A Brief History of Music Moguls

From the Nashville sound to Motown, a handful of larger-than-life tastemakers have helped shape the modern music business. The players behind Conway Twitty, Mick Jagger and Aretha Franklin.

Owen Bradley created the Nashville Sound in the 1950s by adding strings and other elements of pop and easy-listening tracks to cut smooth, urbane recordings, which increased greatly the sales and reach of country music. He was the rare producer who owned his studio—a Quonset hut alongside his house in Nashville—recorded Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Jim Reeves, Conway Twitty and Patsy Cline, including her hits “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.” He also established the first music firm on what’s now known as Music Row.

Though best known in his latter years for his work as a television host, Dick Clark was for decades a prime mover in the rock ‘n’ roll business. On radio beginning in the 1950s, he ran influential shows like the “The Dick Clark Radio Show,” “American Top 40” and “Rock, Roll & Remember.” On TV, he was host and producer of “American Bandstand,” a dance show aimed at record-buying teens that ran 30 years on ABC, beginning in 1957. The Beach Boys, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, the Doors, Madonna, Pink Floyd and countless others appeared on his program.

In 1959, songwriter Berry Gordy—he wrote Jackie Wilson’s hit “Lonely Teardrops”—started Tamla Records, a Detroit-based R&B label. A year later, he founded Motown, which became America’s most important proponent of soul music. Mr. Gordy marketed the Motown Sound with equal fervor to African-American and white audiences, resulting in more than 100 Top 10 hits on the Billboard charts in the company’s first decade. Among the artists he helped develop were the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Many of their hits were recorded at his Detroit studio, Hitsville U.S.A., on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Today, it’s home to the Motown Historical Museum.

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Ahmet Ertegun

Songwriter and producer Ahmet Ertegun, the Istanbul-born son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S, co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947 and was its president. In its early years, Atlantic dominated R&B, counting on its roster Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters and Big Joe Turner. In partnership with Stax Records, Mr. Ertegun fomented the growth of gritty soul music by backing such artists as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. In the late 60s, the impresario shifted his focus to rock and brought Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Cream to Atlantic and its associated labels. Later, he recruited the Rolling Stones to the label. A founder of both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, Mr. Ertegun was memorialized in the documentary “Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built.”
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Robert Stigwood brought together the worlds of rock and mass entertainment. Born in Australia in 1934 and based in the U.K., he ran a theatrical agency before becoming a manager, concert promoter and one of Britain’s first independent record producers. In the late ’60s, he managed the Bee Gees and Cream, and his Robert Stigwood Organization advanced the careers of David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, among others. Mr. Stigwood’s resume as producer also includes London versions of the plays “Hair,” “Oh! Calcutta!” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” and the movies “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” Both movies—which, as if to demonstrate the kind of vertical integration for which he was known, featured songs by artists he managed.


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