James Conkling was born in East Orange, N.J. on March 1, 1915. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1936, where he played trumpet in the Barbary Coast Orchestra. He later attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he went to work for Capitol Records in 1944, and at the end of the 1940’s was the vice president in charge of artists and repertory, working with performers like Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Stan Kenton. In 1951, Conkling became president of Columbia Records, where he initiated the Columbia Record Club (now Columbia House) and helped introduce 12-inch long-playing records for popular music, which had previously been sold on singles and 10-inch EP’s. He kept the price under $4 an LP by convincing publishers to lower their royalties temporarily for songs on LP’s.
Conkling was instrumental in helping to build many other music industry staples. He helped organize and served as president of the Record Industry Assn. of America. In 1957, Conkling joined four other record executives to found the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys, and then became chairman of the academy. He built membership by selling discounted albums to members. ”Without Jim, there would have been no academy,” said the producer George Avakian, who worked with Conkling at Columbia. The Grammy’s MusiCares Division honored him in 1995 with a lifetime achievement award and staged a fund-raising dinner for Alzheimer’s research. In 1958, Conkling was asked by Jack Warner to create Warner Brothers Records. Conkling served as the company’s first president and signed such recording artists as Bob Newhart, the Everly Brothers, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Raitt, and Connie Stevens.
Conkling retired in 1961 at age 46 to devote his time to charity and public causes. He headed the Nat King Cole Cancer Foundation, was active in the NAACP, and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he served on the board of directors for its broadcast arm, Bonneville International Corp. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Conkling the director of the Voice of America, but Conkling resigned 10 months later after criticism that he was trying to tilt the broadcast service toward anti-Communist propaganda. In the late 1980’s, he visited China as a consultant to the Chinese recording industry. Conkling died April 12, 1998 at the Sutter Oaks Alzheimer’s Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., where he had been living. The cause was pneumonia and diabetes complications. He was 83. He is survived by his wife, five children, 23 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.