Spectropop remembers

IRVING GREEN (1916 - 2006)

Irving Green, the co-founder of Mercury Records (pictured above with Quincy Jones), helped break colour barriers in popular music while turning his small independent company into one of the music industry's major labels. Green, who had a successful second career in real estate development, died on July 1st of natural causes at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, said his grandson, Jonathan Ross. "This is one of the pioneers, the last of the great entrepreneurs," said Lou Dennis, who was product manager of Smash/Fontana Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, in the 1960s. "Today the record companies are all owned by big conglomerates. This is a guy that started a label in Chicago, and it became one of the major labels in the United States."

Founded in Chicago in 1944 by Green, Berle Adams and Arthur Talmadge, Mercury Records quickly rose to prominence by using an alternative form of promotion to generate hit records. Instead of depending on radio airplay to promote new releases as did the major labels - RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and Capitol - Green used the distributors of jukeboxes to spur interest in new releases: record buyers would first hear a new Mercury record on the jukebox rather than on the radio. "It was a cheaper alternative means for artists to become popular," Ross said. "That alternative route quickly got Mercury up to the level of the existing powerhouses."

Mercury, which was known for signing regional bands and singers, became a major force in jazz and blues, classical music and pop. Among the diverse roster of Mercury artists under Green were Patti Page ('Tennessee Waltz', '[How Much Is] That Doggie In The Window'), Frankie Laine ('That's My Desire', 'Rawhide'), the Platters ('Only You', 'The Great Pretender'), the Big Bopper ('Chantilly Lace'), Sarah Vaughan ('My Funny Valentine'), Dinah Washington ('Harbor Lights'), Vic Damone ('You're Breaking My Heart'), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs ('Foggy Mountain Breakdown'), Brook Benton ('It's Just A Matter Of Time'), Lesley Gore ('It's My Party'), the Four Seasons ('Dawn [Go Away]', 'Rag Doll') and the Smothers Brothers ('Mom Always Liked You Best').

In 2006 the Pacific Southwest Region of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honoured Green for his multi-racial promotion of musicians by inducting him into its Gold Circle. Green was among a number of record producers who lobbied to change the American Federation of Music rule that prohibited live performances of music on television. After the rule was repealed in 1948, Green convinced Ed Sullivan to feature jazz and blues artists on his Sunday night variety show, and Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington and other Mercury artists made their TV debuts. "I think we were very instrumental in breaking down some of the colour line," Green said in an interview with the Desert Sun in February. "We had no colour line. Artists like Dinah Washington or the Platters or Clyde McPhatter, we had no colour restrictions of any kind." In 1957, when Nat King Cole's musical variety show was having ratings and sponsorship problems, Green arranged to have Frankie Laine appear on the show without pay - reportedly the first time white and black singers performed together on national television. In 1964, Quincy Jones became the first top black executive at a major label when Green made him vice president in charge of artists and repertoire. Jones, who was arranging songs for Dinah Washington when he first met Green, told the Desert Sun in February that Green had "broad taste. It was across the board, and I think that's what we shared - that diversified taste." For his part, Green said: "I was brought up in a mixed neighbourhood, and that stayed with me forever."

Born in 1916, in Brooklyn, New York, Green grew up on the west side of Chicago. Although his birth certificate lists his first name as Irvin, he went by Irving. He attended St. John's University but dropped out after two years to work during the Depression. After working for his father's paint contracting company, he went into the sheet-metal business with a partner. They made hydraulic presses and pressed records. "In those days, 10-inch records sold for at least 79 cents," Green said in the Desert Sun interview. "We were pressing them for others, and we decided to press them for ourselves." When the use of shellac was restricted during World War II, Green's company produced an innovative plastic record. "It actually was an unbreakable 10-inch record, whereas shellac was breakable," he said. "That's what started us in the music business. We knew how to make the record, and there was a tremendous shortage of records at the time."

In 1952, Green and five other record industry chief executives formed the Recording Industry Association of America, whose mission was to "foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes its members' creativity and financial vitality." As a record producer and distributor, Green was known for allowing artists to own their copyrights. "I wanted to stay in the recording business. I let them have their own publishing," he told the Desert Sun. "That's what brought some artists to us, I think. They knew we weren't in any side business. That travels in the industry quite quick. I did not publish any of the music we recorded. I just felt, let them own their own and I would show them how to copyright."

After Green sold Mercury in the late 1960s, he continued to run the label for five years. He then turned his hobby of building homes into a second career. In partnership with developer Bill Levitt (of Levittown, Pennsylvania, fame), he built 18,000 homes in southern Iran. When the Shah of Iran was driven out of the country in 1979, Green and Levitt's company was taken over by the new government and Green and his associates were provided safe passage back to the United States. Green then started Landau Development in Palm Springs, which has built hundreds of homes in the area. He continued to make weekly site inspections until about a week before he died.

Green is survived by his wife, Pamela; two daughters, Roberta Hunt and Kelli Ross; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

(Dennis McLellan, The L.A. Times)

Irvin[g] Green, co-founder of Mercury Records: born February 6th, 1916 - died July 1st, 2006