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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This lesson was brought home in the spring of 1967, when Morris was at Laurie Records. A band from Ohio, the Music Explosion, sent Morris a song called “Little Bit O’ Soul.” Morris liked it and bought the master for five hundred bucks. Laurie released the record, catalog number 3380. This would be Morris’s case study for deciphering the music business.

Morris hadn’t thought much about what actually happens to a record once it goes out into the universe. Then one day, seated at his desk behind the sales executive, Murray Singer, Morris saw, on Singer’s desk, an order for three hundred copies of Laurie 3380. His first order! And a big one, too. Excited, Morris asked Singer who placed it, but Singer, busy, dismissed it as a blip, not worth pursuing. So Morris investigated. He traced the order to two stores in the town of Cumberland, Maryland. Morris had never heard of the place. He called the stores and asked the clerks what was going on. They told him that a local disc jockey played the record and started getting requests from all over the state. Now the discs were flying off the shelves. 

Morris told his bosses at Laurie, and they began promoting the record. The song charted in June, and by July 1967, “Little Bit O’Soul” was number two in America.

That’s when Morris realized: you don’t manufacture a hit, simply by playing it over and over. People have to ask for it. They have to want it. And if a record sparks, you fan that little flame with all you’ve got.

The insight emboldened Morris to start his own label, Big Tree Records, in 1970. “We didn’t have very much money, and I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “I just thought I would know how to make good records. And we got hits right away.” In 1971, Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” a strummy ode to itinerant road life, peaked at number five. Two years later, Morris cowrote and produced a song buried on the B-side of an album by the hard-rock trio Brownsville Station. Few listeners would have guessed that the song, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” with its musk of lavatory stalls and juvenile rebellion, was the brainchild of a thirty-five-year-old Ivy League graduate. Still, Morris thought it was too close to “Jailhouse Rock” and didn’t release it as a single. Yet magic happened: “A DJ in Portland, Maine, started playing it, and in two days it was the most requested song in the city,” Morris says. So, following the formula for “Little Bit O’ Soul,” Big Tree got behind the song, and it climbed to number three in the country, an anthem for long-haired teenage boys.

Morris says that this sort of radio-based grassroots miracle — the local DJ who starts a wildfire with a single spark — still happens, as in the case of 2015’s “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, which went to number one on the adult charts. “A small station in Baltimore played it, and two days later people had bought five hundred copies,” Morris says. “We picked up the record and sold several million.”

At Big Tree, Morris put out other million-sellers: the dance-floor pop-funk of “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate (number three) and the mellow mustache-and-heartstring longings of “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” (number two) by England Dan and John Ford Coley.

Big Tree was bearing fruit, and in 1978, Morris got a phone call from Jerry Greenberg at Atlantic Records. Greenberg said that his boss, Ahmet, would like to talk.

Ahmet Ertegun: the bald, bespectacled, worldly, earthy, neatly goateed son of the Turkish ambassador to the US, devotee of Black American music, signer of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, illustrious bon vivant, and the subject, in 1978, of a thirty-five-thousand-word profile in the New Yorker. “I was beyond excited,” Morris says. “I went to Ahmet’s office at Atlantic, and he said he liked what we were doing and that he wanted to buy Big Tree and have me run the Atlantic sub-label Atco, which had, believe it or not, Swan Song Records — Led Zeppelin’s custom label — and Rolling Stones Records.”

Morris was going electric. From England Dan to England Mick. It was radical. He had always been a songs guy, a singles guy, but this scene was the album, that ambitious, unified musical statement, requiring long-term commitment and cultivation. “I grew a beard and got a gold watch,” Morris says with a chuckle. “I signed Stevie [Nicks] from Fleetwood Mac and Pete Townsend from the Who.” Morris and Ertegun worked in adjoining offices, and “we began each day with a high-five and ended it with a hug.” In 1980, Ertegun made Morris president of Atlantic. One of Morris’s first tasks was to find a producer for Nicks.

He called Jimmy Iovine, a skinny twenty-six-year-old kid from Red Hook who produced Patti Smith’s single “Because the Night” and Tom Petty’s album Damn the Torpedoes. “He was just so smart and talented,” Morris says. “You couldn’t stop Jimmy with a machine gun.” Iovine agreed to produce Nicks’s album Bella Donna, which hit number one in America.

Morris’s stock continued to rise, and in 1990 he was named co-chairman and co-CEO, with Ertegun, of Warner Music Group, Atlantic’s parent company. That year, Morris, in a move that would have enormous global impact, put up half the money for Iovine’s new label, Interscope.

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

Morris was taken with Iovine’s “ability to see around corners,” and when Iovine told him that hardcore West Coast rap, still a niche genre, was going to go mainstream, Morris listened. In 1992, the pair flew to post-riot Los Angeles to meet with Marion “Suge” Knight, the imposing three-hundred-pound cofounder, with Dr. Dre, of Death Row Records, and a reputed member of the LA gang the Bloods. Knight agreed to a distribution deal with Interscope. Death Row, home to Dre, Snoop, and Tupac, entered the Warner fold.

The West Coast style, known as “gangsta rap,” indeed blew up, and Warner was red-hot. Morris was named chairman and CEO of Warner Music US. But trouble was around the corner. Rap had come under scrutiny. People like former US drug czar William Bennett and US senator Robert Dole sounded the alarm about the effects of albums like Doggystyle on America’s youth. Along with activist C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, they prevailed upon the Time Warner board to stop distributing rap music with violent or misogynistic lyrics.

Morris, congenitally averse to censorship, stood by the rappers, whom he saw as vital artists channeling their own experience. Rifts opened in the company over what to do. In June of 1995, Morris’s boss, Michael Fuchs, the former chief of HBO and head of Warner’s worldwide music division, summoned Morris to his office. Warner was having its best year ever, so Morris expected a positive encounter. It was an incredible shock, then, when Fuchs fired him. “Thrown out the window and splat on the pavement” is how Morris puts it. “The whole thing was very painful. But what I learned is that it’s not how you go down, it’s how you get up.”

Hours after his firing, Morris got a call from Seagram’s CEO, Edgar Bronfman Jr., who owned MCA Music Entertainment, an ossified outfit known in the industry as Music Cemetery of America. Bronfman wanted Morris to raise the dead. Morris accepted. When Fuchs, to complete the rap purge, cut ties with Interscope, Morris pounced: he called Iovine and convinced him to sell 50 percent of Interscope to MCA for $200 million. Morris and Bronfman renamed the company Universal Music Group, and Morris assembled a hit squad: U2, Mariah Carey, Snoop, Tupac, Eminem. CD sales soared, and by the turn of the millennium, Universal’s market share peaked at nearly 40 percent, with profits of more than one billion dollars — the biggest record company in the world.

It’s not for nothing that Bono once called Morris “a character who has risen several times from the ashes.”

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