Don Graham, Music Promotion Pioneer, Dies at 87

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Don Graham, the music promotion pioneer who worked at Warner Bros. Records, A&M Records and Blue Thumb Records with the likes of Edd “Kookie” Byrnes and Connie Stevens, The Everly Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner, has died. He was 87.

Graham died Thursday in Los Angeles of stomach cancer, his family announced.

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In 1958, Graham learned that Warner Bros. was about to start a record label and soon became head of its San Francisco operations. Under his leadership, Warner Bros. Records signed actors Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Connie Stevens and Tab Hunter, plus The Everly Brothers and Peter, Paul & Mary.

One of Warner Bros.’ first records to be successful was “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” by Kookie and Stevens, based on Byrnes’ popular character on the ABC show 77 Sunset Strip. When top San Francisco radio station KYA would not add the song to its playlist, Graham devised a promotion in which Warners would replace any old comb that was mailed in with a new “Kookie” comb.

Some 80,000 combs later, the song went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May 1959.

In 1962, Graham moved to Los Angeles and joined Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records as its first national promotion manager. Three years later, he left for Blue Thumb Records, which sported a roster that included Ike & Tina Turner, Dave Mason and Sérgio Mendes.

He moved to United Artists in 1968 and enjoyed success with Bobby Goldsboro, Jay & the Americans, War, Johnny Rivers and Don McLean, then worked for Midget Productions under Joe Smith and Cream Records. He started his own company, Don Graham Promotions, in 1980.

Donald Fredrick Graham was born on Nov. 11, 1934. At age 16 as vice president of the student body in high school, one of his duties was procuring entertainment for assemblies. He had a budget of $85.

Graham and a friend sneaked into San Francisco’s Blackhawk nightclub, where Dave Brubeck was appearing with his quartet that night. Graham approached the jazz legend and convinced him to play at his high school for the $85 fee, which Brubeck donated to charity.

After high school, Graham was introduced to Russ Solomon, whose father owned a store in Sacramento called Tower Drugs. Solomon wanted to stop selling drugs and start selling records, so they changed one word on the sign, and Tower Records was formed in 1960.

Hunter’s recording of “Young Love” for Dot Records in 1957 reached No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks, knocking Elvis Presley’s “Too Much” out of the top spot and prompting the creation of Warner Bros. Records. (Jack Warner was irked that his studio did not have a record company to capitalize on Hunter’s vocal skills.)

Graham’s survivors include his wife of 48 years, Robin, and children Mark (and his wife, Sherry, and son, Gavin), Chris (wife Lisa, sons Nicholas and Mark) and Jennifer.

In lieu of flowers, his wife said, “Greet each day and person with a positive attitude just like Don.”

A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. on July 30 at the Hilton in Woodland Hills. The theme of the event will be “Whistling Thru the Bridge,” which coincides with the title of a book that Graham was writing. Please RSVP to confirm your attendance at www.HMPwebsite.org.

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