When he was 32, it was a very good year.
That’s when a writer named Stan Cornyn – who later came to be known as "king of the liner notes" -- won his first Grammy.
It was for the 1965 Frank Sinatra album, “September of My Years.”
“Tonight will not swing. Tonight is for serious,” Cornyn wrote, describing the intense anticipation in a recording studio just before Sinatra arrived.
“Outside, in the hall, the uniformed guards wait and wonder what to do with their hands.”
“Unruly fiddle players, who love recording like they love traffic jams, tonight they bring along the wives, who wait to one side in black beaded sweaters.”
“And these wives and these fiddle players and all of these are different tonight. For in a few minutes a poet will begin to speak of years ago.”
Cornyn, a Warner Bros. recording executive who wrote with sophisticated wit and later developed promotions that were alternately tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top for the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Petula Clark, Bob Newhart, Dean Martin and many other recording stars, died Monday at his home in Carpinteria. He was 81.
Cornyn had lung cancer, said Meg Barbour, his partner of 18 years.
He started at Warner Bros. Records shortly after it was founded in 1958, rising to senior vice president of the Warner Music Group and retiring in 1992 as founder and CEO of Warner New Media, where he campaigned for more aggressive use of interactive, digital media.
His efforts were sometimes futile, he wrote in his 2002 book, “Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group."
“When it comes to racing into any new technology, the record business finishes just ahead of the Amish,” he said.
Ultimately, Warner foundered after its 1989 acquisition by Time Inc., Cornyn wrote, with corporate leaders “endorsing greed over boogie.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Cornyn became known as a savvy marketer who could straddle the worlds of Sinatra and Jerry Garcia while maintaining an engaging irreverence about both.
In San Francisco to check out emerging talent, Cornyn said, he “stumbled into very early hippiedom. Acid-spiked wedding cakes. Middle-aged little old ladies wandering stoned through Golden Gate Park. It was a kick. I took care to follow a new record business rule: Don’t drink the punch.”
For the Dead, who found the idea of liner notes far too linear, Cornyn created a Pigpen look-alike contest, seeking a burly double for the group’s harmonica player and keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. For Neil Young, he ran full-page magazine ads giving away bags of authentic Topanga Canyon dirt in honor of the down-to-earth singer’s home turf.
Cornyn raised eyebrows – and publicity – by advertising a Dream Date with the Fugs, a group best known for “Boobs a Lot” and “Kill for Peace.” He pitched raspy singer Randy Newman in full-page ads with the headline: “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something.”
Cornyn’s self-deprecating humor drew plenty of attention.
The faux classified ad he placed in the company’s weekly “Circular,” a publication for retailers and radio stations, was typical:
“QUALIFIED GIRLS: Major record company now interviewing girls to be used in a series of paternity suits to bring fame to some of our less fortunate artists. Send scatological resume of past experience to Box 5949, Columbus, Ohio.”
FOR THE RECORD
May 15, 10:59 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Stan Cornyn's former colleague as Bob Marlis. His name is Bob Merlis.
That kind of branding was invaluable, said Cornyn’s former Warner colleague Bob Merlis, a music industry publicist.
“He made Warner Bros. a company with a specific attitude you couldn’t apply to other labels,” Merlis said. “People thought of Warner Bros. as a fun company and, ultimately, artists felt it was a fun company.”
Born in Oxnard on July 8, 1933, Cornyn was the only child of an attorney and a homemaker. He grew up in Arcadia and attended Pomona College and Yale before receiving a master’s degree in theater from UCLA.
Cornyn married twice, and both marriages ended in divorce. In addition to Barbour, he is survived by sons Christopher Cornyn and T. Guy Cornyn; two grandchildren, and his cousin Bill.
His liner notes drew five Grammy nominations. The notes for the 1966 album “Sinatra at the Sands” earned him his second Grammy, and again struck a melancholy chord.
“A thin, gray-haired man who looks as if he hides under mushrooms to avoid the sun’s rays walks to the piano,” Cornyn wrote. “This is Bill Miller, Sinatra’s piano player.”
“Sinatra turns to the audience and tells them he’s going to sing a saloon song. And silently you can almost hear the perfumed ladies think “Yeah” and the close-shaved, shiny-cheeked men think “Yeah” and the waiters stop in doorways and think “Yeah.”
“And with just piano behind him, Sinatra turns actor. The man whose broad’s left him with some other guy and all of the loot…And there is silence all about, for this audience is watching a man become that last lucked-out guy at the bar, the last one, with nowhere to go but sympathy city.”