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Industry giant moves comfortably between business, politics, philanthropy

Written by Anita Wadhwani
The Tennessean

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 - It was early in February when Nashville music mogul Mike Curb and Mayor Karl Dean unexpectedly crossed paths on separate business trips to Southern California.

Over lunch in L.A., the conversation turned to a pending anti-discrimination measure that would set rules for companies seeking city contracts. It would prevent firms from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Emotions were running high on both sides of the debate back home.

Opponents said the measure would force owners to compromise their values to land City Hall contracts. Proponents called it a civil rights issue and said the bill’s passage would send a message that Nashville doesn’t tolerate discrimination.

The mayor was getting criticism for not taking a public stance on the measure that had been in the news for weeks. Dean asked Curb for an opinion.

“I said, ‘Last I checked I’m a Republican and I’m for it,’ ” Curb recalls telling the mayor. “You’re out here trying to recruit conventions for the Music City Center and no one, particularly in California, is going to bring a convention to Nashville, Tennessee, if we discriminate.”

The measure narrowly passed last week — with Dean’s blessing. The mayor publicly endorsed the measure within days of his return from California. When Dean signed it into law last week, Curb was his guest.

“The bottom line is he told me in the big scheme of things, anytime you can do something that advances the notion of treating people fairly it’s a good thing,” Dean said.

In recent months, Curb — a former Republican politician, record label president and philanthropist — has emerged as a seemingly improbable champion of gay rights here.

It’s a role he first adopted — or perhaps that adopted him — in December when he publicly disagreed with Belmont University over the controversial departure of a women’s soccer coach after she revealed she was having a baby with a lesbian partner.

One of the university’s biggest donors and a trustee emeritus, Curb at the outset was nearly alone among local business leaders and university benefactors in criticizing Belmont’s actions publicly. Belmont changed course.

It’s not the only public policy battle that the longtime Republican, NASCAR investor and music executive has been waging lately.

After leaving political life behind as a young man nearly 40 years ago, Curb, now 67, says he finds it necessary to be back in the game again.

Curb has said he will continue to play any role he can as the battle over Metro’s newly passed ordinance moves to the state Capitol, where a measure that would undo Nashville’s law is advancing.

He is active in lobbying for music copyright protections at the federal level, as well. And Curb has been a vocal proponent seeking to preserve the car racetrack at the state fairgrounds, in keeping with his passion for auto sports.
Curb has keen eye

Both admirers and detractors describe Curb as “old-school,” with a keen eye for talent but ruthless about negotiating contracts with artists.

After 20 years, country singer Tim McGraw expects to finally fulfill the terms of a Curb recording contract that he has publicly chafed at for many years with the release of his last under-contract album for the label expected sometime this year.

A “Free Tim McGraw from Curb Records” Facebook page chronicles the countdown to McGraw’s departure.

“Best of luck to anybody who’d try and steal an artist from him,” said competitor Luke Lewis, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville. “He’s an enormously tough businessman with a steel-trap memory. He’s a guy who likes to win.”

Forty years ago, Curb also was — for a brief time — out front as one of the few conservative voices for gay rights in a California ballot battle over whether gay teachers should be banned from public schools.

When then-San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk asked Curb to help oppose the initiative known as Proposition 6 during Curb’s race for lieutenant governor, Curb agreed to do it.

“It was winning in the polls, and Harvey needed a prominent Republican to come out against it,” Curb said. “I was able to get Ronald Reagan, as well. He had a lot of friends who were gay. So did Nancy.”

The measure was ultimately defeated by a 58 percent to 42 percent vote. Archival footage of Curb’s and Reagan’s publicly announced opposition aired at the end of director Gus Van Sant’s 2008 movie, Milk, which chronicled the West Coast gay politician’s rise and subsequent murder.

Curb now says that gay rights has always been a personal issue for him, beginning with the day many years ago when his sister realized that the man she had married was gay.

“It’s an issue that affected our own family,” Curb said. “It affected my own sister. She married someone who was gay. I learned something at that time that I didn’t know ... that people who were gay don’t make the decision necessarily.”
Curb has done it all

Here are a few things that people may not know about Curb.

He’s a former one-term lieutenant governor of California, best known for shoehorning in conservative judicial appointments when then-Gov. Jerry Brown (now back in office) was out of the state on the presidential campaign trail in the late 1970s. Curb also was a Ronald Reagan adviser, confidant and campaign operative.

He has always slipped easily between the worlds of politics and music, car racing and philanthropy. He wrote the theme song to American Bandstand and the 1970s TV show Baretta, sang back-up on Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” and Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All,” and briefly dated the late singer Karen Carpenter.

A grandson of a Mexican immigrant, he also helped write “guest worker” legislation legalizing immigrants who commuted from Mexico to the United States.

Curb — the record label owner — helped launch the careers of a diverse group of stars, including Donny Osmond, the Righteous Brothers, LeAnn Rimes, Rodney Atkins, Wynonna Judd and Tim McGraw. This year marks the 50th year of Curb Records, which he launched in an earlier form as a California teenager.

At Belmont, as a trustee emeritus and a major donor, Curb was the only board member to ask that soccer coach Lisa Howe be rehired last year and that the school establish a nondiscrimination policy.

“It was very similar to what happened when Ronald Reagan and I were the only Republicans — except here it looked like I was the only board member,” Curb said. “There was another board member who shared my views and wrote me a letter. There may have been others who agreed — but didn’t say so.”

Howe said last week that seeing Curb defend her in public — even before she had decided to talk to the media herself — was a “game-changer.”

“I thought he stuck out his neck for me, and I could no longer be silent,” Howe said. “I did not realize he was the former lieutenant governor of California and he worked with Ronald Reagan. I was extremely surprised to read his quotes in the newspaper in December.

“Mike Curb took the controversy from grass-roots level to the national level. From then on, whoever interviewed me always asked about or mentioned Mike Curb.”

Curb said he was taken by surprise that few others in the city’s country music industry — which includes many Belmont alumni — spoke out about the issue.

“I was a bit surprised by that,” Curb said. “However, personally, many artists who graduated from Belmont spoke to me or sent emails to me.”

One artist was Tim McGraw, who emailed: “Way to go. Someone needed to say this,” Curb recalls.

Curb said like others in his industry he frets about drooping record sales these days, but not because he fears a backlash linked to his stand for gay rights.

Curb Records, one of the most successful independent labels in the country based on sales, is suffering from the same economic woes that have cut profits by more than half for the entire music industry in the past decade.

Curb show no signs of slowing down or losing the respect of colleagues in either the music business or political realms in which he operates.

“He has an incredibly wide range of relationships in American politics,” said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. “He’s so central to the industry. He speaks with a perspective that is rooted in the industry.”

President Richard Nixon, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mike Curb.

Mike Curb and President Ronald Reagan.