Thursday, March 8, 2012

The rock-n-roll side of Rich Podolsky: Sportswriter pens Don Kirshner biography

So, what was it that made Philadelphia-native sportswriter Rich Podolsky want to tell the story of Don Kirshner, also known as “The Man with the Golden Ear” just released by music publisher Hal Leonard Books? Before Podolsky ever thought about writing about the beloved record producer of Brill Building fame, he was waxing some kind of wonderful about the Boston Celtics.

In fact, for over 30 years of his professional career, Podolsky’s journalistic talents have taken him around the sports world—college basketball, college football, golf, and horse racing. His ability to pick winning college football teams found him, as of 2009, with his selections published by ESPN, AOL among others, and his talents didn’t just center on football.

For many years, Podolsky’s sports acumen was an integral part of CBS Sports (working with Jimmy the Greek and Beano Cook),, ESPN Insider, and AOL. Now you know one side to the Podolsky, the journalist.

But, it’s often said that a good writer can write about anything, particularly any subject for which there is passion. His book that was in the making for seven years, “Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear,” really originated in the mind and heart of a young teenager from Philadelphia. So, what is it that made Podolsky jump over to write about rock and roll? One reason: music empresario Don Kirshner was Podolsky’s hero.

Here was a Baby Boomer teenager like any other, listening to his beloved Philco radio in his bedroom, getting ready for school, and when he’d matured to driving age, he’d be found motoring around Philly streets, blasting out the sounds of WIBG (Wibbage) Radio, with DJs Hy Lit and Joe Niagara, New York’s WABC go-to, Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow), as well as Jerry Blavat (WHAT). Today, WIBBAGE FM, 94.3 plays a popular 60s and 70s format with DJs like Philly Bill Culp, Jerry Beebe, syndicated favorites including John Records Landecker on Saturday night and Dave the Rave’s Relics and Rarities. Takes you back to ...back in the day, where every song you heard in high school and college had a meaning, had a part of your heart wrapped around it, and therein was the genesis for Richard Podolsky finding a backbeat to his youth.

As he shares, teenage Podolsky was fortunate that his father was a record buyer for Sun Rae, a Philadelphia record store chain. Enthusiastic discussions between father and son led to an early opportunity for Rich to start picking hits (long before he developed a knack for picking winning football teams). In his book’s foreword, he writes that his father had brought home a “pile of 45s that were untried and untested. He didn’t know if any of them were good, and assumed he might not recognize if they were since they weren’t his style.”

Rich’s first freelance discovery was “If I Had a Hammer” by a (then) unknown Peter, Paul, and Mary. Podolsky’s dad listened, and bought copies for the racks of all his stores. Within six weeks, it was a certified Top 10 hit because others discovered it, same as Podolsky. And thus began a lifetime of immersion in the music for young Rich Podolsky. Not long after, in the Spring of 1962, Rich’s dad invited him to attend a dinner sponsored by Cameo Parkway Records where they were introducing Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”). He was thrilled to meet Chubby Checker that night, never dreaming that some 45 years later, he’d be on a radio program with him, discussing the greatest days of the music. Life’s funny that way.

Podolsky continues, of that night, “And then I saw him—Don Kirshner. There he was, walking toward us, looking larger than life. Kirshner was only twenty-seven then, but his song publishing firm, Aldon Music, was the talk of the business. He had that something that made people want to be around him.”

This biography was not the result of a longtime personal friendship between Podolsky and Kirshner. In fact it would take 40 years before Podolsky would consider writing the book in the first place, and it wasn’t until a long way into researching and interviewing hitmaking, ultratalented songwriters that he could even connect with Kirshner to learn if he would be willing to cooperate in telling his story. Based on reading the book, it’s easy to see that Podolsky’s respect and regard for the “man with the golden ear” is such that he would have written it with or without Kirshner’s help.

And yet, one day, skipping past months of attempts, e-mails, phone calls and messages via friends, and friends of friends, Podolsky’s phone rang, and the voice on the other end was indeed Kirshner’s. After an initial conversation, Kirshner agreed to share his memories with Podolsky. He writes, “Every Sunday morning for six months we’d chat over coffee and bagels, 1,300 miles apart.”

In Hal Leonard Books, Podolsky found a natural publishing partner to tell the story of a beloved man of music who is held in regard, respect, and just plain loved by the luminaries of the soundtrack of your life, if you’re any kind of Baby Boomer at all. Hal Leonard is as well known for music publishing as Campbell’s is for soup.

The list of those whose careers collided and excelled is long and strong. Don Kirshner made such an impact on the music of the 60s, by giving young songwriters their first breaks, their first chances, and fair profits and a nurturing environment in which to be creative. Kirshner partnered in business with a savvy businessman and gentleman, Al Nevins, and together they built an empire of publishing that was fueled and propelled to success by teenage songwriters.

The songwriters’ list is legendary: Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Jack Keller, Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole Bayer Sager, on and on. The recording artists who were most impacted by Kirshner’s talents include some of Podolsky’s favorites: Connie Francis, The Monkees, The Archies, and Tony Orlando.

Orlando is more than a fan of Kirshner’s; he considers he owes his career to the “man with the golden ear,” a moniker given Kirshner by Time Magazine. Orlando’s foreword for the book notes Kirshner as a gentleman who “opened the door to independent record producers, allowing young record producers to be able to create and sell their works to major record companies.” Of course, fans of Orlando know him as a young demo singer who found a tremendous career that continues today when he was paired with studio singers Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins, better known as Dawn.

Speaking of better known, Podolsky’s book is a compendium of all the songs, songwriters, producers and music that the young man was memorizing alongside college courses, attaining the virtual equivalent of a PhD in rock and roll along the way. In a lovely section of the book, information is shared that perhaps any true 60s fan and proud owner of virtually every song that Podolsky describes, doesn’t realize is there.

The timing of the book’s release, by sheer happenstance, is made more poignant in last week’s unexpected passing of singer Davy Jones of The Monkees. Kirshner was instrumental in selecting the body of songs that The Monkees would record and perform on their Screen Gems TV Show.

One of the most influential producers Kirshner brought in was the great Jeff Barry, who had a string of hits already to his producer credit (The Crystals, The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes), today a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but even moreso, Kirshner had access, via Barry, to his friends and colleagues among the best New York studio musicians.

It was just a matter of time before Monkee magic turned into Monkeemania, given the on-camera chemistry and underlying musical talent of Davy, Mickey, Peter, and Mike, which at the onset had not even yet been tapped. Kirshner and his team of creatives provided a springboard from which this group propelled to superstardom, and they’re not alone.

But, as Podolsky describes, Kirshner was not always beloved by the performers, which is entirely understandable, as there is always a chance for newfound stardom to convince a talented person that they could have reached those heights, no matter what. The relationship between Kirshner and The Monkees was not always a lovefest, and emotions run high even this week in the blogworld as to exactly how individual and collective Monkees felt (at different times) about Kirshner as producer. Podolsky shared with me, that when Jones was appearing as the Artful Dodger in “Oliver” on Broadway in 1964, “Don Kirshner had signed Jones” and later “was very influential in choosing Jones during the national casting call for The Monkees.”

Even before there was a Monkee madness, there was much more to Don Kirshner, and his ability to pick out talent by watching performers early on in their careers, foster that talent and put them together with the best writers, producers and arrangers to create vinyl magic for the artists, while Aldon Music published all of them, hitmakers indeed.

Among all the stories Kirshner and his friends share with Podolsky, the most heartwarming surely has to be how Kirshner sat in Kurtzman’s Candy Store in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Kirshner’s friend, Natalie, described a friend of hers she was bringing over to meet him, as “the most talented human being she’d ever met.” At first meeting, that friend was a frightning sight of a frail, emotionless young man, who seemed ever older than his years.

He was introduced to “Kirsh,” the new name that the young man would give him, quickly, as Walden Robert Cassotto. After a brief discussion, the three went to Natalie’s house, wherein the man they would come to call Bobby Darin would blow Kirshner off the sofa and into full alert as he watched him play “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.”

As he performed, Kirshner saw “that something special” the young man possessed. The two became enjoined in creating music history, and engendered a lifetime of goodwill and best results for other talents in the music industry, e.g., Connie Francis as a new singer and a girl who’d fall madly in love with Darin, and Artie Wayne as a young songwriter, whom Darin sent to see Kirshner about a job, the first real break of his career. Ron Dante and Toni Wine are two more talents whose voices were part of American life, but not their names, yet who remain steadfast in their acknowledgment of Kirshner as mentor and friend.

It’s all about getting those breaks, those chances, those meetings that turns potential into reality. Listening, hearing, seeing, believing. Never more clear is it, than through this compelling volume is the music industry revealed to be a family with the circle growing smaller and tighter as the intermingling of people, places, faces and spaces intersects time and again to create magic. And there was Don Kirshner in the middle.

Sadly, Kirshner died before the book was published, and he also will miss this year’s planned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14th. Life comes full circle and great music always comes back around again. The music his father listened to because son Rich suggested it as a winner has won once again, in the biography of Don Kirshner.

Joyfully, today Rich has 14-year-old twins, whose musical tastes keep him at the top of today’ pop charts. His current favorites? Says Podolsky, “Adele, Taylor Swift and Cee-lo,” but he also confesses to having seen Little Anthony and the Imperials in a perfect show (“they can still hit all the notes”) and he’s delighted Steve Lawrence cut a new album (“I’d go just about anywhere to see him because he still sings lights out”). Talk about things coming back around again, just last night, Podolsky was a guest on Jerry Blavat’s radio program, an anniversary show with Chubby Checker, something that 16-year-old Podolsky would have never imagined happening back in the day.

Good music is timeless. Classic (rock) music is forever. And forever inscribed in the history books of rock and roll will be the name of Don Kirshner, a young man with a dream who lived to make others’ dreams happen alongside his own. Surely, it was the ride of a lifetime for many. And Rich Podolsky lived out his own dream, in writing Kirshner’s story.

Just makes you feel good to think about it. Now, someone turn up that radio, and let’s have a party, up on the roof, one fine day, because we have a groovy kind of love, and love will keep us together. Thank you, Don Kirshner.

Photo: Rich Podolsky is the author of Don Kirshner, The Man with the Golden Ear, Hal Leonard Books, published March, 2012. Review originally published on and registered

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