If you were like me and roughly between the ages of 8 and 16 when Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was on television, you might have asked the question, “Who is Don Kirshner, and why does he have a rock concert?”
Kirshner (1934-2011) was one of those music business jacks-of-all-trades whose resume in retrospect seems foreordained to prep him for his rare eventual position of “television impresario”. He was a talent manager of songwriters and musical acts, a booker, a music publisher, a producer/promoter, a record label executive, and later a “music consultant” and producer for TV. After graduating from Upsala College in the mid 1950s, the Bronx native went to work for Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Lewis, whose credits bridged the Jazz Age and the early rock and roll era, co-writing such songs as “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” (1930), “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” (1933), “Blueberry Hill” (1940), and “Tears on My Pillow” (1958). Kirshner gained fame representing most of the major Brill Building songwriters, most of whom later went on to chart success themselves, including Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Phil Spector, Paul Simon, Carol King-Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil, etc. as well as Kirshner’s own songwriting partner Bobby Darin.
In 1966 Kirshner was hired as President of Colgems (Columbia/Screen Gems) the label that released the records of The Monkees, and was credited as the musical supervisor of their TV show, supplying his songwriters’ tunes for the manufactured combo to perform (and adding Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart into the mix, as well). In addition to The Monkees, he also performed a similar job (although to a smaller extent) on such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie (which is why you’d see sometimes see artists like Boyce and Hart on those shows, even though they weren’t the rock stars they were presented as). Later, the Monkees chose to take more creative control of their act, including choosing (and often writing) their own tunes, taking Kirshner out of the equation. Kirshner later ridiculed this move. A strictly commercially oriented professional, he was focused on chart performance and profits. I once saw a terrific interview he did with Bob Costas, where Costas kept prodding him about his career as a Bubble Gum kingpin, which he most assuredly was. After The Monkees, his next major act was The Archies, an even more fabricated group composed entirely of studio musicians who provided the songs for animated characters adopted from the popular comic book.
It only remained for Kirshner to make the jump from TV consultant to TV producer. His initial foray In Concert aired on ABC in 1972 and was short-lived. But Kirshner retained the concept and format for Rock Concert, which was syndicated and ran until 1981. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was a unique and absolutely new kind of show. It was both a precursor to, and pretty clearly a partial template for Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live, I think. It was aimed at teenagers and young adults, presenting pop and rock acts, and hipper stand-up comedians (say, George Carlin rather than Alan King) in a late night time slot. Surprisingly, given his track record, unlike earlier pop music TV shows like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Kirshner’s new show was not teeny-bopper oriented and the performances weren’t canned exercises in lip-syncing. It was what it said: a “concert”; the musicians played a real set. And most of the major acts of the 1970s played the show, really almost all of the acts who really mattered in terms of the record business, from Sly and the Family Stone to The Sex Pistols. It was terrific exposure. The show was hosted by Kirshner himself, a famously colorless persona, not unlike Ed Sullivan in the extent of his awkwardness. His most famous impressionist was SNL‘s Paul Shaffer.
During these years, Kirshner also dabbled in producing other kinds of shows. In 1977 he and Norman Lear co-produced a sit-com called Year at the Top co-starring Greg Evigan (later of B.J. and the Bear and My Two Dads), Shaffer, and Gabe Dell of the Bowery Boys! He also executive produced a few made-for-tv movies including one about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1979.
The advent of MTV in 1981 represented a huge shift in the presentation of pop stars on television, eclipsing Kirshner’s work as a presenter. Kirshner continued to work as a music business executive and talent manager for the next few years. Though he passed away in 2011, his company still exists in some form; his official website is here.
To learn more about show biz past and present (including tin pan alley and television variety), please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous