gerry Goffin. Podolsky was a fan of their No. 1 hit for Bobby Vee from the year before, "Take Good Care of My Baby."

There was also another guy there who caught Podolsky's eye: the 27-year-old, "larger than life" Kirshner, who had come to town to try to nudge Bernie Lowe, owner of Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway label, to record some Aldon songs. In British author Simon Frith's 1978 book The Sociology of Rock, Carole King explained Kirshner's motivational methods: "The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific, because Donnie would play one songwriter against another. He'd say, 'We need a new smash hit' - and we'd all go back and write a song."

Over the years Podolsky followed the career of Kirshner, who wasn't a musician but got his start writing songs with Bobby Darin in the 1950s. Kirshner sold Aldon to Screen Gems in 1963 for $3 million, not imagining that that would seem a pittance compared to what the publishing rights are worth today. Later on, he would be responsible for boosting the careers of singer Tony Orlando (who wrote the book's foreword), and the Don Kirshner's Rock Concert staple Kansas.

In The Man With the Golden Ear, the late producer Jerry Wexler tells Podolsky: "Donnie sprang out of nowhere. When rock and roll came in and the big band era died . . . nobody thought you could sequester songwriters in rooms like they did in the old days and have them turn out music. Somehow Donnie and Al did it."

Podolsky almost wrote his Kirshner book in the 1980s, but took a job on Wall Street. In 2004, he finally buckled down, finishing the book last year, despite travails such as his two-year bout with cancer - he's healthy now - and Kirshner's death from a heart attack.

"It's a labor of love," Podolsky says. "I would have self-published it if I couldn't get it published. It's a story that had to be told and needed to be told. And I really am glad I'm the one who got to tell it."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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