Warner Records CEO Mo Austin Remembered by Producer Russ Titelman: ‘He Had No Ego’

Grammy-winning producer Russ Titelman met for the first time Mo Austin, the legendary executive who ran Reprise and then Warner Records from 1960 to 1994, in the early ’60s, when Titelman was still a teenager and newly signed to Screen Gems-Columbia Music as a songwriter. Eventually, Austin, who died July 31 at 95, and then-head of A&R Lenny Waronker convinced Titelman to come to Warner Records, where he had an extraordinary run as an in-house producer for 25 years, working with artists such as eg. Randy Newman, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Steve Winwood, Chaka Khan and so many more.

Titelman, whose Grammy wins include record of the year for Winwood’s “Higher Love” (1986) and again for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” as well as album of the year for Clapton’s “Unplugged” (1992), spoke with Billboard about working with Austin during Warner Brothers’ heyday.

me and my friend [producer] Jack Nitzsche, wanted to visit Lenny at Metric Music. When Lenny became head of A&R at Warner Bros. we would hang there and run into Mo. He invited me to lunch. We went to Chow’s Kosherama on Riverside Drive. It was a deli run by a Chinese couple, so it had Chinese food and smoked salmon and corned beef and fortune cookies.

He said to me, “If you ever want to do something in the record business, the door is open here for you to do it. You’re welcome to come here.” It was probably in ’68 or ’69. I brought Little Feat – just Lowell [George] and Billy [Payne] – it’s Lenny. Just the two of them. They sang a few songs. He didn’t even hear [full] band. He said go upstairs and make a deal with Mo.

I became really friendly with Randy [Newman] and came to hang out at his house. Through a series of events, Lenny said, “Come help me make this record,” which was Randy Newman’s live album from the Bitter End, which came out in 1971. That live record started selling and gaining attention. Lenny took me out to dinner and said, “Come on. This is ridiculous. Come on staff.” Mo guided me through the contract and made me a fair contract.

Russ Titelman and Steve Winwood

Karen Petersen/With permission from WMG

Lenny was my boss and he was the one who said let’s do these Newman records and Mo was very open and very generous. He had the philosophy that you hire people who you think are good, who have talent, then you let them do what they do and don’t interfere. [He thought,] “No record executive knows what’s going on, it’s the artists who know these things.” He had that philosophy. steve ross [whose Kinney Parking Company bought Warner Bros-Seven Arts in 1969] had the same philosophy. It was a group of leaders who knew that talent was the thing.

Mo was a creative leader and he didn’t seem to have an ego like some other leaders. See where he came from: Sinatra, [Verve Records founder and former Ostin employer] Norman Granz, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. All these amazing jazz people. So he also had to be able to navigate those waters.

When Eddie Rosenblatt was asked to become president of Geffen Records [in 1980], this meant he left Warner Bros. as sales and sales manager. And Mo took him on a trip to Europe as a gift since he left. He invited me and my wife Carol along on that trip. We went to Switzerland. We went to Rome. Quincy [Jones] was on the trip. While we were in Rome, or Positano, Mo went to England and signed Eric Clapton. And then he came back to us.

Mo just had that presence. He signed Hendrix and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. He never went to the studio. He just didn’t want to be in the limelight at all. And people were drawn to him because he was straightforward and honest. And he knew what he was doing.

He was enormously respected by all who came in contact with him. I think it’s partly because he didn’t show up. He didn’t think it important to settle in there. His job was to do his job and stay out of the way.

He trusted you. Everyone who was in that company had that philosophy. I made a few tiles and spent a lot of money on some plates that did nothing. I made a record with it [an artist] it costs so much money. No one ever said a peep to me. He never tried to tell you what to do. He stayed out of it completely.

He had great taste. He believed in these [artists]. Lenny had Randy: those things didn’t sell until a little later. [Ry] Cooder’s records didn’t sell that much, but every other artist in the world thought these guys were the greatest.

The world has changed. I was lucky enough to be part of the study system. I got to work with my favorite artists on earth. The study system that nurtured me and others [as in-house producers]like Lenny and Teddy [Templeman], no longer exists. There was competition, you know, but it was camaraderie. It was a friendly competition.

From Mo I learned to be true to who you are and make the music you love. That’s the legacy.

Lenny said something about him: He said he was just way ahead of everyone else. He was. He was just super smart. Maybe he was a kind of father figure to Lenny. I think maybe he was to all of us that way, you know? Like, “The chief is going that way. Let’s go.”

As told to Melinda Newman

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