Don Kirshner Goes to the Great Rock Concert in the Sky

January 18, 4pm

If you were a rock music fan in the mid-1970s, you couldn’t have had a more unlikely savior than Don Kirshner. His nasal voice and balding, leisure-suited appearance made him less the stuff of hero worship than unbridled spoofing—and Paul Shaffer’s repeated impressions of him on Saturday Night Live in the late ’70s are still the stuff of legend. But Kirshner, who died Monday at age 76, was a critical pioneer for rock & roll on television with Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, the syndicated weekly show that ran from 1973 to 1982, its end perhaps not coincidentally coinciding with the birth of MTV. At a time when, if you wanted visuals to go with your music, you pretty much had to stare at an album cover, Kirshner was rock’s primary delivery system to American living rooms, nebbish or not.

It could be argued that Kirshner had an even more real and lasting influence on pop music as a behind-the-scenes figure in the early 1960s, when he was half-owner of Aldon Music, the famous Brill Building publishing outfit that signed songwriters like Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin, and Carole King. He was also largely responsible for the Monkees—and the Archies. More creditably, he gave Bobby Darin his first big break.

But in the popular mindset, Kirshner will be remembered in the popular mindset less for any of those accomplishments than… that monotone. Not since Ed Sullivan had there been such a disconnect between the wild, world-changing rockers on the tube and the old-before-his-time nerd introducing them.

Watch the above clip of Kirshner introducing Queen on his television series, and you’ll see all the hallmarks that Shaffer was able to hilariously (and affectionately) spoof in the early years of SNL: the flatness of voice, the looking off-camera toward cue cards, and the completely incomprehensible recitation of an act’s record label, management, agents, and/or promoters, as if America gave a rat’s behind about who the suits behind the band were.

“When I did him on Saturday Night Live,” Shaffer said in a 2004 interview, “I would just make up names of promoters and managers. (But) the guy on Rock Concert was nothing like the real Don Kirshner. He’s actually a really funny guy.”

Indeed, if Kirshner could seem stilted and even a little tone-deaf on-camera, he was more than sharp enough off-camera, when he stopped looking like a deer caught in the headlights and got back to business.

Although Kirshner was left out of Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic, he was a crucial figure in Darin’s early career, having met the future star at age 20, when they began writing songs together. Their partnership as manager and client was close enough that Darin married fellow star Sandra Dee in Kirshner’s apartment. The two fell out as Darin’s celebrity grew, but Kirshner found another great partner in entrepreneur Al Nevons, with whom he formed Aldon Music. They were responsible for teaming up some of the greatest songwriters of the early ’60s and publishing such indelible hits as “Walkin’ in the Rain,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” and “The Locomotion.”

Columbia Music bought the company in the mid-’60s but installed Kirshner as the head of Screen Gems, where he was the music consultant for shows including Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. More historically, however, he was the guy in charge of music for TV’s answer to the Beatles, the Monkees, and he had the faux four record smashes like “Daydream Believer” and “I’m a Believer.”

When the Monkees, like Pinocchio, got it in their heads that they wanted to be a real band, heads clashed and tempers flared. Michael Nesmith won that battle, if he arguably lost the war when the group floundered doing original material. One flare-up came when Kirshner wanted the Monkees to record “Sugar Sugar,” and, obviously, they balked. “I said, ‘Screw the Monkees. I want a band that won’t talk back’,” he recalled later. As sung anonymously by a crew of cartoon rockers, “it was the Number 1 song of 1969. It outsold the Rolling Stones.”

Kirshner kept on with the brave new world of pop music on television, becoming an executive producer on ABC’s nascent In Concert series in late 1972. He quickly moved on to start his own show, which went head-to-head in late night with not only the ABC series but NBC’s new Midnight Special. The crucial difference between the latter show and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was that the Kirshner performances really were filmed in concert and not lip-synched, starting with the inaugural episode, a highly touted return to television by the Rolling Stones.

The show ran into the punk era; in the above clips, you can see Kirshner hedging with some “maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t” uncertainty over the Ramones and “judge for yourself” faint praise for the New York Dolls. Mid-’70s staples like Black Oak Arkansas, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and Mountain gave way to the likes of the Police before Kirshner hung up his hosting duties in ’82.

He then all but disappeared for the last 28 years of his life, although in an excellent 2004 profile in the Washington Post, he laid out plans for a business comeback that never materialized. He also expressed resentment at never having been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s non-performer division. “I don’t want to sound like sour grapes,” he told the Post, “but I believe I shoud have been one of the first three or first five inducted. Seriously. I mean, they’ve got people in there that I trained, and I’m not in? It bothers me, on principle.”

Not to worry, Don. In the hall of fame that exists in baby boomers’ and early Gen-X-ers’ hearts, you’re well-enshrined, thanks to your show’s 180-episode run. You were the delivery system for glam-rock, punk, and other outre subgenres at a time when we had to wait seven days for another shot at seeing just what these brilliant clowns looked and acted like. And all that was worth sitting through a few superfluous names of promoters and managers—and even the sight of those horrendous wide collars—for.

If you want to see Shaffer’s amazing vintage take on Kirshner, here’s a link to a prime example from a 1978 episode, wherein the future Letterman band leader opened the show as the eminently spoofable Rock Concert host: