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Music Man: Charles Koppelman

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

(continued from page 1)

But he had a next-door neighbor "who sang all the time," and while in college he met someone else who also sang and played the guitar. "And the three of us would hang around and sometimes create some music," he says. "I didn't create the music. I was kind of hanging around. And if they were singing songs, maybe I'd try to sing on one of the notes that everyone else was singing. So there might have been three people but there was only two-part harmony."

Coincidentally, another neighbor was the editor of Cash Box, a music trade publication, and, Koppelman says, "from about age 14 to 18, I was exposed to reading old Cash Box magazines, so I some- how learned there was a business of music."

Meanwhile, his friends were still singing. "I realized that if we sang at different college events, it would be a great way to attract girls." One Easter week, he suggested that the group go into Manhattan to see whether they could get a recording contract. "We went in and knocked on doors," he says. "I had the names of all these different record companies from reading Cash Box. And as luck would have it, we were signed by a small record company owned by a dentist from New Jersey. It was called Shell Records. Their logo was a big seashell."

The group took the name the Ivy Three. And this unlikely creation would lead to a surprising musical hit and, for Koppelman (and another trio member, Don Rubin, who would become a long-time associate), a lifetime career.

One day, Koppelman says, while working part time in the boys' department of Gimbels, he had another idea: Why not a song about Yogi Bear? After all, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character was the rage on college campuses. So he found a pair of songwriters and wound up working with them; the song "Yogi" was born and, wonder of wonders, became a hit. "We went on tour," Koppelman recalls. "We sang in the Midwest. We sang on the Dick Clark television show, American Bandstand. And that got me interested in the music business." Sports was out, and music was in.

The Ivy Three had no other hits and soon disbanded. But Koppelman and Rubin got jobs writing songs for Alden Music, which was co-owned by music publisher Don Kirschner, whom Koppelman had met when the Ivy Three performed at Grossinger's in the Catskills. Alden's stable of writers included Carole King and Neil Sedaka, and it soon became clear that Koppelman was not in their league. But he had not really wanted to be a songwriter; he had just wanted an entree to the business. "So after about two years of unsuccessfully writing songs, Don Kirschner hired me to be the director of his music publishing company," he says. "It was just about the time he sold it to Columbia Pictures, so my first real job was as director of Screen Gems-Columbia Music. That was in 1963."

Two years later, he and Rubin went into business on their own. In 1970, they sold their company, and Koppelman went to work for Columbia Records, first running their publishing company and then as head of artists and recordings. Then, in 1975, he and Lefrak formed the Entertainment Company, which was both a music-publishing and record-production concern. "And," says Koppelman, "it just evolved from there."

In 1986, he and two colleagues, Stephen C. Swid and Martin N. Bandier, the latter of whom had been general counsel for the Lefrak Organization and who had worked with Koppelman since the start of the Entertainment Company, got together to buy CBS Songs for a reported $125 million. CBS Songs was the music-publishing division of CBS Records; its holdings included the MGM-United Artists copyright catalog, including such songs as "Over the Rainbow," "Singin' in the Rain," "New York, New York," and the music from the James Bond movies. Three years later, the partners sold their company to Thorn EMI, reportedly for more than $300 million, and Koppelman moved to EMI Records Group North America (as did Bandier).

"It's a daily challenge," Koppelman says, slowly taking another puff of his Cohiba. For with the change of positions has come a slight change in his role. "It's as meaningful to me these days to discover a terrific young executive and nurture that person as it is to find a great young artist," he says. "Being in this business, I'm surrounded by young people who have great energy, and what I hope is to give them focus. If you can give someone who's young, whether it's your child or an employee or a partner, the guidance and the focus to harness their talent, that's something you can really enjoy."

Something else that Koppelman clearly enjoys is his cigars. And he has delighted in them for many years. "I never smoked cigarettes," he says. "When I was 23 or 24, I saw somebody smoking a Tiparillo. So I started by smoking a couple of Tiparillos, and from there I kept moving up. I spent a lot of time smoking Cream of Jamaica. Then I tried Temple Hall Claros for a long period of time. And ultimately I ended up with Davidoff Cuban No. 1's, and Montecrisro Especiales, and now Cohiba Esplendidos."

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