HITS Daily Double



Most in the business are familiar with the history of Warner Music Group, whose Warner Bros., Atlantic and Elektra labels deftly balanced art and commerce from the mid-’60s until the company’s idiotic dismantling in the mid-’90s at the hands of Bob Morgado and Michael Fuchs. But the equally significant and colorful story of CBS Records/Sony Music, WMG’s most formidable rival throughout those three decades, has yet to be told in similar detail. It’s a gripping tale that approaches a Shakespearean level of drama at certain pivotal moments. What follows is a recounting of the high and low points of the CBS/Sony narrative, with a focus on the individuals who shaped the company over the years, right up to this historic moment: the beginning of the Rob Stringer era.


In 1938, William S. Paley moved the Columbia Broadcasting Service into the music business by paying $700k for the American Record Corp. and its three subsidiaries, one of which was Columbia Phonograph Co. One unintended consequence of the deal is that it brought nascent CBS Records the services of Columbia producer/A&R man John Hammond, an enlightened and gentlemanly individual who crusaded against the discrimination faced by black artists throughout his career. Hammond’s contribution to CBS was immeasurable, as he forged the company’s identity through the signing of some of the company’s most important artists, including Benny Goodman, Harry James, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Robert Johnson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That Hammond was able to create this rich culture inside one of the most corporate of environments renders his achievement that much more remarkable.

But Hammond operated with the blessing of record producers turned label heads Goddard Lieberson and George Avakian, who made CBS the premier label throughout the Tin Pan Alley/big band/showtunes era, introducing the LP and releasing the cast albums of shows like Kiss Me Kate, Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific and My Fair Lady. Lieberson and Avakian hired Mitch Miller to head A&R, and he reigned from the 1940s to the mid-’60s, working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Rosemary Clooney, Percy Faith, Ray Conniff and
Johnny Mathis. Miller, a professed hater of rock & roll, became the face of adult pop/AC/MOR, while hosting the Sing Along With Mitch TV series on NBC.


Lieberson, who’d joined the company in 1939, led Columbia/CBS from 1956 to ’71, ushering in a sea change in 1965 when he made in-house attorney Clive Davis his second in command, whereupon Davis began the process of giving CBS a profound musical makeover. Before the charismatic Davis was elevated to the Columbia presidency in 1967, CBS had a string of mid-’60s hits with The Byrds, Dylan, Paul Revere & the Raiders and Simon & Garfunkel, but the label deepened its commitment to rock after Davis had his mind blown at Monterey Pop in 1967. He then went on a prolonged signing spree, nabbing the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother & the Holding Company, Moby Grape, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago and Santana, as well as Epic’s Donovan and Sly & the Family Stone. The run continued into the ’70s, as Chicago, Santana, Paul Simon, Earth, Wind & Fire, Pink Floyd and Barbra Streisand churned out hit albums and singles, as the Big Red Machine established its dominant presence in the business.

In 1973, soon after signing Billy Joel, Davis was unceremoniously removed from his job for what was believed to be a number of irregular practices involving one of his lieutenants, David Wynshaw, bringing the bountiful Davis era to an abrupt close and creating a press storm around his son Fred’s Bar Mitzvah. As legend has it, they folded up the walls of Davis’ office, boxed its contents and security escorted him from Black Rock, as a federal grand jury opened an investigation into payola and drugs in the music business. Nixon, furious about reporting on the escalating Watergate scandal and the interminable Vietnam War, had the DOJ target the three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, in essence declaring war on the media—not unlike what’s happening today. Davis would spend the next 40-plus years as one of the most credible, productive execs of the modern era.

To be continued...