Music, TV exec Berle Adams dies at 92

Launched Louis Jordan's career, signed the Who

Berle Adams, a longtime music industry executive and manager, talent agent and international television sales agent, died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles following a long illness. He was 92.

Adams helped build the career of Louis Jordan; booked road dates for Glenn Miller and Nat King Cole; founded Mercury Records; signed the Who, Neil Diamond and Bob Newhart; and was the driving force behind the TV hits “This Is Your Life” and “Queen for a Day.” During his two-decade stint with Lew Wasserman at MCA, Adams served as the agent for Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, Bud Yorkin , Norman Lear and Alfred Hitchcock.

Under the Chicago-based Adams, Jordan, a singer and bandleader, moved from club dates in the Midwest and warehouses in the South to shows in breakthrough, integrated urban theaters including the Paramount in New York, the Oriental Theater in Chicago and the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco.

Jordan’s “jump blues” sessions with Decca Records produced a stream of hits, including the first recording of “Caldonia,” “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Let the Good Times Roll.” The Jordan band was at times enhanced by the talents of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and other gifted singers, all signed by Adams.

In 1943, the band made a series of “soundies” — three-minute black-and-white films each featuring one tune and followed by feature films aimed at America’s black audiences.

Two years later, Adams was among the founders of the Mercury Radio and Television Co., which became Mercury Records. The label soon began recording Washington, Frances Langford and Tony Martin and employed Mitch Miller and Norman Granz as producers. In 1947, health problems induced Adams to leave Chicago’s bitter winters for Los Angeles.

In 1950, his career took a giant leap when MCA president Wasserman hired him to join the entertainment giant. He began by booking television and Las Vegas appearances for such stars as Shore, Jane Russell and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

With TV host Ralph Edwards, Adams developed a creative packaging arrangement with NBC whereby the host talent formed a corporation and licensed a particular show with the network for a predetermined figure, then paid the producer, director, guests and below-the-line personnel himself. This packaging enabled the host to retain creative control and enhanced financial upsides and various tax advantages afforded corporations.

With Adams leading the way, Edwards moved to “This Is Your Life,” which became a successful show from 1952-61 and again a decade later. “Queen for a Day,” with Jack Bailey as host, was Adams’ next hit, running in daytime and primetime from 1956-64.

Adams signed Tennessee Ernie Ford to an MCA contract, and the singer’s show played weekly on NBC from 1956-61.

Adams’ chief responsibility for MCA became the packaging of new programs and negotiation of their contracts. In 1957, he went to Europe for the first time to create MCA’s international TV division but kept his eye out for fresh talent. He signed stand-up comic Newhart, booked him into clubs and soon sold “The Bob Newhart Show” to NBC. The show ran for only one year but won a Peabody Award and an Emmy nom.

In the 1960s, Adams became the MCA agent for Benny, Shore, Yorkin and Lear, Hitchcock, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams, Dorothy Dandridge and Charles Laughton. He persuaded Marlene Dietrich to star in a revue that would cross the country in 16 weeks.

He negotiated MCA’s contract to represent the new American Football League and in 1963 helped longtime MCA colleague Sonny Werblin acquire the league’s New York Titans franchise. A lifelong sports fan, Adams later signed Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus for a weekly one-hour nationally show called “Challenge Golf.”

In 1962, after MCA had bought Decca Records, which owned Universal Pictures, Adams left the talent agency business for film and television production and distribution. Wasserman asked him to streamline the film studio’s 30 distribution offices around the world. He reduced the number of offices to eight.

Adams later negotiated the purchase of Leeds Music, bringing MCA the copyrights to such pop classics as “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “The Girl From Ipanema.” He established a new MCA music company, UNI Records, and signed the Who, Diamond, Elton John and Olivia Newton-John to recording contracts. In England, under MCA’s Decca label, Adams and MCA colleague Brian Brolly signed Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to a contract to record the score of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Adams left MCA in 1971 and formed BAC to represent TV producers for international distribution. Two years later, he joined WMA and established William Morris Sports, where one of his clients was home run king Henry Aaron. In 1978, he was executive producer of “The Brass Target,” starring Sophia Loren and John Cassavetes.

Later at BAC, Adams distributed the TV specials of Diamond, Cole, Dean Martin, George Burns, Dolly Parton, Goldie Hawn, Cher and Liberace. For 24 years he was the sole international distributor of the Emmy Awards.

Survivors include two children, Helen Kleinberg and Richard Adams; four grandchildren; and seven great grandchildren.

A service will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in memory of Adams to the University Kidney Research Organization in Los Angeles.