FEATURE

Doug Morris: The Greatest Hits

How a $25-per-week songwriter became the world's most influential record executive.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2018
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Illustrations by Michael Cho

“I know who I am, I know what I do, and I’m not interested in showing off. You get past that quick,” says Doug Morris ’60CC, seated ankle-over-knee on the taupe-and-cream sofa in his office on lower Madison Avenue. “I’m interested in doing a good job, and that’s about it. That’s really the truth.”

Morris, seventy-nine, compact, barrel-chested, dressed in an impeccably tailored dark suit and striped tie, his brow grooved like a musical staff, his head hedged with combed-back white, is the jukebox hero you never heard of. As the only person to run each of the “Big Three” record companies — Warner, Universal, and Sony — Morris has presided over rosters of artists whose gazillion-selling records are the soundtrack of modern life: U2, Stevie Nicks, Led Zeppelin, Phil Collins, Foreigner, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Adele, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and many more, including his favorite act, the Rolling Stones, which Morris pronounces with an emphasis on the first word. His delivery of retro syllabic stresses (Broadway is Broadway) and dropped Rs is classic “New Yawk”; U2’s Bono is said to do a spot-on imitation.

Morris got his start in the “rekkid business” in the early 1960s, in the tiny, cigar-stained offices of those Brill Building–era music factories near Times Square. His current office is more ample. In 2011, at age seventy-three, Morris became chairman and CEO of the Sony Music Group and led Sony to six straight years of increased profit and market share before handing off day-to-day operations last year. He was named chairman in 2017 — a mostly ceremonial position, as Morris would be the first to tell you.

Ensconced in a sunny chamber with high ceilings, a baby grand piano, and an uptown view of the Chrysler Building, Morris is surrounded by mementos: a painting by Bono that Morris bought to benefit the Irish Hospice Foundation (“not only is Bono brilliant, he is so generous and nice it defies anything”); a signed Robert Rauschenberg Earth Day poster from Morris’s late friend and colleague Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records (“the most remarkable, brilliant person you could ever meet”); and, on the table, a circa 1995 photo of Morris with Tupac, Snoop, and Suge Knight.

Morris, a family man with a wife, two sons, and six grandchildren, has never been fodder for the tabloids. Elegant and understated, he rejects the cultural stereotype of the debauched record mogul hoovering cocaine off his desk. “There are a lot of lovely, lovely people in the business,” he says. “It’s a business for people who love music. That’s what it is.”

Morris began his career as a musician. At age ten, he was writing songs at the family piano, back when the year’s chart-topper was Dinah Shore’s “Buttons and Bows.” Then, in 1955, at seventeen — A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom! The seminal cry of rock ’n’ roll buzzed Morris’s ears. “Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino — it was a revolution in music, and I loved it,” he says.

Morris’s parents were concerned. His father, Walter Bernard Morris ’21CC, ’23LAW was a lawyer; his mother, a ballet instructor. They lived in Woodmere, Long Island, one of the Five Towns, where generally the notion was that your son would go to college and enter an established, stable profession, not one that involved plunking out three-chord ditties about girls. “The big question in my family,” says Morris, “was, ‘Who’s gonna take care of Doug?’”

At Columbia, Morris, handsome and charismatic, majored in sociology and economics. By his own account “a terrible student,” he was a member of the glee club (“it was an honor to be included”) and even crooned once or twice at the Friday Night Dance in John Jay Hall. “I had one goal in college,” says Morris, “and that was to get ahead in the music business.”

Between classes, he’d take the subway to the record-factory mecca of Midtown and show his songs to Lou Levy, a Tin Pan Alley–era music publisher whose catalog included “Strangers in the Night” and “The Girl from Ipanema.” Levy offered Morris twenty-five dollars a week to write for his company, Leeds Music. Levy then shared one of Morris’s compositions with Jim Fogelson, “a famous A&R man who signed me, believe it or not, to Epic Records,” now a division of Sony. The song, a piano-banger with Elvis-like vocal reverb called “Frigid Digit,” got a brief notice in the October 29, 1960, issue of the music-industry magazine Cash Box, which called it “a rocker of questionable taste.” Morris reports that a friend just sent him a copy. “He got it for five dollars on eBay.”

Morris smiles. He can poke fun at himself, but at his core, never far from the surface, lies the mettle and command of the nine-figure dealmaker. A soft-spoken leader (“I hate screamers”), he’s also a sensitive listener: Ertegun called him “the finest record man I ever worked with,” and Grammy-winning singer Mary J. Blige, at the unveiling of Morris’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010, called him “my father in the music business.”

But what really distinguishes Morris from many record executives is his firsthand knowledge of the creative side. “I know what it feels like when a record does well, and I know what it feels like when it bombs,” he says. “I know the anticipation and excitement, and I know the disappointment. I think understanding how artists feel when they put out a record has helped me in my career.”

 

Morris’s first big smash came in 1966, while working as a songwriter and producer for Laurie Records, whose top act was the Chiffons, known for hits like “He’s So Fine” and “One Fine Day.” Morris spent a week writing a new song for the group called “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.” The record, which Morris also produced, reached number ten on the Billboard charts. 

Shortly afterward, Morris was promoted to executive vice president of Laurie. An A&R man now, his job was no longer to write songs; it was to find them.

Identifying a hit song requires intuition and intellect, which for Morris translates to a simple, binary question. “Either you like it or you don’t,” he says, with a wave of his hand.

Morris isn’t being glib. He speaks in essences, like some inverted Dylan, all enlightened literalness instead of riddles. For Morris, the secret of the record business isn’t very complicated at all.

“It starts with the song,” he says. “If you don’t have a song, you have nothing.”

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