Mo Ostin, US record exec who signed Jimi Hendrix and the Kinks, dies aged 95

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Mo Ostin, the US record executive who signed the Kinks and Jimi Hendrix and presided over Warner/Reprise records for three decades, has died aged 95.

“Mo Ostin was one of a kind,” said record executive Clive Davis. “And the company he chaired was totally unique in its very special management and, of course, the depth of artistry which affected contemporary music and culture so profoundly and so historically.”

Mo Ostin. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Musicians such as Q-Tip, Flea of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, John Cale and Nancy Sinatra paid tribute to Ostin, who is reported to have died of natural causes.

Ostin was headhunted from Verve Records by Reprise founder Frank Sinatra in 1960, where he worked primarily with classic pop and jazz acts. Sinatra had “divined that the thrust of the company should be its artists”, Ostin said in Exploding, Stan Cornyn’s 2002 history of Warner Music Group. “It all seems logical today, but back then it was truly revolutionary.”

When the label was bought out by Warner Bros three years later, Ostin was promoted to an executive role and brought the label into the modern age, also signing acts such as the Fugs and Tiny Tim.

In 1969, after Warner/Reprise, Atlantic Records and Elektra Records were bought by a parking magnate, the united labels launched a national distributor, WEA, which within five years spoke for nearly a quarter of the US record market.

Mo Ostin, centre, outsde Warner Bros in Burbank with Frank Zappa in 1973.
Mo Ostin, centre, outsde Warner Bros in Burbank with Frank Zappa in 1973. Photograph: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Ostin was named chairman/CEO of Warner/Reprise in 1972, a role he held until 1994. During that time, the label released era-defining records by the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, Paul Simon and Randy Newman. Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours spent 31 weeks at US No 1 and sold 20m copies domestically.

The roster would later include Steely Dan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Prince, Van Halen, the Who, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and – following a distribution deal with Sire – Madonna and Talking Heads.

“Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” Warner Records’ co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck and co-chairman/COO Tom Corson said in a statement. “For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realise their vision.”

Tribute … Mo Ostin, left, is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as Neil Young, Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon look on.
Tribute … Mo Ostin, left, is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as Neil Young, Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon look on. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

In 1995, he joined DreamWorks Records, the music arm of the entertainment company founded by record executive David Geffen, director Steven Spielberg and film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. Alongside his son, a former Warner A&R executive, and former Warner A&R chief and president Lenny Waronker, Ostin signed artists such as Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright and Nelly Furtado, while Randy Newman joined them at the label.

In 2003, Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Paul Simon, Neil Young and Lorne Michaels. In 2006, he rejoined Warner Bros as a consultant, and received the Icon award from Grammy body the Recording Academy “in honour of his contribution to the landscape of modern music”.

Morris Meyer Ostrofsky (Mo Ostin) was born on 27 March 1927 in New York. His wife, Evelyn Ostin, died in 2005; his sons Kenny in 2004 and Randall in 2005. He is survived by his son Michael, who manages A Tribe Called Quest.

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