David Geffen (born 1943) has emerged as one of the wealthiest individuals in rock music through his combined talents as a manager, label owner, and film producer.
David Geffen's father, Abraham Geffen, was only three years old in 1906 when his Jewish family packed their few belongings and left their home in Vilna, Russia, for America. Many years later, in 1930, a marriageable "Abe" Geffen would again cross the Atlantic, having decided to use his hard-earned savings to see the world. Taking leave of his job as a Western Union telegrapher, he made his way first to Europe and later to Palestine, where he met a pretty seamstress by the name of Batya Volovskaya.
Volovskaya had been born in a small village in the Ukraine in 1907. Her father was a wealthy Jewish landowner. Her mother ran a small pharmacy and cosmetology business. When she was thirteen, Volovskaya's parents sent her to live with an aunt in Romania so that she could continue her studies. After the aunt died, Volovskaya was unable to return to Russia because the Bolsheviks had cut off all communication between Russia and Romania. She chose instead to go to Palestine, where her father had relatives.
During Abe Geffen's stay in Tel Aviv, Volovskaya introduced him to the intellectual and artistic circles of that city. Although Volovskaya could not speak English, she was able to converse with Abe in Yiddish. Abe, however, returned to America alone. Back home, Abe Geffen kept up a correspondence with the young seamstress, while saving everything he could towards making a return trip to Palestine. In 1931, he succeeded in making his second trip, during which he married Volovskaya. That November, the pair arrived at Ellis Island, New York. The newlyweds took an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and their first child, a boy named Misha, was born in 1933. On February 21, 1943, their second son, David Lawrence Geffen, joined the family.
When David Geffen was six years old, his mother had what was then called a "nervous breakdown" and had to be hospitalized. During the six months that she was in the hospital, his grandmother cared for David. The young boy exhibited emotional problems during his mother's absence, and after she was released, Batya Geffen arranged to have them both treated by a psychiatrist.
Later David's parents opened a successful corset shop. Batya, a good businesswoman, taught her youngest son the value of hard work. But his parents' long hours away from home left David unsupervised for lengthy periods. Geffen later said he used his unstructured time to attend Broadway musicals and to listen to recordings of show tune musicals.
Geffen once claimed to have had 17 jobs between high school and the time that he was hired as an usher at the CBSTV studios in New York, but he could not fall in love with any of them. Not at least until he got the job at CBS, where he was allowed to watch TV rehearsals with the likes of Judy Garland and Red Skelton.
Eventually he was hired as a receptionist for a new CBS TV series called The Reporters, but after he made the mistake of offering some suggestions to the show's producer, he lost the job. He then approached the show's casting director, asking her whether there was anything he could do. When she asked him what it was he could do, he reportedly replied, "Nothing." The casting director jokingly suggested he might want to consider becoming an agent.
William Morris Agency
Geffen apparently took her advice seriously and applied for a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency. The mailroom brought Geffen into contact with everybody at William Morris, and he has said that the job was the first one he held where he knew he was in the right place.
Geffen worked his way up to agent at William Morris and became a specialist in signing and managing rock 'n' roll artists. He worked with Laura Nyro, who had recently received disappointing reviews at the Monterey Pop Festival. Geffen promoted her by keeping her out of major concerts until she had achieved a following and then booked her into Carnegie Hall, where she sold out twice. Nyro's first album on Verve had not sold well, and Geffen landed her a contract on Columbia, where her albums scored well on the record charts. With Nyro's songs selling, Geffen renegotiated her contract with Columbia and in the process made himself a millionaire—at the tender age of 27.
Formed Asylum Records
Geffen went on to sign Crosby, Stills and Nash to Atlantic Records. After Atlantic refused to sign Jackson Browne, however, Geffen formed his own label, Asylum Records, with Elliot Roberts. Asylum would eventually sign many other top West Coast artists. According to Geffen's biographer, Tom King, "Geffen … wanted [Asylum] to be known as a sanctuary for artists, a place where they could make their music and be free from any kind of corporate interference."
But there may have been a darker side to Geffen's decision to form Asylum. According to King, Geffen was all too willing to sabotage personal relationships to get what he wanted. "For example," King told ABCNews.com in 2000, "he signed the Eagles, Joni Mitchell and others to his Asylum Records label with false promises and suspect business contracts."
In any case, the label began selling in 1972-73 after Asylum had signed Browne, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. Geffen, meanwhile, refused to let members of the band that would later become known as the Eagles record until he felt they were ready. Geffen's call proved to be on target, and the Eagles would go on to become one of rock 'n' roll's biggest acts.
Geffen's next move was to sell Asylum to the Warner/ Elektra/Atlantic (WEA) distribution company for $7 million. The sale brought more money to the Eagles; at the same time WEA more than recouped the purchase price of Asylum through sales of albums by Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. This sale would prove to be one of the few times that Geffen would undervalue his artists.
The deal also left Geffen on contract with Warner Brothers. He managed to regain control of the Asylum label after it was taken from Warner Brothers Atlantic division and combined with its Elektra operation. In 1974, Geffen scored a major coup when he cajoled Bob Dylan into signing a contract. Dylan ended up making two albums for Geffen on Elektra/Asylum, but he left after he was offered a better royalty rate elsewhere. Geffen also signed Andrew Gold, Tom Waits, and a revamped Byrds.
But Geffen was restless. He tried his hand at Los Angeles club management, and, without success, as vice-chairman of Warner Brothers Pictures. After his Warner Brothers contract expired, he chose to move on.
About this time Geffen was diagnosed with bladder cancer, though a second opinion failed to confirm the earlier diagnosis. Nevertheless, in 1976 Geffen decided to retire from the music industry to attend to his perceived health problems. Four years later, he would be back.
In 1980, Geffen became a consultant and formed his own record label, Geffen Records, with Warner Brothers money. He signed John Lennon, after bringing the former Beatle out of a five-year retirement, to make an album entitled "Double Fantasy" that was released in November 1980. Although Geffen Records also had contracts with Elton John and Peter Gabriel in the United States, Donna Summer, Joni Mitchell, Asia, Don Henley, Neil Young, Was (Not Was), Greg Copeland, and Lone Justice, Geffen's leading stars were not at that time at the peaks of their careers, and his label struggled. Meanwhile, Geffen invested in several Broadway musicals, including Dreamgirls and Cats, and achieved some success as a film producer (Geffen Films produced Risky Business, Beetlejuice, and Little Shop of Horrors).
In exchange for distribution rights for five years, Steve Ross of Warner Brothers agreed to sign over Geffen Records to David Geffen. The record company had not achieved any real success up until then, and Geffen had sometimes been forced to ask Ross for advances. After Geffen sold 13 million copies of one Guns N' Roses album, he tried to sell the company back to Ross. But Ross declined the offer. In 1990, Thorn-EMI attempted to buy Geffen Records for a reported $750 million, but Geffen instead sold it to MCA for approximately $530 million in stock, which made him the largest shareholder. In 1989, Geffen and MCA had more top selling albums than any other company. When Matsushita bought MCA in 1991, Geffen became a billionaire.
In 1992, Geffen publicly acknowledged his homosexuality at an AIDS benefit in Los Angeles. Even though Geffen's sexual preference was widely known among his associates as early as the 1960s, it was not something that he talked about very much. But Geffen's speech in Los Angeles had the effect of making him a spokesman for gay issues.
When President Clinton proposed ending the ban on homosexuals in the military, he turned to Geffen for feedback. With military officials opposing the idea on the grounds that it would be bad for morale, Geffen became a torch carrier for the president's proposal. But after a month spent trying to turn public opinion in favor of the plan, Clinton was forced to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise. Geffen, for his part, backed away from the issue, saying that overturning the ban would not be worth committing political suicide.
In 1995, Geffen formed the Dream Works movie studio with Steven Spielberg, Mo Ostin, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Each partner contributed $33 million in start-up capital, making them title to 67 percent of the company. By 1995, they had attracted more than $2 billion that they would use to release films, television shows, interactive games, animated films, and music. DreamWorks even negotiated a partnership with Microsoft for their computer releases. One of the first achievements of the company's record division, DreamWorks SKG Music, was to extract George Michael from his Sony contract.
In October 1999, Dream Works announced its plans to create an internet entertainment company under the name of Pop.com in a joint venture with Imagine Entertainment. The start-up was to offer short films, streaming video, live events, games, performance art, and continuing series. Pop.com 's creators hoped to encourage film and video artists to create new material for the site. But after merger talks broke down in September 2000, the founders of Pop.com decided to terminate the venture. Geffen and his partners reportedly could not figure out how the start-up would be able to make any money given that only a handful of Internet users then had the high-speed connections needed to make live video interesting. The audience to sustain such a venture was still in the dream stage.
Even though Geffen long ago made enough money to tempt him from ever doing another day's honest work, he reportedly plans to continue working for many more years. Dream Works partner Jeffrey Katzenberg once praised Geffen's integrity as a key to his success in the entertainment business. But in an unauthorized biography, published in 2000 and entitled The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood, Wall Street Journal columnist Tom King portrayed Geffen as a man with few scruples who was all too willing to betray friends and sacrifice personal relationships to get what he wanted. Not surprisingly, Geffen took affront at the portrayal.
King told ABCNews.com in 2000: "[Geffen] apparently doesn't like the way the book portrays him. He has told people that he thinks the book is a 'total character assassination.' It is not. In my mind, the book is a very balanced portrait of a man who has made indisputable contributions to pop culture history. At the same time, he's no boy scout. He knocked a lot of people off the ladder on his way to the top, and those people's stories are reflected in the book too."
King, Tom, The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood, Random House, 2000.
Calonius, Erik, "Their Wildest Dreams," Fortune, August 16, 1999.
"David Geffen," Musicweb, http://www.musicweb.uk.net/encyclopaedia/g/G19.HTM (January 2003).
"Hollywood's High and Mighty: Chat with the Author of a Biography of David Geffen," ABCNews.com, http://abcnews.go.com/sections/business/DailyNews/king_chat000417.html (January 2003).