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Music business legend Mo Ostin dead at 95

Mo Ostin
Mo Ostin circa 1970 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Music business legend Mo Ostin, who signed the likes of The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Prince, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers and many others, has died art the age of 95. The news was confirmed in a statement from Warner Records. 

“Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” say Warner Records' co-chairmen Tom Corson and Aaron Bay Schuck, “For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realise their vision. One of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Warner Music Group, in the 1960s Mo ushered Warner/Reprise Records into a golden era of revolutionary, culture-shifting artistry.

“Over his next three decades at the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him. 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. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for everything he did, and for his inspiring belief in our bright future. Our condolences go out to his family at this difficult time."

Ostin was born in New York in 1927 and began his music business career at jazz label Clef in the mid-1950s. The label changed its name to Verve Records – releasing records by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and others – and impressed Frank Sinatra so much that he head-hunted Ostin to run his label, Reprise, after it launched in 1960.

Ostin's first signing at Reprise were The Kinks, and he added Jimi Hendrix after seeing him play at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He would stay at the label for three decades, a period during which Reprise – now part of Warner Bros. Records – signed the likes of Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Black Sabbath, the B-52s, Devo, Dire Straits, George Harrison, R.E.M., Tom Petty, the Sex Pistols, Paul Simon, T. Rex, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and others. Ostin also brought Sire Records into the fold, which added the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders and Madonna to the list. 

He walked away from Warner in 1993, wary he would ordered to streamline the label's staff and roster by Warner Music Group chairman Robert Morgado. "This business is about freedom and creative control," he told the Los Angeles Times. "An executive has to be able to make risky decisions with minimal corporate interference. But Warner is a different company now than the company I was brought up in. And in the end, I found it impossible to operate in that kind of environment."

Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 by Neil Young, Paul Simon and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.

“Mo Ostin was behind the music," said Young during the induction. "He was behind making it happen, he was behind letting it happen however it was going to happen, and he was behind keeping it happening. And that’s why Reprise and Warner Brothers were the greatest label ever in music, as far as I’m concerned. That man there."

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.