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Music industry titan Mo Ostin who worked with Sinatra, Hendrix and Prince dies at 95

Mo Ostin.
Warner Records Archive
Mo Ostin.

Updated August 2, 2022 at 4:56 PM ET

The music industry is paying tribute to powerhouse record executive Mo Ostin who died "peacefully in his sleep" on Sunday evening, according to a statement from Warner Records. He was 95 years old.

Ostin oversaw the careers of a long list of marquee talent: The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Prince among them.

Born in New York to Russian immigrants, Ostin's early years in the business were spent at the jazz label Verve. In 1960, when Frank Sinatra started his own record label, Reprise, he hired Ostin as its administrative vice president. Reprise was eventually bought by Warner Records.

In 1970, Ostin became president of Warner Bros. Records. Under his leadership, the company was home to both mainstream pop stars like James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac to edgier artists such as Frank Zappa and The Sex Pistols.

"Mo was probably the most music conscious, music-centric chief executive of a record company in the rock and roll era," says Peter Ames Carlin, the author of Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records, from Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince. Ames says, when Ostin took over Warner, he told his employees to change their approach. "He sat them down and he said, 'Look we need to stop trying to make hit records. Let's just make good records and turn those into hits.' "

After leaving Warner in 1993, Ostin went on to head DreamWorks SKG, along with his son Michael and former Warner executive Lenny Waronker.

Frank Sinatra with Mo Ostin during a recording session in 1967.
Ed Thrasher / MPTV via Reuters
/
MPTV via Reuters
Frank Sinatra with Mo Ostin during a recording session in 1967.

Among the many tributes, Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy, a Reprise artist herself, writes that Ostin was "a true force in the music industry and a real sweetheart."

Rapper and producer Q-Tip, who signed with DreamWorks SKG in order to work with Ostin and Waronker, writes, "thank you for all the knowledge you passed on and the contributions from jimi hendrix to prince.. neva Be another."

The Twitter account of the late Tom Petty posts, "Mo Ostin deeply inspired Tom as chairman of Warner Brothers Music division and was responsible for the creation of Wildflowers and the Traveling Wilburys, among many other seminal musical endeavors. God bless Mo. One of the truly good ones. Our thoughts are with his family today."

Ostin did have his detractors. In 1978, Warner acquired Sire Records which brought the label Talking Heads, The Pretenders and Madonna. Sire founder Seymour Stein did not have kind words for Ostin in his memoir, calling him "secretive by design" and "a natural-born politician."

In 1994, Ostin reflected on the tension between giving artists creative freedom and the bottom line in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, "You can't measure the value of a quality act by its commercial sales punch. Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder--those guys [helped us] sign as many acts to this label as some of our biggest sellers because they had this incredible recognition and peer respect."

Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

"Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry he helped create, and by the countless artists and colleagues whom he inspired to be their best selves," the statement from Warner Records says, "On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for everything he did, and for his inspiring belief in our bright future."

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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