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Sony Corp. topper Howard Stringer has handed the reins of Sony Music Entertainment to one of the industry’s elder statesmen, Universal Music Group chairman Doug Morris.

Ending months of speculation, Sony announced Wednesday that Morris will join the company as CEO as of July 1.

Morris will succeed Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, who will exit SME with the end of his contract on March 31.

Schmidt-Holtz, a holdover from Sony’s partnership with BMG — which ended with Sony’s acquisition of BMG’s stake in 2008 — announced his partnership in a German tech start-up in January (Daily Variety, Jan. 19).

Announcement of Morris’ long-rumored arrival had reportedly been delayed by a wrangle over his early departure from UMG, where his contract ran through the end of 2011.

While his early release paves the way for a mid-year arrival, there will still be a three-month gap between Schmidt-Holtz’s exit and Morris’ bow. SME said Sony Corp. topper Howard Stringer will oversee executive decision-making at SME in the interim.

Stringer said in a statement, “At this critical time in the evolution of the music industry, I can think of no one more qualified as a proven executive, an innovator, a music impresario and a statesman than Doug Morris.”

Rumblings of Morris’ possible move to SME — No. 2 in market share among the majors behind UMG, a perennial No. 1 during the exec’s regime — began even before former UMG Intl. CEO Lucian Grainge was tapped to succeed Morris as UMG CEO on Jan. 1, after spending the previous six months as co-CEO. Morris remained on board as chairman.

Morris will now compete head-to-head with his onetime protege and hand-picked successor.

Morris, who is 72, had topped UMG and its predecessor MCA Music Entertainment Group (where he arrived via a joint venture, Rising Tide Entertainment), after 15 hit-making years at the top at Atlantic Recording Group and Atlantic Records. He left Atlantic amid corporate in-fighting at Time Warner in 1995.

Originally a songwriter (his credits included Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and the Chiffons’ “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”) and indie label operator (at Big Tree Records), Morris is viewed in some quarters as the consummate old-school record exec — sometimes to a fault.

As the rumor mill churned about Morris’ possible move to SME, some observers opined that Morris’ fidelity to now-eroding record industry practices left him less equipped than some younger players to deal with the industry’s shifting paradigms at another major label.

Buffing Morris’ image as a forward-looking exec, SME noted that Morris had been successful in monetizing online musicvideos and his role in the creation of Vevo, a novel partnership between Sony Music and Google.