[JPL] RIP Irving Green, co-founder of Mercury Records

Doug Crane 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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