“The Man with the Golden Ear”

Donald Kirshner (born on April 17, 1934, in the Bronx, New York – died on January 17, 2011, in Boca Raton, Florida) was a legendary music publisher, songwriter, and producer who changed the music landscape of the latter half of the 20th century. After attending Upsala College in New Jersey, Don aspired to become a songwriter and looked for an opportunity to break into the music industry.  That opportunity came in the mid-1950s when Don met a young singer named Robert Cassotto in a Washington Heights candy store. Both boys had grown up in the same neighborhood and attended the Bronx High School of Science. The two became partners working together on jingles and songs for commercials.

Don Kirshner

Taking the advice given to him by singer Frankie Laine when Kirshner was working part-time as a bellhop at the Long Island Surf Club, the young lyricist took to recording demos of songs he co-wrote with Cassotto. About six months later, the pair had their first song published; a collaboration named “Bubblegum Pop.” In 1958, Cassotto, under his new stage name Bobby Darin, scored a hit with “Splish Splash,” and his career began to take off. With Bobby Darin quickly developing into a highly successful recording star, the Kirshner/Cassotto partnership came to an end. With Darin pursuing a recording career, Don Kirshner approached Al Nevins, a founding member of The Three Suns, about starting a music publishing company.

In 1958, the two founded Aldon Music in an office building just north of Times Square named Brill Building. Some of Kirshner’s earliest signings to Aldon Music were such talents as Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, and Connie Francis. With Francis’ release of the Sedaka-penned “Stupid Cupid,” Aldon Music leaped into the limelight.  Soon, hits poured from the Brill Building writers, including material for the Drifters, Little Eva, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, and the Ronettes. By 1962, Aldon Music had hundreds of hits on the radio penned by a team of 18 writers that included Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Jack Keller, and Cynthia Weil. Specializing in music aimed at young listeners, Aldon helped shape the “Brill Building Sound” which was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 50s and 60s.

In 1963, Columbia Records purchased Aldon, and Kirshner moved to the next phase of his career as president of Columbia’s song publishing division, Screen Gems.  Kirshner, who had supervised the music for the sitcoms “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched,” was hired by the producers of The Monkees to provide catchy tunes for the group’s television program. He corralled songwriting talent from Brill Building, to craft hit worthy music for the show.  The resulting songs, such as “I’m a Believer”, made The Monkees one of the top pop acts of the mid-1960s. After a falling out with some of the band members, Kirshner moved on and replicated his formula with the animated series, “The Archies.” In the fall of 1972, Don Kirshner served as an executive producer for ABC Television’s “In Concert” series.  A year later he ventured off to produce his own syndicated weekly rock program, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” Unlike “American Bandstand” and other TV rock shows, where performers lip-synched in a studio, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” featured full performances in a live concert setting.  

Don Kirshner in the studio.

In 2012, Don Kirshner was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Ahmet Ertegun Award category, for his contribution to Rock ‘n’ Roll as a non-performer. Other notable artists included in the inductee class of 2012 include Guns N’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Beastie Boys.

Over the show’s run from 1973 to 1981, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” included legendary acts such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, and many others.  On the show, he also championed the careers of many comics like Steve Martin and David Letterman. Don Kirshner was a tireless rock-and-roll publisher and all-around impresario.  He shaped pop in the days when Tin Pan Alley began to blend with the rhythms of rock. A pioneering musical matchmaker, Don Kirshner discovered the best songwriters and paired them with the top artists to consistently turn out hit after hit. Over the course of his career, these talents earned him the title of “The Man with the Golden Ear.”