Don Kirshner, hit-making rock impresario of the 1960s, dies at 76

Don Kirshner, left, with John Lennon.
Don Kirshner, left, with John Lennon. (Don Kirshner's Collection)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 10:36 PM

Don Kirshner, 76, a pop-music hit maker who propelled singer Bobby Darin to stardom, hired songwriters who produced hundreds of hit songs and became the musical force behind the Monkees, a popular television-created band of the 1960s, died Jan. 17 at a hospital in Boca Raton, Fla., where he lived. He had been hospitalized for an infection and died of a heart ailment.

Mr. Kirshner, who could not read a note of music, was one of the key impresarios in the early years of rock-and-roll. Long based in New York, he hired such up-and-coming songwriters as Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Their collective hits - including "Up on the Roof," "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "The Loco-Motion" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " - constituted a virtual soundtrack of the early 1960s.

Within a year of forming a music publishing company, Aldon Music, Mr. Kirshner and his business partner, Al Nevins, had three songs in the top 10. Their teams of songwriters pounded out music that created overnight singing stars for the newly emerging teen market.

Mr. Kirshner had an uncanny talent for matching the right song with the right performer. He persuaded Connie Francis to take a chance on two songs by the unknown Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, "Stupid Cupid" (1958) and "Where the Boys Are" (1960). He paired Goffin and King's "Up on the Roof" with the Drifters in 1962. He helped steer "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " by Mann, Weil and studio wizard Phil Spector to the Righteous Brothers in 1964.

By the time he was 30, Mr. Kirshner was a millionaire and had become president of the music division of Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems branch. He helped engineer the unexpected success of the Monkees by using his stable of songwriters to write the band's early hits, including "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer."

In 1966, Mr. Kirshner's keen ability to discover talent earned him the title "the man with the golden ear" from Time magazine.

"You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know how to be a part of greatness," he told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. "I was smart enough to know that these were great songs."

Donald Kirshner was born April 17, 1934, in the Bronx, N.Y. He attended Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., on a basketball and baseball scholarship and began writing songs and jingles with a friend from the Bronx, Walden Robert Cassotto - better known as Bobby Darin. To earn money, Mr. Kirshner worked as a bellhop in Atlantic City.

He helped manage Darin's career and was best man when Darin married actress Sandra Dee at Mr. Kirshner's apartment in 1960.

"Bobby was everything I couldn't be," Mr. Kirshner told The Washington Post in 2004. "He was an actor, he could impersonate people, he could sing, read music. He had beyond-incredible talent. I lived through him."

After selling the copyrights to his company's early hits for $3 million in 1963, Mr. Kirshner worked out a deal that gave him a hefty share of the profits from songs by the Monkees, whose TV show premiered on NBC in 1966. Some members of the group began to resent Mr. Kirshner for taking credit for their success, and they had a stormy breakup in 1967.

Without Mr. Kirshner's songwriters and studio musicians, the Monkees' record sales fell by half, and their show was canceled within a year.

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