A&M; Records spent much of the 1960s, '70s and '80s as one of the leading independent labels in the music business, buoyed by a remarkably consistent string of hits from superstar acts, beginning with label co-founder Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and continuing through the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Peter Frampton, the Police, Sting, the Go-Go's, Janet Jackson, Bryan Adams and many others.
The one thing they had in common: Most weren't superstars when they came to A&M.;
"We don't sign big names," Gil Friesen, the longtime president of the label founded in 1962 by Alpert and business partner Jerry Moss, told Forbes in 1988. "We would rather have an artist whose career you slowly build with great credibility over time than an artist with whom you have instant chart success and that's the end of it."
Friesen, who was sometimes referred to as "the ampersand in A&M;," died Thursday of leukemia at his home in Brentwood, said his friend and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner. He was 75.
Friesen spent a quarter century at the label until his resignation in 1990 shortly after Alpert and Moss sold the company to international conglomerate PolyGram for $500 million.
"Gil was a visionary," Alpert said Friday. "His door was always open to people looking for [new] thoughts and ideas.... He was always there to say things that maybe you didn't think of before."
He also contributed significantly to A&M;'s reputation for fair play among the musicians the label signed.
"The night the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 1991], we were giving a press conference and I looked out into the small crowd and saw Gil Friesen, who in turn gave me a 'thumbs up,' as if to say 'well done.' I'll never forget that," Chris Hillman, the Byrds founding member who recorded for A&M; after starting the Flying Burrito Brothers, said Friday. "He was one of the good guys."
Friesen's tenure at A&M; began "in the heyday of the record business when the record business was a thriving, exciting place to be with the rise of a new generation of popular music, and A&M; was at the forefront of it," Wenner said. A&M; was "the leading independent label. It had a real reputation for style, class and integrity. It was a happening place to be, and Gil led that."
Gil Friesen was born March 19, 1937, in Pasadena and grew up in a musical family, which he credited with his own passion for music. His first job in the music business was at the lowest rung of the career ladder, processing mail for Capitol Records.
Later, he remembered visiting Santa Monica-based radio station KDAY to pitch a record to Alan Freed, the fabled East Coast deejay who moved to California after getting caught up in the radio payola scandal of the late 1950s.
"I was promoting a Peggy Lee record," Friesen recalled. Freed "was shocked to have a representative from Capitol show up. He introduced me to an independent promotion guy who was there for same reasons I was. His name was Jerry Moss. Jerry Moss and I became friends. Good friends."
In 1981, Friesen spearheaded the launch of A&M; Films, the company's independent film division, and became executive producer of the 1985 hit "The Breakfast Club." He also produced two early John Cusack comedies, "Better Off Dead" (1985) and "One Crazy Summer" (1986), and the 1989 biopic "Blaze," about Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, starring Paul Newman.
Most recently he'd been working on a documentary titled "Twenty Feet From Stardom," about the backup singers who support rock and pop stars. It has been selected to be shown on opening night of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Former A&M; Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Guerinot recalled Friday that Friesen would regularly invite groups of friends and co-workers to his home for dinner and engage them in conversations on topics far beyond that of day-to-day business affairs.
"He was friends with [historian] Bob Dallek, and after dinner, he'd say, 'Let's all go to the living room. What are we going to talk about tonight, Bob?' And Dallek would say, 'Tonight, let's talk about FDR' or 'Let's talk about Vietnam.' He made all those intellectual pursuits seem cool. And they were cool, because Gil did them."
An art aficionado, Friesen had been a board member and chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He also was a founding partner of the Classic Sports cable channel, which was sold to ESPN in 1997 for $175 million, and a founding investor in Akamai, a prominent Internet content delivery platform.
In addition to Janet Friesen, his third wife, Friesen is survived by their two children, Theo and Uma, and a son, Tyler, from a previous marriage. No services have been announced.