Mo Ostin Remembered: How He Transcended Tectonic Events in the Music Business to Give Warner Bros. Records Its Soul

Decades ago, during the early part of my 29-year tenure at Warner Bros. Records (when it still had the “Bros” in the name), I thought about what would happen if we ever lost Mo Ostin. I admit it was a dark thought but even then I knew that the company was something special in the business as a direct result of Mo’s outlook and personality.

There’s a song with the lyric, “You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it.” But in the case of Mo Ostin, we knew what we had and were thankful that we didn’t lose it. … until just now. The consolation here is that we lost him after he lived a long and fruitful professional and personal life that had a massive impact on the music business and those with whom he worked. Notice that the conjunction here is “with” and not “for” because that’s how it was. His emphasis was on collaborative work, not ego-fueling self-aggrandizement that’s so common in business (and politics) these days.

I’m kind of glad I had a brief, unsuccessful run at another label a few years after I started at Warner Bros., only to return and stay for the next quarter century. That experience, by contrast, showed me just how special it was at Warners and I was very thankful to have been taken back into the fold after my misadventure elsewhere.

The word that springs to mind when considering Mo Ostin is “loyal.” He was true to his employees and treated them as family; his concern about our well-being was genuine. If a staffer had health issues, Mo and his wife Evelyn, known in the building at “Saint Ev,” would do anything they could to help including finding the right doctors, the right treatment, the right hospital. It’s hard to imagine another Board Chairman with as much a focus on humanity as Mo; he simply cared about us and we cared about him.

Mo transcended tectonic events in the business. Starting at Verve and then joining Frank Sinatra at Reprise, he always knew there was something more than the expected.  Verve was a jazz label but signed Ricky Nelson; it’s an understatement to suggest that Sinatra wasn’t fond of rock and roll but, somehow, Mo convinced him to sign the Kinks.

He was open-minded and that was one of his great strengths: he went beyond the predictable and took chances on real artistry. He signed the Beach Boys when they were thought to be passé; he brought Jimi Hendrix to Burbank from what seemed to be outer space and backed artists of dubious commercial potential just because they were good at what they did. He knew that there was expertise outside his realm that could be tapped so he brought on Bearsville, Capricorn, Chrysalis, Island, Curtom, Tommy Boy, Cold Chillin’ and, of course, Sire. He believed in talent, both musical and executive, and that belief usually paid off.

When Fleetwood Mac broke through, when the company experienced great success with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when George Harrison invented the idea of The Traveling Wilburys, he was delighted not just because the bottom line would look so much better but because we all had achieved something. He knew he didn’t do it alone but, then again, we couldn’t have done it without him.

On a personal level, I always felt comfortable interacting with him even though being in the company of such a titan would logically be intimidating. He was a “mensch” of the highest order and became something of a father figure to me after I lost mine. We looked up to him and aspired to be as calm in demeanor and as savvy in business as he was.

Russ Thyret, our promo guru, coined a phrase that, perhaps, embarrassed Mo but we really enjoyed saying it, especially when things were going well: “Mo’ hits! Mo Ostin!” That’s as close to a cult of personality he ever accrued and because it was said in jest he perhaps secretly enjoyed the laudation. He truly deserved it.

It’s something of cliché to say “we lost a giant” when a great person leaves us but that’s what’s just happened. What an absolute privilege it’s been to be in his orbit for those years. The brilliant artists who recorded for Warner Bros., Reprise and its affiliates gave the company great music. Mo Ostin gave it his soul.

Bob Merlis was senior vice president of worldwide corporate communications when he departed Warner Bros. Records in 2001. Prior to that he held numerous publicity posts at the company which he initially joined in 1973. Merlis recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his company MFH (Merlis For Hire).

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