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Record Makers and Breakers

Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers

John Broven
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 640
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  • Book Info
    Record Makers and Breakers
    Book Description:

    This volume is an engaging and exceptional history of the independent rock 'n' roll record industry from its raw regional beginnings in the 1940s with R & B and hillbilly music through its peak in the 1950s and decline in the 1960s. John Broven combines narrative history with extensive oral history material from numerous recording pioneers including Joe Bihari of Modern Records; Marshall Chess of Chess Records; Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, and Miriam Bienstock of Atlantic Records; Sam Phillips of Sun Records; Art Rupe of Specialty Records; and many more.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09401-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    ʺHymie, my goombah, you are a survivor. A connoisseur of the street, the jobbers, the hustlers, the syndicators and backbiters, the unknown stockroom, the chargeback, the freebie, the cut-rate studio; platonic ideal of the indomitable underfinanced indie, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of insolvency time and again.ʺ

    That tribute came from Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records, on the fiftieth anniversary of Hy Weissʹs Old Town Records in 2003.¹ It would be hard to find a more whimsical yet affectionate description of a hustling old-time record man. Hy Weiss and Jerry Wexler were contemporaries in one sense, but in many other...

  6. PART 1: The Independent Revolution

    • CHAPTER 1 We’re Rolling—Take One!
      (pp. 9-20)

      ʺThe first ballot of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was back in 1985,ʺ said industry leader Seymour Stein.

      To qualify for induction, you had to have had a record released twenty-five years before. That meant we backtracked to activity before 1960. The final ballot had forty-one names on it, and thirty-nine of them started their careers on an independent label.

      There were two exceptions: Gene Vincent on Capitol . . . didnʹt get in the first year, but he was on the ballot. Then there was Buddy Holly, who was inducted and whose first solo effort was on...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Super Indies
      (pp. 21-32)

      A gradual buildup in the independent record business had been under way during the early 1940s despite the desperate circumstances affecting the music industry. The shining beacon was Capitol Records, yet the label had to overcome the worst possible timing of its launch. In April 1942, a mere fifteen days after Capitol had pressed its first discs, the War Production Board ordered a draconian 70 percent reduction in the available shellac stock. The recording strike by the American Federation of Musicians, just three months later, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.

      As it happened, the Capitol founders...

    • CHAPTER 3 California Booming
      (pp. 33-52)

      By 1945, California was booming due to a confluence of factors. The United States was patently winning World War II, and the defense, film, and agricultural industries were prospering in the triumphant economy. To offset the wartime manpower shortages, the state was attracting migrant workers of different races from all over, especially from Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Many of these new arrivals wanted their own music from ʺdown home.ʺ There was a genuine feel-good atmosphere in the Golden State, first under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then President Harry S. Truman. In this intoxicating environment, California was a critical base...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 4 New York: Big City and Little Tiffany
      (pp. 53-72)

      Jerome Felder, known professionally as Doc Pomus, was an ardent admirer and advocate of the effervescent New York music scene throughout his lifetime. A unique man who overcame the terrible affliction of polio, he started out as a Jewish blues shouter in the 1940s and emerged as a noted writer of teen songs in the rock ʹnʹ roll age. In 1958, he had the briefest of flirtations with label ownership when he formed R n B Records with Fred Huckman, resulting in the release of ʺKiss and Make Upʺ by the Crowns. The nucleus of this group, including Ben E....

    • CHAPTER 5 The Battle of the Speeds and Golden Records’ Seeds
      (pp. 73-90)

      In the late 1930s, New York was attracting an army of talented musicians by way of job opportunities in radio, theater, nightclubs, and recording. The cityʹs reputation as an enlightened music capital was endorsed by a host of liberal, highly articulate young jazz fans including Herb and Miriam Abramson, George Avakian, Milt Gabler, John Hammond, Orrin Keepnews, Alfred Lion, Bob Thiele, Jerry Wexler, and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, whenever up from Washington. These aficionadosʹ favorite hangouts were the Commodore Music Shop, owned by Milt Gablerʹs father on East Forty-second Street, and Steve Smithʹs Hot Record Society record store on Seventh...

  7. PART 2: Regional Sounds

    • CHAPTER 6 Riding the Nashville Airwaves
      (pp. 93-115)

      Radio was a key element in the growth of independent labels from regional to national entities and was eagerly targeted by the more enterprising record men and their distributors. Without radio spins, a record had little chance; it was as simple as that. This led seamlessly to the rise of the personality disc jockey and to payola—the ʺpay for playʺ scam.

      Enter Alan Freed: After arriving from Cleveland, Ohio, as the Moondog in 1954, he felt at home in the New York music community (especially with his fellow Russian-Jewish descendants). Having popularized the term ʺrock ʹnʹ roll,ʺ he conspired...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Chess Game
      (pp. 116-130)

      Leonard Chess was the dynamo behind Chess Records, the label that, along with Atlantic and Sun, has come to epitomize the independent record business. His legacy is seen in the enduring, diverse work of his main artists Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlinʹ Wolf, the Moonglows, Ahmad Jamal, and Ramsey Lewis. Leonard Chess set new standards for the industry in artist development, deal making, networking, and marketing and promotion and in his surreal sharpness. Hardly a surprise, then, that he burned himself out at the unbelievably young age of fifty-two in 1969. Just as tragically,...

    • CHAPTER 8 King of Them All
      (pp. 131-148)

      For any record collector visiting Cincinnati, Ohio, there was always one essential pilgrimage to make: to the site of the old King Records factory complex in the Evanston neighborhood. I could almost smell the history as I walked around the exterior of the 9,000–square foot edifice, once an ice plant. The section where the recording studio was housed was still visible into the twenty-first century, while by the parking lot ran a small creek where guitarist Jimmy Nolen used to smoke joints in between James Brown sessions.

      Here was where blues and R&B stars such as Wynonie Harris, Little...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 9 Behind the Southern Sun
      (pp. 149-165)

      The Sun Records story is yet another that has been honored and dissected many times.¹ Sam Phillips has earned forever his celebrity in rock ʹnʹ roll history as the inspiring Memphis record man behind Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and a slew of rockabillies—even Roy Orbison, fleetingly. And if that were not enough, Phillips merits a place in the upper pantheon for his mythlike debut recordings of Rosco Gordon, Howlinʹ Wolf, and Ike Turner. One of the first artists to record at Phillipsʹs new Memphis Recording and Sound Service studio at 706 Union Avenue in...

    • CHAPTER 10 Louisiana Gumbo
      (pp. 166-184)

      Down in South Louisiana, a bevy of record men were able to tap into the rich cultural heritage of Cajun land and New Orleans. There, J. D.ʺJayʺ Miller, Eddie Shuler, and Cosimo Matassa had started out at the dawn of the independent record era, when the jukebox operators were calling all the shots. Others such as Floyd Soileau and Sam Montalbano joined the fray in the late 1950s, just as the Cajun teenagers were formulating an indigenous swamp pop style (influenced directly by Fats Domino and abetted by the lilt of bluesman Jimmy Reed with the heartbreak soul of Hank...

  8. PART 3: The Hustle Is On

    • CHAPTER 11 Billboard and Cash Box: Stars and Bullets
      (pp. 187-207)

      BillboardandCash Boxwere integral pillars of the independent record era. These trade papers were, effectively, the support force of rock ʹnʹ roll by supplying chart data and record reviews, feeding news stories, and providing vital advertising platforms. In a fast-moving music industry, the weekly arrival of these journals was awaited eagerly throughout the country by the music establishment and indie hustlers alike. Essentially,Billboardwas the elitist organ patronized by the major labels, whereasCash Boxwas the young upstart endorsed by the independent labels.Billboardsurvives to this day.

      Billboard Advertisingwas founded in 1894 by William...

    • CHAPTER 12 A-Hustle and A-Scuffle at Old Town
      (pp. 208-230)

      Hy Weiss came into my life by accident. In May 1993, I had arranged to meet Shelley Galehouse to discuss the licensing of her fatherʹs masters of the Wailers on the Golden Crest label on behalf of Ace Records of London. In particular, I was looking to land ʺTall Cool One,ʺ a double Top 40 hit (in 1959 and 1964) for Aceʹs prestigiousGolden Age of American Rock ʹnʹ Rollseries. The meeting was set up at the Country Kitchen restaurant in picture-postcard Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, near Shelleyʹs family home.

      I had no idea that Hy Weiss, of...

    • CHAPTER 13 Mercury Rising and the Roulette Wheel
      (pp. 231-253)

      In the monochrome culture of the early 1950s, the better-managed pioneering independent labels were adding welcome color to the musical landscape because they had the energized rhythm and blues sector more or less to themselves. R&B music was evolving into a catchall term covering everything from raw gutbucket blues and cool after-hours sounds to booting sax-led band blasters, rhythmic novelties, slinky instrumentals, and melodic doo-wop ballads.

      Attracted by annual sales spikes of up to 40 percent, new indie entrants were popping all the time. By 1953, there were around one hundred active labels, yet the market share for rhythm and...

    • CHAPTER 14 Tin Pan Alley and Beyond
      (pp. 254-276)

      It is easy to understand a favorite refrain of the music publishing fraternity: ʺThere is nothing better than earning a fortune while you sleep—like from a good song.ʺ By the mid-1950s, the music publishersʹ cozy world of sheet music sales, song plugging, and royalty collections was under threat from the new order being created by the lively independent labels. The ongoing trench warfare between upstart BMI and blue-blooded ASCAP, which in a sense climaxed in the congressional payola hearings, was evidence of that battle. Was the answer to fight rock ʹnʹ roll or to join the revolution?

      ʺOf course,...

    • CHAPTER 15 Hillbilly Boogie
      (pp. 277-296)

      By the early 1940s, through regular exposure on Nashvilleʹs national barn dance on Radio WSM, theGrand Ole Opry, country acts such as Roy Acuff (OKeh) and Ernest Tubb (Decca) were selling millions of records. The powerful Texas-Mexico border stations were important factors in the spread of hillbilly music, too. Another catalyst was the broadcastersʹ block on ASCAP-protected songs in 1941 that led to top pop acts like Bing Crosby recording BMI country songs such as ʺYou Are My Sunshineʺ (accredited to Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis) and Al Dexterʹs ʺPistol Packinʹ Mama.ʺ Through necessity, therefore, tuneful, well-written country songs were...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 16 West Coast Rockin’ and Rollin’
      (pp. 297-318)

      Out west in California, a handful of the original indie labels from the ʺ78 eraʺ were nicely established by the mid-1950s, namely Aladdin, Imperial, Modern, and Specialty. There had been a few important 1940s casualties along the way, such as Exclusive, Excelsior, ARA, and Black & White, felled by a dearth of hits and changing trends coupled with over-expansionistic ideals.

      From 1950 on, R&B newcomers popped up, including Swing Time (Jack Lauderdale, Franklin Kort), Recorded in Hollywood (John Dolphin), Combo (Jake Porter), and Dootone (Dootsie Williams). In the pop field, there was Era (Herb Newman, Lou Bedell) and Liberty (Si Waronker),...

    • CHAPTER 17 From Motown to Manhattan: In Almost Perfect Harmony
      (pp. 319-340)

      It was always a privilege to be in the company of Roquel ʺBillyʺ Davis. Forever warm and welcoming, with a constant chuckle, he had an intelligence level that was inspiring. Over lunch or in front of a tape recorder, he was always willing to talk about his many accomplishments in the music business but with a disarming modesty. Could this natural humility be a plausible reason why most history books have not properly conveyed his integral role in preparing the groundwork for Tamla-Motown Records with Berry Gordy?

      Billy Davis learned his trade as apprentice to four record men: Joe Battle,...

    • CHAPTER 18 Harlem Hotshots and the Black Experience
      (pp. 341-357)

      In May 2005, Bobby Robinson, still located in his beloved Harlem, had just turned eighty-eight. Sporting a fetching straw boater hat perched on the gray locks that flowed to his shoulders, he was wearing a bright red jacket, multicolored waistcoat, and white pants with bright red shoes. Here he was all show, relishing in his celebrity asthelocal record man as we meandered down 125th Street for lunch at Sylviaʹs soul food restaurant on Lenox Avenue. Walking past the Apollo Theatre, still in business, Bobby remembered ʺthe great music, the entertainment, and the jokes.ʺ Hotel Theresa, where all the...

    • CHAPTER 19 On and Off Broadway
      (pp. 358-378)

      Back in late 1956, with the rock ʹnʹ roll age approaching full bloom, young teen Donn Fileti harangued his father into taking him on a selective tour of the offices of the independent labels in New York. His memories of the trip provide a unique firsthand account of the indie environment of the time from the perspective of a record collector, record researcher, and future record man. It is fair to say that most original record men did not understand the collectorsʹ sensibility toward the music business and the romantic aura surrounding it. After all, business is business, and business...

    • CHAPTER 20 Gold Coast Platters and Stock Matters
      (pp. 379-394)

      Famed for its Gold Coast as portrayed in F. Scott FitzgeraldʹsThe Great Gatsbyand as the setting for the original suburban dream, Long Island was home to record men Jerry Blaine, Archie Bleyer, Joe Carlton, Bob Shad, Al Silver, Mike Stoller, and Jerry Wexler. ʺWe smell the same sea breeze!ʺ exclaimed Hy Weiss, another noted resident. Nestled off the South Shore is Fire Island, which was the summer playground (long before the Hamptons took over that role) where high-flyers Ahmet Ertegun, Wexler again, and Arthur Shimkin used to party with the Atlantic (the ocean, that is) rolling in.


  9. PART 4: Rock ’n’ Roll Is Here to Stay

    • CHAPTER 21 The London American Group: Rockin’ around the World
      (pp. 397-414)

      In licensing thousands of independent masters for distribution throughout the world, London American Records was the international messenger of rock ʹnʹ roll. Here was the global marketplace in operation years ahead of its time. The New York office of the parent company, Decca Records of London, England, was the conduit for a raft of deals with the indie record men.

      The artists indebted to the London American division for their initial exposure on the world stage make up a ʺWhoʹs Who of Rock ʹnʹ Rollʺ in its many guises. Elvis Presley was one of the few headline acts missing. Even...

    • CHAPTER 22 Teen Scene
      (pp. 415-438)

      By the late 1950s, heavy rock ʹnʹ roll, mixing the harsher elements of R&B with testosterone-laden rockabilly, had seen its best days. Or so it seemed. Even Sun Recordsʹ Sam Phillips was talking about rock ʹnʹ roll in the past tense. He was paraphrased byBillboardin May 1959 as saying, ʺPerhaps never again will pop music be so dominated by a single style of sound. But the kids ʹgot tired of the ruckusʹ and we are moving into a period of greater variety in taste.ʺ The story noted that ʺthe explosive trend put music on equal terms economically with...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 23 Corporate Takeover and Talent Makeover
      (pp. 439-453)

      The entrance of ABC-Paramount Records in November 1955 was another indication that the big corporations were waking up to the growth potential in the record market, to the general detriment and ultimate demise of the original stand-alone independents. This intriguing label was an offshoot of the national network American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Paramount Theatres, which had been merged in February 1953 under the inspired leadership of Leonard Goldenson (who saw television as the golden prize). Paramount Theatres itself had been spun off from Paramount Pictures in 1949 following federal antitrust activity over theater-chain monopolies.

      In the record stakes, ABC...

    • CHAPTER 24 The Payola Scandal and Changing Times
      (pp. 454-471)

      All hell broke loose at that never-to-be-forgotten 1959 Miami disc jockey convention, held May 28–31 and sponsored by chain broadcaster Storz Radio headed by Todd Storz. Laboring under the name of the Second Annual International Radio Programming Seminar and Pop Music Disk Jockey Convention, everybody seemed to be there. It was as if the indie record men and women were having a last hurrah with their radio brethren. The new order, which had only just been constituted, was about to be overturned irrevocably.

      Stop the presses! With a dateline of May 31, theMiami Newscarried a front-page story...

    • CHAPTER 25 End of Session: Art Rupe’s New Rules at Specialty Records
      (pp. 472-480)

      In the mid-1950s, Art Rupe wrote up the equivalent of a staff instruction manual based on his personal experiences in the ʺschool of hard knocks.ʺ Viewed as a whole, these documents represent priceless insights into the modus operandi of the independent record makers from a faded era through one of its leading practitioners.

      The idea came to Rupe when he appointed Johnny Vincent, often a loose cannon, as his southern representative in the spring of 1953. Vincent, who sold his year-old Champion Records to Rupe at the same time, was already acquainted with the region through his posts as salesman...

  10. PART 5: Appendixes

    • Appendix A: U.S. Record Sales, 1921–69
      (pp. 483-485)
    • Appendix B: Independent Record Distributors’ Network: 1946–48, 1954, 1960
      (pp. 487-490)
    • Appendix C: Pressing Plants, 1946
      (pp. 491-492)
    • Appendix D: Original Postwar Record Labels: Locations, Launch Dates, and Current Owners
      (pp. 493-495)
    • Appendix E: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Record Men Inductees, 1986–2008
      (pp. 496-497)
    • Appendix F: Record Makers: Biographical Data (Selective)
      (pp. 498-503)
    • Appendix G: Oral History
      (pp. 504-508)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 509-544)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 545-556)
  13. Index
    (pp. 557-584)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 585-592)