He’s Helped Shape the world’s Biggest Artists, from Adele to Zeppelin
In the summer of 1966, The Chiffons, an all-girl band from the Bronx, had a Top 10 hit called “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.”
“Sweeter than sugar, kisses like wine. (Oh he’s so fine),” go the lyrics, co-written by a young songwriter from Columbia University named Doug Morris.
While The Chiffons are a mere chapter in the glorious history of girl groups, that young Ivy League student went on to shape the sound of music across the planet over the next 50 years — not so much as a songwriter but as the first and only chief executive of all three global music labels: Warner, Universal and Sony Music.
Morris’ keen eye for talent — and for executives who would unearth performers — shaped the soundtrack for two generations.
Whether you’re into Adele, The Chainsmokers, Beyoncé, Stevie Nicks, Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Justin Timberlake or hundreds of other acts, Morris had a hand in guiding their careers.
“I always ask him, ‘Who’s coming up?’ ” Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, told The Post recently, “and I remember him telling me about Lady Gaga for the first time. He said, ‘Watch, she’s going to explode, and it’s going to be phenomenal.’ ”
Now, 27 million albums and 146 million singles sales later, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta from Manhattan is a global superstar.
Back in 2003, Jimmy Iovine — who 13 years earlier had founded Interscope Records, with Morris’ backing — was in the process of trying to find just the right song for a group of Los Angeles dancers he had signed.
Morris jumped in and gave Iovine some unsolicited advice for his Pussycat Dolls.
“From my eye, you have a problem here,” Morris told Iovine, explaining how the Interscope boss was spending too much time and money.
Then Morris played “Don’t Cha” for Iovine — and the rest is history.
“We cut it the next day,” Iovine said, realizing it was the perfect record for his glam girl band. The song sold 3 million singles and landed at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“He’s got a great commercial sense of what can work,” noted Edgar Bronfman Jr., who years earlier hired Morris to lead what would become Universal Music.
Now, this spring, Morris, 78, is starting a new chapter in his legendary career. He has stepped away from the day-to-day running of Sony Music Entertainment and has handed off the CEO job to Columbia Records boss Rob Stringer.Morris will have no talk that the move means retirement. He will remain chairman of Sony Music for two years. The executive turned down multiple requests for an interview out of a concern, friends said, that this article would be appear to be a retirement story.
To step inside Morris’ spacious office in the Sony Building in Midtown Manhattan is to walk into a music lover’s candy store. There are the requisite black-and-white photos on the wall of various superstars, a few autographed guitars and the baby grand piano where, if you close your eyes, you can imagine Justin Timberlake or Stevie Nicks trying out a new tune.
On some visits, Morris can’t help but play a song from someone he is sure will be the next hot thing. Whaddya think, he’ll ask.
A soft-spoken man, Morris sounds like another successful New Yorker — Alan Arkin, who is four years his senior. Not the earlier “Freebie and the Bean” Arkin but the “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Argo” Arkin — only tuned to a more easygoing demeanor.
Morris is given to romantic pronouncements about his career, like saying he didn’t choose the music business — it chose him. The executive led Atlantic/Warner Music from 1980 to 1994 and was soon blowing the doors off the charts with hits from top acts like Foreigner, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Phil Collins.
During this time, he also opened the door to rap and hip-hop by acquiring Rhino Records and turning many unknowns into superstars.
After he was fired from Warner, he took over what would become Universal Music in 1995 and helped it become the No. 1 label before he left in 2010. During his tenure at Universal, Morris, along with Iovine at Interscope — which Warner jettisoned under political pressure — continued to show his chops for unearthing rap and hip-hop talent.
After the other two got out of the car and Knight had ridden off, Bronfman remembers, “Doug looks at me and says, ‘Are you crazy? He could have killed you.’ ”
Together, Morris and Iovine would go on to sign artists such as Tupac Shakur, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.
“It was like trying to put a collar on a bumblebee. … We would do anything and everything to cause excitement in music,” Iovine recalled to The Post.
After leaving Universal in 2010, Morris took over the top spot at Sony the next year.
One could be forgiven for thinking that someone who was born during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration wouldn’t know much about 2017’s music business or still be in the vanguard of change — but one would be doing so at one’s own peril.
It was just nine years ago that Morris, who had seen MTV blossom into a success — a very profitable success, by playing videos produced by the labels — helped form Vevo, a video-streaming site owned by the three big music labels.
Within a month of its launch, Vevo was drawing 35 million unique visitors a month.
“He understands the significance of the changes and was always open to embracing potentially disruptive technology,” says Paul Vidich, a novelist and venture capitalist who was an executive vice president at Warner under Morris.
But Vidich notes that one of the few downsides of Morris is that he is not a strategy guy, but rather a man, who, for better or worse, listens to his gut.
The executive led Atlantic/Warner Music from 1980 to 1994 and was soon blowing the doors off the charts with hits from top acts like Foreigner, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Phil Collins.
In recent years, Morris has turned his energies into fighting music streamers, such as YouTube and Spotify, to get a better deal for record labels and musicians.
After decades of struggling through the music industry’s dark ages — the time from when profitable $20 CDs fell away and pay-as-you-go streaming caught on, when pirated Napster downloads and 99 cent iTunes purchases siphoned billions of dollars in revenue from the labels — Sony and the other labels are just starting to grow again.
US music sales rose 11 percent in 2016, to $7.65 billion, from 2015, according to the Recording Industry Association of America — the biggest increase since 1998, a year before Napster hit the scene.
Still, it’s a far cry from 1999, the industry’s highest-grossing year at $14.6 billion.
Nevertheless, the integration of streaming into lifestyles around the world is reviving business at Morris’ Sony and other labels. Streaming now contributes more than half of all revenue.
“Music once again looks like it’s going to become more much financially important. It’s exactly the right moment for me to step back,” Morris told Billboard in a recent interview.
Inside Sony, there are bound to be changes.
Rumors are that successor Rob Stringer, the new CEO, may have to part ways with people Morris protected.
Sony Music International boss Edgar Berger announced his departure from the company in January. And music blogs suggest there will be others departing.
Music lawyer Joel Katz tells The Post, “He is the best culture builder.”
When Iovine is asked what Morris will do next, he responds: “I don’t know but I do know he’s not going to stop.”