Trustees Award: Alan Livingston

A tribute to the man who signed the Beatles
  • Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS
    Alan Livingston with the Beatles
February 04, 2013 -- 2:49 pm PST
By Paul Grein / GRAMMY.com

(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 55th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2013 Special Merit Awards recipients.)

In late 1963, Alan Livingston, then president of Capitol Records, took a phone call from an irate artist manager. It may have been the best investment of time in the history of the music business. The call was from the manager of a group that had been storming the UK charts, but had been turned down repeatedly by Capitol (which had right of first refusal on their recordings in the United States).

"I am the personal manager of the Beatles and I don't understand why you won't release them," Brian Epstein is purported to have argued. "Well, frankly, Mr. Epstein, I haven't heard them," Livingston is said to have replied. Livingston took a listen, overruled his A&R executive and signed the band. He even approved a $40,000 promotional campaign for the group's debut Capitol single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand." That was a lot of money in those days, but it was probably recouped by the time the Fab Four set foot on U.S. soil.

Livingston had joined Capitol as a writer/producer in 1946, four years after the label was founded. He started a children's music division, which targeted the first wave of baby boomers. Livingston came up with the idea of "record readers," a book-and-album combination, which has since become a children's industry staple. Livingston also created the Bozo the Clown character, and created a best-seller for Hopalong Cassidy. The headline on a Saturday Evening Post profile of Livingston was apt: "He Tickles The Tykes."

In 1953 the Capitol brass wondered what Livingston could do with adult music and appointed him vice president of creative operations. Livingston signed Frank Sinatra and paired him with Nelson Riddle, who arranged such hits as "I've Got The World On A String" and "Young At Heart." The hits pointed Sinatra in a new direction, which brought him to his creative peak.

Livingston, who was the younger brother of Oscar-winning songwriter Jay Livingston, left Capitol in 1956 for a five-year stint at NBC. As vice president in charge of programming, he helped launch the top-rated "Bonanza."

Livingston returned to Capitol in 1961. Over the course of the next eight years, he helped the label become a force in rock with the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Steve Miller Band, and the Band.

In 1969 he left the label to form Mediarts Records with former Capitol producer Nik Venet. The label's chief discovery was Don McLean. Livingston sold the label to United Artists in 1971, shortly before the release of McLean's second album, American Pie. In 1976 Livingston joined Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp where he oversaw the record and publishing divisions. He died in 2009 at age 91.

(Paul Grein writes the Chart Watch blog for Yahoo Music. In 1992, he wrote a book commemorating Capitol Records' 50th anniversary.)

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