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Return of The Hit Man

On Music Legend Don Kirshner's To-Do List: Become Global Mogul

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page C01


Cradling a cosmopolitan in his plump right hand, Don Kirshner is reminiscing about his former life as a pop-music mogul and getting a little wistful. All the hits, all the bands, all the favors he did for up-and-comers. But here he sits, at the best table in this swanky restaurant, pretty much forgotten.

Slighted is a better word for it, or that's the way he feels, anyway. Yes, the maitre d' and the waiters here know who he is. And the other retirees in the nearby plush gated community where he lives will pat him on the back and say things like, "This guy is spectacular. Spectacular!"

"I feel sharper now than ever," says once-ubiquitous, then reclusive music impresario Don Kirshner, 70, who intends to start a global entertainment company. (Joshua Prezant For For The Washington Post)

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But the rest of the world?

"I'm a military secret," he rasps in a blustery Bronx accent. "People don't know if I'm alive or dead! My body of work is as big as anyone's and nobody knows the half of it."

The half you know, even if you've never heard Kirshner's name, is the music. Back when rock was in its diapers, Kirshner hired a group of now legendary young songwriters and coaxed from them hit after hit, including "Up on the Roof," "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and the most played radio song of all time, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." In a creative frenzy that lasted about four years, he and his team composed and published dozens of hits, turning the company he co-founded into the center of the pop universe.

Kirshner stayed in the game until the early 1980s, as the unforgettably monotone host of a TV show, "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert." Throughout its nine-year run, "Rock Concert" was about the only place you could catch Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sly & the Family Stone or Devo, giving U.S. audiences a first glimpse at acts that, in some cases, even Kirshner had yet to lay eyes on.

"Someone once told me I had to put on Alice Cooper. I said, 'Well, is she any good?' " Kirshner says, chuckling.

There was more -- feuds, setbacks, triumphs, fame as an icon of leisure-suit uncool thanks to his wooden on-screen patter for "Rock Concert," which was parodied on "Saturday Night Live" by a young Paul Shaffer. Later, once MTV had stampeded the airwaves, Kirshner retired and for a while was basically a recluse.

But those recluse days were over a long time ago. And at 70, he's ready to claim what he believes is owed him, what he believes he's been denied, which is a simple modicum of respect, thank you very much. The latest outrage, he'll tell you, is "Beyond the Sea," a biopic about Bobby Darin, which opens in Washington on Dec. 29. There's not a trace of Kirshner in the film, even though he helped Darin land his first recording contract, even though they were best friends for years, he says. Darin was married in Kirshner's apartment in New Jersey, for crying out loud.

"I discovered him," he says. "Nobody knew Bobby Darin better than I did. Nobody."

Darin's former manager, a guy named Steve Blauner, says Kirshner was left out of "Beyond the Sea" strictly for dramatic purposes, to streamline the story.

"Donny is a megalomaniac," he says with a laugh. "If you were going to do a real movie about anyone, it'd be seven hours long, especially the sort of life that Bobby led. I mean, Bobby's second wife isn't in this movie."

But to Kirshner, all this is part of a pattern: He's being snubbed, almost systematically. The sorest spot is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has yet to induct him in its "non-performer" category, and worse, keeps inducting pishers like Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone magazine. The whole thing is a little too clubby, he frowns, and he's not in the club. Why is Jann Wenner in if he's not?

"I'd like to know. I don't want to sound like sour grapes, but I believe I should have been one of the first three or first five inducted. Seriously. I mean, they've got people in there that I trained, and I'm not in? It bothers me, on principle."

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