An ugly list of marching orders awaited Bob Krasnow when he took the helm of Elektra Records in 1983.
Once a powerhouse label for the rock titans of the day — the Doors, Queen, the Eagles — Elektra was struggling and Krasnow had unpleasant business ahead of him. The label’s Los Angeles office would have to be closed, 200 of the company’s 300 employees let go and its stable of 150 recording artists gutted.
“I went through the roster with a hacksaw,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 interview. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they needed to get rid of most of those acts and start over.”
The feeling in the industry was that Krasnow had unwittingly taken on a mortician’s job and that Elektra would soon be dismantled.
Instead, the record executive put the label back together as a leaner, more diverse collection of singers and bands, from new talent like Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs to rock hipsters like the Cure and the Pixies and heavy metal outfits like Metallica and Motley Crue.
Krasnow, who died Sunday in Wellington, Fla., at the age of 82 , was revered for his taste and his ear, qualities that made him an uncanny spotter of musical talent, motivated him to help found the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and — quicker than many thought possible — made Elektra relevant again.
“When he took over, it looked like he had stepped into a plane that was going straight toward the ground at a very fast speed,” former Virgin Records director Jeff Ayeroff said. “But he pulled it out at the last minute. Because of that, everyone sort of looks at him in awe.”
Born in Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 1934, Krasnow grew up in L.A. where he would prowl the record shops on the Westside, shuffling through the stacks of singles, and then rush back home to listen to them, sometimes imagining that he was in the studio guiding the artists. His parents were not won over by his musical tastes, particularly the earthy sounds of rhythm and blues that he favored.
“‘Don’t get sidetracked by this music thing,”’ he said his parents cautioned him. ‘“Practice your violin. Take your Hebrew lessons.”’
But he was stubborn. After four years in the Navy, he worked in promotions for James Brown and took a low-paying sales took a job at Decca Records just to get a taste of the industry. He later hooked up with King Records in San Francisco, where the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other Bay Area groups where shaping what would become the soundtrack of the psychedelic era.
Krasnow moved back to L.A. and worked with Warner Bros. Records and Buddah Records before founding Blue Thumb Records, an early-day alternative label that attracted a broad range of artists from Ike and Tina Turner to T. Rex. He sold Blue Thumb in 1974 and moved to Warner Bros., where he asked to hunt up new talent. He proved so skilled at the job that he was given what seemed a hopeless task — breathe new life into Elektra, fat with talent but lean on profits.
He parted ways with dozens of artists. A few, like Linda Ronstadt, he worked to hang on to.
“I took a giant bouquet of tulips to Linda,” he recalled in a 1990 interview with the British newspaper the Independent. “I was like, legs with tulips, that’s how many there were. I walk in. I give them to her. She says, ‘What’s this got to go with me? I make records.’”
Krasnow said he told Ronstadt that he was the new president at Elektra and was the one who would make her records work.
‘”When my records comes out, I’ll worry about who’s president,’” he said she replied. “I thought, ‘That’s welcoming.’”
Ronstadt stayed with Elektra, though others like Don Henley did not.
Krasnow quickly rebuilt the label with fresh talent. He liked Tracy Chapman immediately. He found acts like the Cure, 10,000 Maniacs and the Gypsy Kings to be intriguing. And, after a long weekend of thinking it over, he signed Metallica, even though he was no great fan of headbanger music.
One of his most celebrated moves was persuading Natalie Cole to record an album of duets singing along with classics recorded by her late father, Nat King Cole. “Unforgettable” was a runaway hit and won the Grammy for best album of the year.
Years later, after leaving Elektra, he founded his own label, Krasnow Entertainment. He later retired to Palm Beach, Fla.
His son, Mitchell Krasnow, said that even in retirement his father kept his ears open and sometimes talked with him about alternative artists and independent acts he’d happen to hear. One day, his son said, his father began raving about Lourde, then a little known singer/songwriter from New Zealand.
“I don’t even know where he would hear this music,” his son said.
Krasnow was among a small group that founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1983. He was also a board member for the New York City Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
He is survived by his son Mitchell, a daughter Debra and a brother, Paul. His wife, Nada Lantz, died last year. An earlier marriage to Sandy Krasnow ended in divorce.