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Steve Ross’ death set off a chain of events that would irrevocably alter the record business as a whole.

I.B. BAD ON THE REMARKABLE REIGN OF DOUG MORRIS

A Look Back at the Climactic Chapters of a Singular Career
SMOKIN’ IN THE BOYS’ ROOM: On Oct. 15, Doug Morris will be honored with the City of Hope’s “Spirit of Life” award, providing his many friends and admirers in the music industry with a timely opportunity to acknowledge the myriad achievements of a great record man. Here’s a look back at the climactic chapters of Morris’ long and storied career.

We flash back to 1990, a period of prosperity for the record business, and especially for WEA, the showcase of the industry and the home of legendary executives Mo Ostin of West Coast colossus Warner Bros. and Ahmet Ertegun of East Coast powerhouse Atlantic. WEA was firing on all cylinders, as Warner Communications Inc. top dog Steve Ross, a brilliant motivator, fostered a climate of intensive intra-label competition, richly rewarding his key executives for their successes.

It was in December 1990 that Morris, who’d been running Atlantic’s day-to-day operations for a decade, was promoted to the label’s co-chairmanship with Ertegun. An expert dealmaker, Morris had just entered into a 50/50 joint venture with Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field’s upstart Interscope label. He would thereafter further expand the Atlantic empire by inking co-venture deals with Rhino and Matador, while also establishing Atlantic Nashville, EastWest Records and home-entertainment unit A*Vision.

Under Morris, Atlantic would continue to set the pace for WEA into the mid-’90s. But on Dec. 20, 1992, Steve Ross died, setting off a chain of events that would irrevocably alter not just WEA but the record business as a whole. 

The powers that be at Time Warner chose Gerald Levin to succeed Ross as TW Chairman/CEO, while longtime Warner Music administrator Bob Morgado was put in charge of the U.S. label group.

In ’94, determined to put his own imprint on Warner’s musical identity, Morgado forced out Ostin and Elektra chief Bob Krasnow, at the same time naming Morris President/COO of Warner Music U.S., and soon thereafter upping him to Chairman. With the decisiveness that has marked his entire career, Morris tapped good soldier Val Azzoli as the new President of Atlantic, while installing fellow Atlantic executive Sylvia Rhone to run Elektra.

Morris and Morgado first butted heads over the crucial issue of who should succeed Ostin as Warner Bros. Chairman/CEO, with Morris endorsing Atlantic’s Danny Goldberg, and Morgado favoring Warner Music U.K. topper Rob Dickins. Morris won that battle, thanks in part to a threatened Spartacus-like revolt on the part of various label heads.

In the succeeding months, it became increasingly evident that Morgado was in over his head, and Levin axed him in early 1995. Incomprehensibly, Levin replaced Morgado with HBO head Michael Fuchs, a TW veteran with zero experience in the music business. From the beginning, not surprisingly, Fuchs and Morris were oil and water, as the veteran tried to prevent the novice from making potentially disastrous decisions. So it was that Fuchs decided to fire Morris for cause, out of the apparent desire to impress Levin by saving the parent company the money due Morris under the terms of his recently signed, extremely lucrative deal.

Meanwhile, MCA was in a period of transition following the 1990 departure of label chief Irving Azoff, who was succeeded by former CBS Records head Al Teller, and the 1995 acquisition of the company by Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman Jr., who had dipped into the vast family coffers to buy his dream of being in the music business.

The change of ownership at MCA provided Morris with a window of opportunity. Enlisting longtime Atlantic cohort Mel Lewinter, he made a deal with Bronfman, forming the joint venture custom label Rising Tide Entertainment in July 1995. From that day forward, the destinies of Warner and MCA would be interlocked like a double helix.

Five months later, Bronfman named Morris Chairman/CEO of the newly named Universal Music Group, replacing the ousted Teller, with Rising Tide becoming a wholly owned subsidiary and being re-launched as Universal Records.

One of the Morris’ first additions to UMG was Interscope, whose hookup with Suge Knight’s gangsta rap label Death Row had generated a firestorm of controversy. After activist C. Dolores Tucker began a series of headline-grabbing attacks on gangsta rap lyric content, Fuchs was desperate to wash his hands of the whole business and happily handed over Iovine’s company to the audacious Morris.

In 1998, Bronfman shelled out $10 billion for PolyGram, creating the world’s biggest record company. PolyGram’s assets included recent acquisitions A&M, Island, Def Jam and Motown, as well as a crack international operation. PolyGram Music worldwide head Roger Ames was given his walking papers, and it was then that Morris began his masterful leadership of the music industry’s lone modern-day dynasty.

In one of numerous ironic notes in this narrative, Ames was soon tapped by Warner Studios co-rulers Bob Daly and Terry Semel, who’d taken the reins of Warner Music following the axing of the short-lived Fuchs, to run the company.

As the 21st century dawned, merger-mania gripped the industry. Time Warner merged with AOL, and Vivendi acquired Seagram, including UMG. Bronfman soon realized there was no longer a place at the table for him, so began looking for a new table to buy. He found it in 2004, pulling together a private-equity cartel to purchase Warner Music for $2.4 billion. By that time, a decade of decay had taken its toll on the company, which was a far cry from Warner in its early-’90s heyday. In short order, Bronfman rejected Ames a second time, replacing him with Lyor Cohen, whose IDJ contract had been up for renegotiation.

Mirroring the autonomous structure of Ross’ WCI, Morris has exhibited his own abiding belief in the empowerment of executive talent during his reign at UMG, expanding Lewinter’s duties while bringing in Iovine, Monte Lipman, Rhone, L.A. Reid and the soon-to-arrive Jason Flom, all but Reid participants in Warner’s golden age. The philosophy has certainly worked for him, because for the last 11 of his 13 years at the helm, UMG has been #1 in new-release marketshare, consistently logging north of 33%.

This fascinating story is now reaching a culmination of sorts, with Morris naming Lucian Grainge, his wildly successful head of U.K. operations, to succeed him as UMG Chairman, and with the City of Hope feting serving as a de facto lifetime-achievement award.

Not only is Morris universally regarded as one of the all-time greats, he’s also as beloved by those who work for him, and as admired by his competitors, as any ranking executive. And he, more than anyone, is primarily responsible for maintaining the heart and soul of the traditional music business during both the best of times and the worst of times.

Names in the Rumor Mill: Joe Smith, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, Seymour Stein, Jerry Wexler, Jerry Moss, Chris Blackwell, Russell Simmons and Berry Gordy.

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