Home Music RIP Don Kirshner, Pop Music’s Brill Building Superstar

Sad news: Don Kirshner, the man behind the Brill Building sound, died on Monday at age 76 of heart failure. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame four years ago. But the Rock Hall never did anything for him, and it broke his heart. We owe a huge debt to Kirshner, who gave us Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, The Monkees, The Archies and so much more.

Neil Sedaka sent this message: “I am shocked and saddened by the death of the great Don Kirshner, who discovered me at 18 years old. I walked into his office at 1650 Broadway, played a few songs for him, and he signed me to Aldon Music becoming my first music publisher and manager. It was Don’s introduction to Connie Francis, who would go on to record “Stupid Cupid” and propel my songwriter career. Donny worked for many years promoting my songs. He was a great friend, a pioneer, and a father figure for many of us young songwriters. He will be missed. My heart felt condolences and love to his wonderful wife of 50 years, Sheila, his children, and his grandchildren.”

Here’s the story I wrote in 2007 from the Songwriters ceremony. Donnie, we salute you.

Don Kirshner is back.

The man who invented the Brill Building and published all the hits written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, helped invent Phil Spector and the Monkees and even created music television before MTV is not in Jann Wenner’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But last night, Kirshner, 73, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for giving birth to a substantial part of what we now know as contemporary pop, rock and soul music.

It was vindication a long time in coming for Kirshner, whom Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer once parodied on the early “Saturday Night Live” with a memorable imitation. It made Kirshner a household name.

Somewhere along the way he lost his stature as the man who nurtured hundreds of hit records from “The Locomotion” to “You’ve Lost That Feeling.”

It wasn’t lost on his friends who came to support him last night, including Tony Orlando, Ron Dante and Toni Wine. The latter pair were the voices for the animated group Kirshner created called The Archies. They had the No. 1 song in 1969, “Sugar Sugar.”

Orlando, who worked for Clive Davis at Columbia Records before becoming a star in 1971 with the group Dawn — Wine wrote their first hit, “Candida” — gave a speech about Kirshner last night fit for a royal eulogy.

Carole King had to beg off because of appearances she’s making in China, but Sedaka came and sang “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” Kirshner’s first hit, from 1957.

What I loved about meeting Kirshner is that he doesn’t care anymore. He doesn’t need Jann Wenner or the Rock Hall of Fame. He is own living Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the next couple of years, there’s going to be a Broadway musical about him. A famous director is piloting the project (it’s still hush-hush, but trust me, it’s good). And entire genre of music, “the Brill Building sound,” is named for his contribution to pop culture.

Does he still have his copyrights? “I sold a lot of them a few years ago,” he told me. But don’t worry about Don. “I kept a few,” he said, with a wink.

In 1963, he sold his Aldon Music to Screen Gems for, are you ready, $2 million.

“Today it would be worth $100 million,” Kirshner said.

All of those hits, like “Up on the Roof” and “Calendar Girl,” gone. But Kirshner wasn’t finished. Within three years he had “The Monkees” on TV and selling millions of records. Many of the songwriters from Aldon supplied the music. Neil Diamond gave them “I’m a Believer,” Carole King wrote “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Don Kirshner was back in business.

In the ’70s, he brought the rock concert to TV. His droll Brooklyn accent was so hilarious as he introduced every rock act of the age that Shaffer had to do an impersonation of him. Don Kirshner became even more famous. Last night, he recalled finding Bobby Darin and Connie Francis, among others. The audience went wild. So much for the Rock Hall.

7 replies to this post
  1. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the HFPA of the music industry (or whatever is left of it). Over the years, I’ve read of the numerous snubs, and it’s a tragic situation, not only for the generation of founders and those who paved the way, but for my generation and later ones.

    When I was young, I would pull out my father’s stacks of wax, and his double-album, “Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock and Roll 1955-1975.” Though it ended with my birth year, it taught me the history and to appreciate how the sound of popular music evolved.

    Jann Wenner is a big dummy. Sorry for the rant, but Mr. Kirshner deserved much better. RIP.

  2. Don Kirshner was a big part of music when I grew up in the ’70’s and had his own TV show…I later knew his daughter, who was just super nice and down to earth. RIP Don…

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