Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: No Reprisal

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Thursday, March 14, 2013
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: No Reprisal

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

1961-1963. Sinatra Runs His Own Label.
Reprise Puts Out 120 Albums – Where Are They Now?

It is Mo Ostin’s first minutes upstairs in the Warner Records building, standing alone for the first time in this, his furniture-less “new” office. And he’s quickly been called to come into President Mike Maitland’s office, down the hall. Mike, the man who’d waged war against Mo’s label back when Mike was Capitol’s sales chief, blasting at the upstart irreverent Reprise label with all the might of Capitol’s Sinatra catalogue, drowning out Sinatra’s first album release on Reprise with a deluge of two-fer-priced Sinatra-on-Capitols. And Mike now heads Warner Records. A place where Mo Ostin did not want to be today.

Walking in to Mike’s office, Mo’s first reaction was to the sunshine. o Mike’s welcoming smile, and Mike’s office with windows looking out of two sides of the larger space than Mo’s. No air conditioner to look at, either, not like the cow-sized machine that was Mo’s only view from his “new” office. And Mike had fairly good furniture, too.

Mike and Mo shook hands like they were old buddies.

They sat, with Mike Maitland sitting not behind his big desk but in a chair next to Mo’s, sitting equally.

Mike described how fortunate he felt about having two labels now - Reprise and Warners. Equals. And how Mike for himself wanted to stay out of the A&R end of the business. Mike wanted to oversee the growth of the whole company’s distribution and manufacturing and international.

But not pick the product. That he’d leave to his two label heads: Mo for Reprise was one. For the other? Mike was promoting Warner Records’ his promotion head, Joe Smith, to run A&R for WBR. “Equally.”

To Mo, this all sounded better, much better than he’d feared. He asked Mike some questions, and every answer reassured him that his new job would be even better than his last job, where he’d answered to Frank, to Mickey, and to an empty marketplace.

Mike nodded. He’d felt the same when he was brought in to Warner from Capitol. This was beginning to sound like a fraternity reunion, Mo thought.

A Different Market for “Their Labels”.

Mo felt easier about sharing his own feelings with Mike. How both labels had spent their own first years reaching back to what their masters had heard before: those 1950s artists, to put it simply. Sinatra grew up with those sounds. So had Jim Conkling. But the marketplace had moved on.

Mo felt good talking about his new hit star, Trini Lopez, and skipped mentioning the Palm Spring crowd on Reprise. Both of them smiled over the piano concerto album star George Greeley, who’d done albums for both labels, romantically but, in the sales area, not robustly.

What the marketplace had left behind, they agreed on: no longer open to albums of the 1950s, by stars of the 1950s. It had moved away from music that soothed adults, music that could be described as “catchy” and “cute” and “sweet” or even “toe taping.” Today’s buyers, kids often, thought Debbie Reynolds and those all sounded “old hat.”

Mo shook his head about that. Agreed. Some of his Reprise albums, however, should be worth keeping on the market. Reprise had issued over 120 albums since its birth.

“We’ll need to cut a lot of them out,” said Maitland. Ostin could only agree. “How about we go through the list?” Mo offered. He had a “catalogue sheet” listing those first three years of Reprise.

In sync, mostly, Mike and Mo marked off the “cut outs” on the list. Many got marked, to be shipped into the Warner warehouses of the dead, even if that meant, in some artist contracts, buying out the rest of the deal, for cash.

Back, Mike and Mo turned (using the Reprise numbering system) to an album both remembered: Frank Sinatra’s debut LP, Ring-a-Ding Ding! “Well we can’t touch the Sinatra catalogue, can we?” Mike half-giggled. “Those’re a keep.”

Mo felt in sync. They went through the first year’s releases (starting out on Valentine’s Day, 1961, back when albums had been produced or picked up for Reprise by Neil Hefti and Steve Venet).

Those Very First Releases

First:#6001: Thurston Knudson’s Primitive Percussion: African Jungle Drums

#6002: Leo Diamond: Exciting Sounds of South Seas

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#6003: Johnny Magnus: X15 and Other Sounds of Missiles, Rockets, Jets

#6004: Sande & Greene Fun-Time Band: Ol’ Calliope Man at the Fair. (And later, “Ol’ Calliope Man Visits a German Hofbrau.” #6015)

#6005: Lou Monte:Sings the Great Italian-American Hits

#6006: Tony Williams: Greatest Hits (not the famous Tony Williams)

#6007: Francisco Cazador & His Barcelona Caballeros: The Passionate Valentino Tangos.

#6008: Don George: America’s Favorite Organ Hits

#6009: Leo Diamond: Themes from Great Foreign Films (harmonica album)

and on and on the list ran. Even Mo could not remember... Mmm, this one?

The Shiek’s Man: Belly Dancer (Reprise #6056):

Hear it here:

Then the Reprise Comedy Clan

“But where are the hits, like Sinatra and Sammy and Dino?” asked Maitland.

“Well, we have about 120 albums to go through,” Mo shrugged, “and those guys are in there. But here, here’s another series: Comedians.”

And Mo turned the page to another Reprise series: Its 5000 series, where he found fewer, but among them ….

The Soupy Sales Show

“Sinatra was a major fan of Soupy. He signed him himself,” commented Mo.

#6083: In 1962, Reprise in England (only) came out with a different comedy album, called “Sing Along with JFK.” Created by Hank Levine. Ill-timed, considering the tragedy of 1963, but it featured the actual voices of Kennedy, Nixon, and Eisenhower. It quickly became a rarity.

#5001: Joe E. Lewis: It Is Now Post Time.

Frank signed Joe one personally,” Mo added. Sinatra had portrayed Lewis in his movie, The Joker Is Wild. On his album Sinatra at the Sands, Frank commented about turning 50, saying he would “have had the body of a 22 year old man, if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis.”

#5002: Mort Sahl: The New Frontier.

#5003: Mort Sahl on Relationships.

But Comedy was rare on Reprise; no Newhart had come along to bolster that label’s sales. Much more reliance was given to another list:

And Wow! How Reprise Loved Jazz

“Let me get over here,” Mo suggested. New page. “We did a lot of JAZZ albums, too. You know, I was kind of responsible for those, based on my time with Verve Records. Here’s our first…”

Reprise #2001 – Ben Webster: The Warm Moods. Recorded in 1960, this became the very first album (other than Frank Sinatra’s own, Ring-a-Ding Ding!) to be issued by Reprise in 1961.

The jazz list was mighty. Next:

Eddie Cano, Barney Kessel, Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie, Shorty Rogers, Marv Jenkins, Mavis Rivers, Jimmy Witherspoon. “They sold next to nothing,” Ostin admitted.

But Mo could not give up on the jazz catalogue. His eyes ran down the list, then finally blinked on: Yes!

Duke Ellington: “Afro Bossa” Reprise #6069. Mike felt Mo’s misery. But when he heard about nine recent sessions just completed the first of this year, when Duke Ellington laid down the tracks for Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back? Mike said “yes.” Ellington’s latest came out of Burbank Reprise, in 1965.

Count Basie: Reprise #6070. “This Time by Basie/Hits of the 50s” Basie’s versions of “recent” hits ranging from “The Hucklebuck” to “Moon River.”

“All these in one year – 1963!” Mo remembered with a bit of passion. He went on, naming names. Dizzy Gillespie, Barney Kessel, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Chico Hamilton, Erroll Garner … but …

Sales on these and other Reprise jazz releases: under 20,000 each. Sinatra held firm: No rock ‘n’ roll. Mike Maitland held firm: Why jazz?

Mo Ostin recalled, “The only thing that was meaningful at Reprise was the kind of music Sinatra had been involved in all his life.” “…and then, this may be what you’re looking for, Mike, the major stars on Reprise. They’re sprinkled through. Like here…” And Mo ran his finger down names that were in the catalogue for sure.

Sammy Davis, Jr.: Seven albums: 6033, 6051, 6063, 6082, 6114; 2003, 2010.

Dean Martin: 6021- French Style • 6054 – Dino Latino • 6061 – Country Style • 6085 – Dean Tex Martin Rides Again Maybes, Mike said, with a small smile.

Still, hopefully, Mike wanted to hear something that he didn’t feel was a delete from all these Reprise “oldies.” What he heard included:

The Palm Springs Stars – 1961

Beyond and high above those first categories – jazz and specialty – came a third set, not ever publicly named “the Palm Springs crowd,” but there was truth to that way of thinking.

These were veteran performers who lived, weekends if no other, in Palm Springs. Where Sinatra’d hung out, too. The pop stars of the 1950s, mostly. Pre-Elvis, surely.

Frank Sinatra and his dream label had attracted veteran music sellers, and the Palm Springs list read something like Sinatra’s Masters thesis on GOOD music:

Dennis Day, a 1950s radio star, with his “Shillelaghs & Shamrocks” album of Irish tunes. Reprise label with steamboat.Reprise 6065.

And this next “stars” list rolled on: Jo Stafford • The Hi-Lo’s • Dinah Shore • Ethel Merman • Debbie Reynolds • Bing Crosby • Keely Smith…

Maitland’s impatience was not fully disguised. “I know, I know,” admitted Mo. He had just one more list, one that Reprise had invested in heavily. The most expensive all these 120 albums, times many thousands of dollars each, times all the high hopes for each, divided only by three years of staying up at late night sessions.

Mo’s next and final high hopes for all these albums were Reprise’s new…

All-Star Albums: The Reprise Repertory Theatre

“Frank Sinatra and the Reprise gang knew something spicy was needed. We have one more venture out there now,” Mo added. “All-Star albums.”

Reprise had gone to work on its biggest project ever. With that Mo showed Mike …

Four major albums in which a bevy of Reprise singers do new albums of Broadway hits, sung the Reprise way. Fancy packages, too. And people could buy all four albums in one deluxe box, too.

Reprise #2016: Reprise Repertory Series: “Guys and Dolls”

Reprise #2015: Finian’s Rainbow, staring the Hi-Los, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Lou Monte and the Mary Kaye Trio, the McGuire Sisters, Clark Dennis.

Reprise #2017: Kiss Me Kate and Reprise #2018: South Pacific.

A Major Cut

The “cutouts” meeting had gone on, too long, both men felt. Mike took the pages that Mo’d been reading from. This first morning, it was no time to destroy Mo’s family. “Get back to you immediately,” offered Mike.

After this first meeting with Mike Maitland, Mo Ostin felt more relaxed. He’d still need to prove his worth to keep his job, but he knew Maitland wanted him to succeed. When he got back to his office down the hall that day, he found his furniture had arrived from the van. He tried his chair; it felt like “his.”

And as for Mo, he knew that today he had a hit on Reprise:

Just out was Reprise #6093: Trini Lopez at P.J.’s/Live including its single, “If I Had a Hammer.” (The cover had just been enhanced with the single’s credit over Trini’s head.) For Mo: Nice to walk in to a new building with at least one hit album and single in your hands.

And have it fit with the company’s new attitude: This one sells to Kids, not Oldies.

Watch a 1963 video for "If I Had a Hammer" here:

After this first and other meetings within his new office in Burbank, Mo Ostin felt less tension. There’d been no (as Sinatra might have named it) “No Reprisal.” The albums from before, just forgotten. And no longer was Palm Springs the center of the Reprise universe. But Warner Records employees gradually learned Mo’s name.

Lunches, Mo and other Reprisers joined the Warner gang, and became part of “we.” For lunch, we’d often head as a group to a nearby deli run by a Chinese family: Chow’s Kosherama they had named it. From chop suey to chopped liver.

Mo was also now the Warner gang’s neighbor, not just at the end of the hall. On weekends, because a town a few miles to the west named Encino turned out by accident to be where the three leading WBR executives all went home to.

Encino: for Mike with his wife Carmel and two kids; Joe with his wife Donnie and two kids; and Mo with his wife Evelyn and their three sons. And often, at the Du-Par’s Deli down on Encino’s main street, on weekends they’d often share a table and lox.

- Stay Tuned

Where Are They Now:

All Those Albums: Reprise’s wide range of albums was most all heading to warehouses, where they’d get sold off cheap to bargain stores, never to be returned. The phrase used: “Dumped on the market.”

Over the years, the original session tape recordings were saved in a sweeter place, the Warner Vault, and sample albums were wrapped in preservatives. But for the public, over 100 Reprise albums were largely gone. Largely forgotten.

A few other releases, at that point in the studio being recorded, were OKd for completion. Mostly those with Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in them, heading for the market in 1964.

But for Frank Sinatra’s early dream of his own label, he now had no hands on that steering wheel. And the end of 1963 had other complexities for Sinatra. He son Frank Jr. was kidnapped, and ransom paid for his return ($240,000) two days later. The kidnappers demanded that Frank call them only from pay phones. Sinatra developed a lifetime habit. From that day forward, he always carried a roll of dimes in his pocket.

Frank kept singing. In 1964 came Reprise’s Softly As I Leave You, now with new distribution via Warner.