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Return of The Hit Man

Other jingles followed, the pair composing on a piano at Upsala College, where Kirshner was a student, Darin writing the music, Kirshner the lyrics. There was never any question, though, who had the musical talent.

"Bobby was everything I couldn't be," Kirshner says. "He was an actor, he could impersonate people, he could sing, read music. He had beyond-incredible talent. I lived through him."

"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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They co-wrote a batch of songs -- one was a B-side for Gene Vincent -- and eventually shouldered into the offices of Decca Records, then Atlantic Records. And by 1959, Darin had the No. 1 single in the United States, "Mack the Knife." A year later, Darin was co-starring in a movie with "Gidget" sweetheart Sandra Dee, and when the two needed a quiet place away from the paparazzi to get married, they chose Kirshner's New Jersey apartment.

He and Darin dissolved their professional partnership as Darin caught on and made a fortune. But Kirshner had seen enough royalty checks to recognize the earnings potential of a chart-topper. Better than real estate, he'd tell anyone who would listen. This rock thing looked beautiful, and the people writing the songs, he realized, were mostly grown-ups who were only guessing at what teenagers would want to hear.

So Kirshner went into business with a mentor and musician, Al Nevins, forming Aldon Music. They opened an office on Broadway, in midtown Manhattan, in the heart of a kind of one-stop song publishing factory. You could write a tune, tape it, then sell it to the guy who represented Fats Domino, all in the same afternoon.

While most labels were releasing forgettable dreck like "Dungaree Doll," Kirshner signed up young, unknown talent such as Neil Diamond and the husband-and-wife team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote "Walkin' in the Rain," recorded by the Ronettes. The song, and dozens like it, nailed the drama of teenage love in all its sobbing glory. Kirshner maximized production by putting teams of writers in quarters close enough to hear what everyone else was doing, which made it competitive.

Music poured out of the pianos on the fifth floor of 1650 Broadway. The Beatles covered an Aldon song, "Chains," written by Carole King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, on their first album.

"Donny was Mr. Music in the early '60s, and a very lovely guy, like your favorite uncle," says Ron Dante, an Aldon songwriter. "I met him when I was like 16 or 17, and when he told me he wanted to sign me to a publishing deal, I almost fell off my chair."

By 1963, Kirshner and Nevins were ready to sell their catalogue of copyrights. There were a lot of reasons, not least of them the price that Columbia Pictures was willing to pay for the lot: $3 million. Kirshner's half alone amounted to more than $9 million in today's dollars, a staggering sum for a kid who was an usher at a movie theater only a few years before. Plus, Columbia would install Kirshner as musical director of Screen Gems, a division of the company that produced television and films.

It felt like good timing, especially when the teenage pop market began to decline a couple of years later with the arrival of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan. But Vanity Fair recently estimated the value of those copyrights at $1 billion. And the deal with Screen Gems, as it turns out, ended in a fiasco.

Monkees Business

"My wife will kill me, but that chocolate thing sounds good," says Kirshner, ordering dessert. The chocolate thing turns out to be as big as a toaster. Kirshner hacks at the bottom of it with a fork, until it tips over. Then he contemplates the question at hand. It's a rather crass one.

"I'd say 'very comfortable,' " he says, when asked if he's rich, super-rich or comfortable. "You saw my house, it's apparently the best lot in the place. You saw the Mercedes."

Much of that comfort comes courtesy of the Monkees. In 1965, he asked for, and was granted, one-third of all the musical profits from a new, made-for-TV band being formed by Columbia. The idea was to translate the Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night" to the small screen. The music would sell the show, and the show would sell the music.

Kirshner was in charge of the songs, which is why the "Prefab Four" had tracks written for them by people like Neil Diamond ("I'm a Believer") and Goffin and King ("Pleasant Valley Sunday," which was inspired by the couple's drive to Kirshner's house in the suburbs). Wedding the Monkees to Kirshner would yield two No. 1 albums, but as the band grew in popularity, its members began to resent the fluffy pop songs they were asked to sing.

Then there was the press. Kirshner was constantly celebrated in print as the musical puppeteer behind the group. That ticked off both the band members and the executives at Screen Gems. A meeting was called with top Columbia Pictures brass. One of those in attendance was Steve Blauner, Darin's manager, because Blauner had brokered the deal between Columbia Pictures and Aldon Music, and at the time, he was friendly both with Kirshner and with some top Columbia executives.

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