Dr. Demento Remembers Stan Cornyn

By and on May 12, 2015

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It would be difficult to list all of the various ways the former Warner Bros. Records executive Stan Cornyn was a direct influence on everyone who ever worked for him, or with him. And it would be just as difficult to assess how something he may have written many years ago — a liner note, or a bit of marketing copy, or something for Warner Bros.’ Circular, the label’s humorous in-house publication — may have sparked interest in someone enough to buy one of WBR’s albums, or even inspired someone enough to think that they’d probably enjoy working at a record company like WBR, but that’s exactly the kinds of comments we’ve been reading for the last twenty-fours or so.

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We have a particular love of his full-page ads for Reprise artists, like some of the ads we’re featuring in this gallery below. One of our favorites was the copy Mr. Cornyn wrote for the Fugs, which he recalled for his Rhino column “Stay Tuned by Stan Cornyn,” saying:

“Mo Ostin liked ads like these, and we wrote many for our ‘up and coming’ (hip) acts. Mo never asked to censor a word. His inner motto as CEO was ‘write and sing whatever you like.’ The Fugs appreciated Mo’s attitude, while we at WBR lived it fully.”

Yes, indeed, Mr. Cornyn lived his life at WBR — and afterwards — fully, and no single blog posting will ever cede quite enough space to adequately sum up the life of this remarkable man, but we reached out today to someone who knew him very well, Barret Hansen, a.k.a. Dr. Demento, to ask if he’d like to comment on his passing. Here’s what the good Doctor had to say:


“Just got word that my former boss Stan Cornyn died on May 11. He was 81; no word yet about the cause.

Stan worked for Warner Bros. Records from the label’s inception in 1958 until retiring in 1990. For most of that time he was the label’s head of Creative Services, supervising Warners’ advertising, publicity, art direction, liner notes, and a whole lot of little things that enhanced the company’s image. And did he ever do that! In its first decade, Warner Bros. Records morphed from a bland repository for film soundtracks and kitschy MOR albums to the hippest music factory in America. While the music had a lot to do with that, especially after WB acquired Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1963, it was Stan who gave Warner-Reprise its unique personality.

That personality first showed itself in the liner notes. Stan wrote most of the company’s notes in the 1960s. For Sinatra: “He leans into the front end of “Strangers” and starts singing all the way to “The End.” And there’s no chop-choppy phrasing along the way. No dit-dit-dit. It comes out mmmmmmmmm all the way. If he runs our of gas on a phrase, which is a very rare bird for the man, then he runs out of gas two-and-a-half miles after anybody else would. He sings like he’s got an extra tank of Texaco in his tummy.” For Petula Clark: “Used to be, girl singers rode on busses, undressed with the door ajar, drank liquid gin, swore good. Were equal parts pretty paint, agressive, swinger, porter, promoter, and hooker. Most had bad arches. Plus six teal blue ball gowns with ripped hems. No more.” For Dean Martin: “Of course, doing a really preposterously good job of being Dean Martin depends a lot on knowing the rules about what makes the best Dean Martin….What Dean Martin is driving at seems to be to lead a Life Of Sloth. A Life of EPIC Sloth. Not just your common little ol’ Sunday afternoon lazy Sloth, like you get with minor Erskine Caldwell Georgia darlins.”

Then it was the magazine ads. The Pigpen Look-Alike Contest. For the brilliant, cerebral creations of future “Smile” collaborator Van Dyke Parks: “You are about to become involved with Van Dyke Parks.” For the thoroughly countercultural Fugs: “Win a Fug Dream Date competition.” For Randy Newman and his homely, beguiling voice: “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” and “Put some Randy in your ear.”

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Photo: Tom Cornyn

Tom Cornyn writes: This is a classic photo of my dad, the great Stan Cornyn, pretending to look busy in a recording studio with Frank Sinatra. Cornyn is the photogenic fellow with glasses and necktie. Come to think of it, this is one of the few times I’ve seen him in a necktie. He must have been in trouble with his boss that day. L to R: CBS camera man; holding score producer Sonny Burke; on podium, Gordon Jenkins; on right, Frank Sinatra. above podium, liner notes writer. Era: 1965.

In the late 1960s Stan came up with the idea of assembling two-LP sampler albums, combining established best-sellers with new artists that the label was seeking to “break,” sold by mail order only for two dollars each and promoted on the company’s LP innersleeves. They were informally called the “Loss Leaders,” and many a young record freak seized on the chance to own them. Stan compiled and wrote notes for the first half dozen or so albums himself. It happened that he ran out of time to do that right at the moment when the radio station I was with changed format, and I needed work. Thanks to Stan’s editorial director Pete Johnson, I was hired to finish The Whole Burbank Catalog, and went on to compile and annotate almost a dozen more Loss Leaders myself, under his guidance. (Stan continued to come up with the album titles and cover concepts).

Stan seemed to appreciate my writing chops and eclectic tastes, and through the 1970s I got involved in more and more of those “little things” that made Warners special. I was a full time employee for a couple of years, and a very busy freelancer the rest of the time. It was an ideal day job that paid the rent and fed my record collecting habit while the Dr. Demento Show was establishing itself. Stan was very supportive of that too, greenlighting my LP for Warners (Dr. Demento’s Delights) and arranging for Warners to buy a lot of commercial time on my syndicated show, which was crucial in getting that off the ground.

Warners had a weekly mini-magazine called “Circular” that was distributed free to retailers, radio programmers and the like, and I was in every issue from early 1972 on, writing about new releases and record lore. I wrote blurbs about artists that were inserted in promo LP’s. I put together sampler albums especially for salespeople. I wrote and produced radio spots. Stan got way too busy to supervise me on a day-to-day basis, but every so often there’d be a brief but spot-on critique of something I wrote…or he’d call me to pick my brain on something.

Though I did a lot of my work from home, it was always a pleasure to visit Warner Bros.’ sunlit offices at the edge of the movie lot in Burbank. The pressure to produce was intense, of course, but the atmosphere always seemed convivial, respectful, humane. Kind of like those orange-crate labels Warners used in the 1970s (another Stan Cornyn idea, of course). Eventually things changed. By 1979 the normal ups and downs of the record biz combined with pressure from further up the management chain to gradually erode the unique atmosphere at Warners. By that time Stan was a Senior VP, and in the 1980s he made himself very much at home in the upper echelon of Warner Music Group. His book Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group has a lot about those years. It doesn’t say as much about what he accomplished in the 1960s and 70s as I might like, but the wit and clarity of his writing is still totally in evidence.

I owe Stan Cornyn a lot, and I’ll really miss him. I thank Bryan for the chance to make that public.”

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Front row: Stan Cornyn, Terry Ellis, Mo Ostin; Back row: Russ Thyret, Joe Smith, Chris Wright (photo
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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.