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Music Man: Charles Koppelman

Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Charles A. Koppelman, chairman and CEO of EMI Records Group North America, rises from his mammoth, semicircular, blond wooden desk in his ultramodern mid-Manhattan office. He glances out his 42nd-floor comer window at all of Central Park spread before him in a green-and-blue aerial view, which makes it seem more a feature of a highly detailed, multicolored map than a living expanse of nature and humanity. Then he slowly lifts the cover of his stark black Davidoff humidor, surveys the hand-rolled splendors that lie within, and reaches for an elegantly long Cohiba Esplendido.

"I'm very lucky," he says, pausing to light his Cuban cigar and take the first aromatic puff of the day. "I really love what I do. I'm someone who looks forward to Mondays."

And well he should, for at 53, Koppelman is a giant of the American music business. As chairman and CEO, he is responsible for the record companies within the North American division of the British conglomerate Thorn EMI: Capitol Records, the legendary label of the Beatles, Nat "King" Cole, and the young Frank Sinatra; Liberty Records, the country-music home of Garth Brooks and Tanya Tucker; EMI Records Group, which comprises the contemporary labels Chrysalis and SBK Records; Angel Records, which specializes in classical music and Broadway cast albums; EMI Latin, and EMI Canada.

In his 30 years in the music world, he has discovered or worked with some of the most famous and popular recording stars of the era. The first artists he signed were the Lovin' Spoonful in 1965. He persuaded Bobby Darin to record the song "If I Were a Carpenter" and coproduced the record. In 1973, while working for Columbia Records as head of artists and recordings, he signed Janis Ian. After 1975, when he got together with builder Samuel Lefrak to form the Entertainment Company, he produced and found songs for Glen Campbell ("Southern Nights"), Dolly Parton ("Here You Come Again"), Paul Anka, Cher, Eddie Murphy, The Four Tops, and Barbra Streisand (five albums, from "Songbird" to "Guilty," including her smash-hit pairings with Donna Summer and Barry Gibb).

Koppelman produced the music for the television show "Fame." In the mid-1980s, his son Brian, then a student at Tufts University in Boston, discovered a brilliant young performer named Tracy Chapman and brought her to his father. Then came rapper Vanilla Ice, whose first album, "To the Extreme," was No. 1 for six weeks and sold more than 7 million copies, and the vocal group Wilson Phillips, whose debut album sold more than 5 million copies. And then his most recent successes: Arrested Development, which won two Grammys this year, for best new artist and best rap performance by a duo or group, and Jon Secada, the composer and singer who garnered a Grammy for best Latin pop album.

"I've spent the last 30 years finding, working with, and developing talent," Koppelman says, in a voice that gently betrays his New York City roots (he was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Laurelton, Queens) and that, despite its calm tone, reveals at least a hint of the precision, determination, and toughness necessary to compete in what can often be the cutthroat competition of his profession. He describes his work as "listening to songs, hearing a song and feeling it would be right for a particular artist to sing, and convincing that artist that he or she should sing it. And then finding a producer to produce it, making sure the music comes out in a way that matches my original vision, the way I imagined it when I first heard it. It's incredibly simple, and it's incredibly difficult."

Clearly, for Koppelman, it is incredibly simple. With his thinning gray hair, roundish open face, and confident self-assured demeanor, he certainly looks the role of CEO. And he dresses it, too, from the crisp white shirt to the blue-and-gold striped tie to the colorful wide suspenders illustrated with scenes from his favorite sports passion: golf. His business surroundings, too, are appropriate for his position. Music and video equipment of every kind populates his spacious realm: cassette and compact-disc players, turntable, amplifier, and VCR, all presided over by four huge gray-and-black Tandy speakers suspended from on high, one in each corner of the kingdom. Awards, plaques, and memorabilia are everywhere: a platinum record for Streisand's "Guilty," Chapman on the cover of Rolling Stone, Arrested Development on the cover of Spin, "Record Company CEO of the Year" in 1990, the 1991 Humanitarian Award from the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research. Along a shelf by one set of windows sits a group of modern sculptures, among them a giant papier-mâché rendering of his ear: a gift from a partner, with a dedication: "To my friend Charles, whose ears are exceeded only by his heart."

It is an appropriate artistic gesture, for Koppelman's ears have certainly been a prime factor in his career: ears that have the ability to know, on first hearing, whether a song or performer has that indefinable something--or doesn't. It is, says Koppelman, a matter of taste: "Whether it's taste in music or taste in cigars or taste in clothes." (And indeed, he has just come from his personal tailor, where he was delayed for 20 minutes over a problem with a button.) "You have to know what is the best in order to have the best. My wife has a great expression: 'The best will do just fine.' And I think taste is what does it. You're either born with it or you acquire it."

Koppelman's ears work in a very basic way: "I'm a fan. I can't sing. I can't write music. I just think that if I'm attracted to something, everybody's going to be attracted to it. When I listen to a singer, one of the things I focus on is whether I believe that singer. Do I believe the words they're singing? Is their voice distinctive? Will I recognize that voice any time I hear it? When I listen to a song, is it really organic? Do I feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I hear it? Does it make me smile? Things of that nature that I think are the same things the audience hears and responds to. Maybe it's some sort of common--and I underline common--denominator that I have within me, because more of what I like, everybody ends up liking."

Despite his apparent instinctive ability to recognize the music that makes him dance, the art of melody did not consume much of his childhood. "All I did when I was growing up was play stickball, base- ball, and basketball," Koppelman says. "If stickball was the national pastime, I think I would have been Ty Cobb." He attended Adelphi College and Long Island University, earning a degree in physical education, and an early goal was to coach or manage in baseball.

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