James B. Conkling, a longtime recording industry executive who played a key role in the formation of Warner Bros. Records and served as the first national chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, died Sunday at Sutter Oaks Alzheimer’s Hospital in Sacramento. He was 83.
Conkling, a native of East Orange, N.J., was born March 1, 1915. While attending Dartmouth College in the 1930s, he played trumpet in an orchestra and became friendly with musician Paul Weston.
Following the war, Weston introduced Conkling to the founders of the newly formed Capitol Records — Glenn Wallichs, Buddy DeSylva and Johnny Mercer. The trio hired Conkling as assistant manager of A&R, giving him his start at producing hit records with such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Jackie Gleason, Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Conkling became Capitol’s first vice president, and soon earned a reputation with artists — including Les Paul and Dave Brubeck — as one of the few executives who would greenlight musicians’ experiments with new rhythms and instruments.
In 1951, William Paley and Frank Stanton of CBS invited Conkling to Columbia Records, where he became president and served on the board of directors. Conkling was responsible for starting the Columbia Record Club, (now Columbia House).
In 1956, Conkling once again joined with Weston, who was a part of a group that founded NARAS.
In the late ’50s, Jack L. Warner approached Conkling about starting a record label, and Conkling assumed the title of president. Though Warner Bros. Records initially struggled, Conkling eventually signed such acts as the Everly Brothers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Connie Stevens and Edd (Kookie) Byrnes.
At age 46, Conkling retired from the record business and dedicated himself to philanthropy.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan asked him to head up the Voice of America, which he did for two years.
Conkling is survived by his wife of 55 years, Donna King Conkling, five children, one brother, three sisters, 23 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11022 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood.