What event most changed your life?
The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. I went to see the big acts, like Simon and Garfunkel, not even realizing that there were people like Janis Joplin in the afternoon. My reaction to Janis was immediate. No one had ever heard of her, but she was strutting on that stage, killing it. It affected my whole being. I had never signed an artist before, but I knew I had to trust my instinct.
How does a man find his calling?
Honestly, a lot of it is pure luck. I had never felt music was my calling — I was a lawyer who was made president of Columbia Records practically overnight. My boss first offered me the presidency of the instrument group, which included Fender guitars, but it was based in Los Angeles, and another executive wanted to move there. So I was offered the job of president of Columbia. It was a lucky break. I had no clue whether I had a natural ear for music or not, but I found out at Monterey.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mother died when I was 18, but she had a great effect on me. I grew up in Brooklyn and loved to read, but the best thing my mother taught me was that book learning would take me only so far. She said I had to get out and play stickball and punchball in the streets, learn how to deal with people. I lived in Crown Heights, right off of Eastern Parkway, and my street was a true melting pot — Jews, Italians, blacks, Irish. I learned the art of diplomacy pretty quickly.
What article of clothing should every man own?
A custom shirt and matching handkerchief.
What article of clothing should a man never wear?
An ascot. It may have worked in the ’20s and ’30s, but now it just creates a construction of someone with airs.
What one thing should every man experience?
Bruce Springsteen live. It’s life affirming. When I signed him, he wasn’t a dazzling performer yet, but I was totally knocked out by what he was writing. In that era, though, “another Bob Dylan” was the kiss of death for an artist, so I needed to distinguish him. I remember I put on a show in L.A. on this huge stage, and Bruce sang from one spot. I said, “Bruce, when you are playing this kind of place, you have to move.” A year later, in 1975, he calls and says I have to come to the Bottom Line in New York. I went in and saw him just vibrating, hopping on tables. Afterward, he asked me, “Was I moving enough for ya this time?”
How do you make your favorite drink?
A tall glass filled with ice, a juicy slice of lime, and a bottle of Perrier. I like the bubbles in the Perrier more than the other kinds. I go through about five or six bottles a day. I don’t drink — what do you want from me?
What piece of gear should every man own?
A dog. To nurture something that gives love back unconditionally is a wonderful way to learn compassion. I’ve got a beagle, Teddy, that I got from a kennel.
What’s the best survival skill you know?
Hard work. In this business, you’re only as good as your last hit. I’m forever making sure that my ears stay fresh. To this day I take a tape home every week of every song that hits the top of the charts in every format — everything from Taylor Swift to Eminem.
What skill would you still like to master?
Playing the piano. I have the ear but not the fingers.
What advice would you give the younger you?
Sign John Cougar Mellencamp.
This story first ran in the February 2011 issue of Men's Journal.