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Irving Green, 90; Helped Start Mercury Records, Broke Racial Barriers

July 04, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Irving Green, the co-founder of Mercury Records who helped break color barriers in popular music while turning his small independent company into one of the music industry's major labels, has died.

He was 90.

Green, who had a successful second career in real estate development, died Saturday 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," Dennis said. "This is a guy that started a label in Chicago, and it became one of the major labels in the United States."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Irving Green obituary: An obituary of record company executive Irving Green in Tuesday's California section said Mercury Records released Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly!" In fact, it was released by Kapp Records.

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: 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"), Louis Armstrong ("Hello, Dolly!"), 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 April, the Pacific Southwest Region of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored Green for his multiracial 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 color line," Green said in an interview with the Desert Sun in February. "We had no color line. Artists like Dinah Washington or the Platters or Clyde McPhatter, we had no color 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 neighborhood, and that stayed with me forever."

Born Feb. 6, 1916, in Brooklyn, N.Y., 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 Assn. of America, whose mission was to "foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes its members' creativity and financial vitality."

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