How K-tel got the world 'Hooked on Classics'

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Hooked on Classics K-tel

Yesterday, the news broke that Canadian entrepreneur and pitchman Philip Kives has died at age 87. Kives was one of the most enterprising marketers of his time, and classical music listeners remember him as the man who, through his company K-tel, got the world — for better or for worse — Hooked On Classics.

That was the name of a series of LPs that sold millions of copies, finding avid buyers for reasons that may not remain entirely clear to 21st-century listeners. Why did the world want to hear medleys of classic compositions set to a disco beat? It's hard to say, but to paraphrase Elvis, millions of fans can't be wrong.

The musical mastermind of the series was Louis Clark, best known for having helped craft orchestral arrangements for the rock band Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) in the 1970s. By the early '80s, though, ELO had moved on and Clark was pawning musical instruments to stay afloat.

Enter Don Reedman, a K-tel producer who saw an opportunity for the now-international company — which had built an empire on the likes of the Veg-o-matic and the Miracle Brush, as well as music compilations — to get a piece of the market for disco-ization. Meco and Stars on 45 had both topped the U.S. charts with disco medleys of Star Wars and Beatles music, respectively. Why not give Beethoven the same treatment?

Clark leaped at the opportunity, enlisting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) for a recording session that yielded the first Hooked on Classics album. Released in 1981, the album was an instant smash, hitting number four on the Billboard 200; as a single, the album's opening track cracked the top ten.

Tasteless? Many classical music fans certainly thought so — though the RPO players were sanguine about it, padding their pockets with revenue from newly-booked gigs as the album climbed the charts. The Sunday Times decried the album as "a sad comment on the way the arts are regarded in English society."

In a 1982 interview for People magazine, Clark called his critics "blinkered," saying that he was actually enhancing the compositions "by beefing up the orchestration. Besides, it opens up that music to a whole new audience."

That, at least, couldn't be denied — and K-tel continued to ride the Hooked gravy train with several sequels. The records' momentum ebbed by the end of the '80s, but in 2011 Clark got the band back together (so to speak) for a reunion concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the original album.

K-tel is still going strong, now riding a retro wave and calling itself "the original 'as seen on TV' company." It's had success with music compilations ranging from 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits to 25 Polka Greats to Summer Cruisin'. Nothing has beat Hooked on Classics, though, which has to date sold over 10 million worldwide — and counting.