He wasn't the snappiest dresser, nor was he the smoothest talker or even the most clever negotiator, but Don Kirshner was quite possibly one of the ten most successful and wealthiest men in the entertainment industry for much of the '60s and '70s. As the head of first Aldon Music, then Screen Gems publishing, Kirshner employed some of the best writers in the business including Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Tommy Boyce. The latter two artists played a large part in the success of another Kirshner creation, the pop group the Monkees.
Born in the Bronx, Kirshner attended New York's City College for a time before earning a B.A. in business administration. In the late '50s he made his first foray into the music industry as Connie Francis' manager. Both his songs and business suavity helped the torch singer go from a nobody to a hit artist. Tired of hustling to get songs published, though, Kirshner came up with an idea to capitalize on the widespread popularity of rock & roll. Sensing there were too many groups and too few quality songs to record, Kirshner, along with Al Nevins, formed a publishing house called Aldon Music, and gathered together all the best young writers in New York. Those unknown writers included Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich, among others. It was the old case of being in the right place at the right time and, though all involved were relatively unknown at the time, they would all go on to be giants in the industry.
Setting up shop in the Brill Building, Kirshner's staff of writers churned out hit song after hit song for such groups as the Drifters, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Shangri-Las, upping the standard of songwriting significantly in the process. Songs such as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "On Broadway," and "Locomotion" were just some of the longstanding hits published by Aldon Music. To cut out the middle man, and thereby rake in more dough, Kirshner also set up his own label, Dimension Records, to release his writers' songs. A songwriting institution and key to the development of rock & roll, the Brill Building sound ruled the charts for much of the early '60s before the Beatles landed and upped the criteria for songwriting even further by pushing artists to write their own material.
By the time Columbia bought Aldon Music, Kirshner was rich enough to retire, yet he stayed on at Columbia, becoming president of Screen Gems, the prestigious song publishing wing of Columbia Pictures. At Columbia Kirshner ran Screen Gems while overseeing both Dimension and his new endeavor, Colpix. In 1966, the enterprising Kirshner embarked on the second stage of his professional career when he developed America's answer to the Beatles. By creating the Monkees, a group assembled by placing advertisements in various trade papers, for the NBC network, Kirshner created a cute, lovable, slightly anti-establishment rock group that would parade around in a half-hour TV show while going on zany adventures à la the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night and Help! The kids loved it. And so did Columbia when they received the royalty checks from the Monkees' hits. Hiring the best writers on the West Coast like he had done in New York, Kirshner assembled a creative team that was second to none. Better yet, the show promoted the songs and vice versa. For the next three years the Monkees scored hit after hit with such songs as "Daydream Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville," all published on the Kirshner-controlled Screen Gems, of course.
After the Monkees ran their course, Kirshner formed Don Kirshner Productions in 1973 to produce his successful Don Kirshner's Rock Concert series. By then a music and TV mogul, Kirshner formed the aptly named Kirshner Records as a vehicle for Kansas, the new band he signed. As with everything the exec had been involved with, Kansas became a top-rated group, if not critically, then commercially. The Rock Concert series ran for several years before Kirshner eventually moved away from rock & roll and into TV production in the mid-'70s. With the advent of MTV and the changing landscape of popular music, Kirshner still remained in the woodwork for much of the next several decades. In any case, his achievements in the '60s and '70s certainly earned him the right to exit the industry a winner. Don Kirshner died of heart failure in Boca Raton, FL on January 17, 2011; he was 76 years old.