[JPL] RIP Irving Green, co-founder of Mercury Records
dcrane at comcast.net
Fri Jul 7 03:45:27 EDT 2006
Irving Green, 90; Helped Start Mercury Records, Broke Racial Barriers
By Dennis McLellan
LA Times Staff Writer
July 4, 2006
Irving Green, the co-founder of Mercury Records
who helped break color barriers in popular music
while turning his small independent company into
one of the music industry's major labels, has died.
He was 90.
Green, who had a successful second career in real
estate development, died Saturday of natural
causes at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm
Springs, said his grandson, Jonathan Ross.
"This is one of the pioneers, the last of the
great entrepreneurs," said Lou Dennis, who was
product manager of Smash/Fontana Records, a
subsidiary of Mercury Records, in the 1960s.
"Today the record companies are all owned by big
conglomerates," Dennis said. "This is a guy that
started a label in Chicago, and it became one of
the major labels in the United States."
Founded in Chicago in 1944 by Green, Berle Adams
and Arthur Talmadge, Mercury Records quickly rose
to prominence by using an alternative form of
promotion to generate hit records.
Instead of depending on radio airplay to promote
new releases as did the major labels RCA
Victor, Columbia, Decca and Capitol Green used
the distributors of jukeboxes to spur interest in
new releases: Record buyers would first hear a
new Mercury record on the jukebox rather than on the radio.
"It was a cheaper alternative means for artists
to become popular," Ross said. "That alternative
route quickly got Mercury up to the level of the existing powerhouses."
Mercury, which was known for signing regional
bands and singers, became a major force in jazz
and blues, classical music and pop.
Among the diverse roster of Mercury artists under
Green: Patti Page ("Tennessee Waltz," "[How Much
Is] That Doggie in the Window"), Frankie Laine
("That's My Desire," "Rawhide"), The Platters
("Only You," "The Great Pretender"), the Big
Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"), Sarah Vaughan ("My
Funny Valentine"), Dinah Washington ("Harbor
Lights"), Vic Damone ("You're Breaking My
Heart"), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs ("Foggy
Mountain Breakdown"), Brook Benton ("It's Just a
Matter of Time"), Lesley Gore ("It's My Party"),
the Four Seasons ("Dawn [Go Away]," "Rag
Doll")and the Smothers Brothers ("Mom Always Liked You Best").
In April, the Pacific Southwest Region of the
National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
honored Green for his multiracial promotion of
musicians by inducting him into its Gold Circle.
Green was among a number of record producers who
lobbied to change the American Federation of
Music rule that prohibited live performances of music on television.
After the rule was repealed in 1948, Green
convinced Ed Sullivan to feature jazz and blues
artists on his Sunday night variety show, and
Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington and
other Mercury artists made their TV debuts.
"I think we were very instrumental in breaking
down some of the color line," Green said in an
interview with the Desert Sun in February. "We
had no color line. Artists like Dinah Washington
or the Platters or Clyde McPhatter, we had no color restrictions of any kind."
In 1957, when Nat King Cole's musical variety
show was having ratings and sponsorship problems,
Green arranged to have Frankie Laine appear on
the show without pay reportedly the first time
white and black singers performed together on national television.
In 1964, Quincy Jones became the first top black
executive at a major label when Green made him
vice president in charge of artists and repertoire.
Jones, who was arranging songs for Dinah
Washington when he first met Green, told the
Desert Sun in February that Green had "broad
taste. It was across the board, and I think
that's what we shared that diversified taste."
For his part, Green said: "I was brought up in a
mixed neighborhood, and that stayed with me forever."
Born Feb. 6, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Green grew
up on the west side of Chicago. (Although his
birth certificate lists his first name as Irvin,
he went by Irving). He attended St. John's
University but dropped out after two years to work during the Depression.
After working for his father's paint contracting
company, he went into the sheet-metal business with a partner.
They made hydraulic presses and pressed records.
"In those days, 10-inch records sold for at least
79 cents," Green said in the Desert Sun
interview. "We were pressing them for others, and
we decided to press them for ourselves."
When the use of shellac was restricted during
World War II, Green's company produced an innovative plastic record.
"It actually was an unbreakable 10-inch record,
whereas shellac was breakable," he said. "That's
what started us in the music business. We knew
how to make the record, and there was a
tremendous shortage of records at the time."
In 1952, Green and five other record industry
chief executives formed the Recording Industry
Assn. of America, whose mission was to "foster a
business and legal climate that supports and
promotes its members' creativity and financial vitality."
As a record producer and distributor, Green was
known for allowing artists to own their copyrights.
"I said, 'I want to stay in the recording
business. Let them have their own publishing," he
told the Desert Sun. "That's what brought some
artists to us, I think. They knew we weren't in
any side business. That travels in the industry
quite quick. I did not publish any of the music
we recorded. I just felt, let them own their own
and I would show them how to copyright."
After Green sold Mercury in the late 1960s, his
grandson said, he continued to run the label for five years.
He then turned his hobby of building homes into a second career.
In partnership with developer Bill Levitt (of
Levittown, Pa., fame), he built 18,000 homes in southern Iran.
When the Shah of Iran was driven out of the
country in 1979, Green and Levitt's company was
taken over by the new government and Green and
his associates were provided safe passage back to the United States.
Green then started Landau Development in Palm
Springs, which has built hundreds of homes in the area.
Green continued to make weekly site inspections
until about a week before he died, his grandson said.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m.
Thursday at Temple Isaiah, 332 W. Alejo Road, Palm Springs.
In addition to Ross, Green is survived by his
wife, Pamela; two daughters, Roberta Hunt and
Kelli Ross; two other grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
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