Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman first meeting I bought it, the legendary executive who ran Reprise and then Warner Records from 1960 to 1994, in the early ’60s when Titelman was still a teenager and freshly signed to Screen Gems-Columbia Music as a songwriter. Eventually Ostin, who died July 31 at age 95, then A&R head Lenny Waronker convinced Titelman to come to Warner Records, where he had an extraordinary career as an in-house producer for 25 years, working with artists such as Randy Newman, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Steve Winwood, Chaka Khan and many more.
Titelman, whose Grammy won record of the year for Winwood’s “Higher Love” (1986) and again for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” as well as album of the year for Clapton’s “Unplugged” ( 1992), spoke with Billboard of working with Ostin during the glory days of Warner Brothers.
I would go visit my friend, [producer] Jack Nitzsche at Warner Bros. and fell on Mo. He invited me to lunch. We went to Chow’s Kosherama on Riverside Drive. It was a deli run by a Chinese couple, so it had Chinese food and smoked salmon and corned beef and fortune cookies.
He said to me: “If you ever want to do anything in the recording industry, the door is open for you here to do it. You are welcome to come here. It was probably 68 or 69. I brought Little Feat – just Lowell [George] and Billy [Payne] – to Lenny. Just the two of them. They sang a few songs. He didn’t even hear the [full] bandaged. He said to come up and make a deal with Mo.
I became real friends with Randy [Newman] and hanged himself at home. Through a series of events, Lenny declared, “Come and help me make this record”, which was Randy Newman’s live album of Bitter End, released in 1971. This live record began to sell and caught the eye. Lenny took me out to dinner and said, “Come on. It’s ridiculous. Come on staff. Mo walked me through the contract and made a fair contract for me.
Lenny was my boss and he was the one who told me to do these Newman records and Mo was very open and very generous. He had this philosophy that you hire people you think are good, who have talent, and then let them do what they do and don’t get involved. [He thought,] “No record executive knows what’s going on, it’s the artists who know these things.” He had this philosophy. Steve Ross, [whose Kinney Parking Company bought Warner Bros-Seven Arts in 1969] had the same philosophy. It was a group of executives who knew talent was the thing.
Mo was a creative executive and he seemed to lack an ego like some other executives. Look where it comes from: Sinatra, [Verve Records founder and former Ostin employer] Norman Granz, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. All these great jazzmen. So he had to be able to navigate those waters as well.
When Eddie Rosenblatt was asked to become president of Geffen Records [in 1980], that meant he was leaving Warner Bros. as Sales and Promotion Manager. And Mo took him on a trip to Europe as a gift since he left. He invited me and my wife Carol on this trip. We went to Switzerland. We went to Rome. Quincy [Jones] joined us on the trip. While we were in Rome, or Positano, Mo went to England and signed Eric Clapton. And then he came back to us.
Mo just had this presence. He signed Hendrix and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. He never went to the studio. He just didn’t want to be in the limelight. And people were drawn to him because he was outspoken and honest. And he knew what he was doing.
He was extremely respected by all who came in contact with him. I think it’s partly because he didn’t show up. He didn’t think it was important to get into it. His job was to do his job and stay away.
He trusted you. Everyone who worked in this company had this philosophy. I made a few clinkers and spent a lot of money on discs that came to nothing. I made a record with [an artist] which costs so much money. Nobody ever said a word to me. He never tried to tell you what to do. He stayed completely out of it.
It tasted amazing. He believed in these [artists]. Lenny had Randy: that thing didn’t sell until a little later. [Ry] Cooder’s records weren’t selling that much, but every other artist in the world thought those guys were the best.
The world has changed. I was lucky to be part of the studio system. I was able to work with my favorite artists on earth. This studio system that fed me and others [as in-house producers]like Lenny and Teddy [Templeman], does not exist anymore. There was competition, you know, but it was camaraderie. It was a friendly competition.
From Mo I learned to be true to who you are and make the music you love. It is the inheritance.
Lenny said something about him: He said he was just ahead of everyone. It was. He was just super smart. Maybe he was some sort of father figure to Lenny. I think maybe he was for all of us that way, you know? Just like, “The leader goes this way. Let’s go.”
As said to Melinda Newman