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IN THE BEGINNING
Specialty Records, throughout its recording history, was owned and operated by one man known by the rather unique name of Art Rupe. Oneman operations were not uncommon in the record business. Call them dictatorships, often benign dictatorships, sometimes not so benign. Men like Syd Nathan, Herman Lubinsky, Leon Rene, Sam Phillips, George Goldner, Don Robey, Lew Chudd and the one man-est of them all, Hy Weiss. What was unusual was that Specialty was owned by one man for over forty years, until the label's sale to Fantasy Records in 1990.
So, who was this "one man" who presided over this little company that created some very big stars?
Rupe was born Arthur Newton Goldberg on September 5, 1917, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a small city near Pittsburgh. In 1917, the population of Greensburg was roughly 14,000 people. After peaking in 1980 at 17,588, it is today back to what it was at Rupe's birth, signifying an economic decline all too common to many cities and towns in the Midwestern part of the United States.
His parents, David and Anna, were lower-middle class Eastern European Jews. Art says "poor." David, born in Galicia in Poland, was a furniture salesman, and Anna, born in Pittsburgh, was a homemaker who loved music and instilled this love in her son. Arthur had two brothers, Manny and Oscar-Phillip (Phil), and one sister, Rose.
Early on, David moved his family to McKeesport, twelve miles south of Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers intersect. At the time the population was around 42,000, peaking in 1940 at roughly 55,000. Today, it is down to less than 20,000, due mostly to the decline in the region's steel industry. Art graduated from McKeesport High School in 1935.
Once he became successful, Art helped his brothers become record distributors — Manny, as proprietor of Mangold Distribution Co. in Baltimore, Maryland, and Phil and his partner, Art's brother-in-law, Herbert Weisman, as owners of Bertos Record Distributors in Charlotte, North Carolina. Manny briefly operated a small record label, Marshall Records — very small and very briefly — with a roster of but two artists, the Twilighters and the Golden Lights Quintet.
The Goldberg family lived in a mixed-race neighborhood, and Art recalls being drawn to the sounds of black religious music as a youngster. On Sunday mornings, he would sit on the curb of a local Baptist church, loving the sounds he heard coming through the cracks in the doors, "Not for the religion, I'm a secular humanist, but for the soul I could feel when they sang. This stuck with me, years later, when I began to record the gospel groups."
Here, Rupe is being unnecessarily humble. He assembled more of the gospel greats under one roof than any other record company, starting with the Pilgrim Travelers and including the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke, Brother Joe May, Alex Bradford, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Sister Wynona Carr, the Swan Silvertones, and Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes.
He also had a love for showbusiness, especially the circus. For a while, as a kid, he worked in a carnival, doing whatever needed to be done, from working the sideshow attractions to cleaning up after the animals.
After attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, thirty-five miles north of Cincinnati, Art set out with two friends in July 1939 for Hollywood in, as he would later write, "a vintage Pontiac (old, even then) and a trailer acquired for thirty-five dollars for the trip. The car broke down in Missouri, and we were broke by then."
Rupe and his traveling companions, Ed Wepman and Bernard Moseson, were at their wits' end, "selling things out of the car trunk to survive. As luck would have it, a carnival was in town. Drawing on my carnival experience, we were able to join it. We all survived, and I became the group's hero."
After settling in Los Angeles and earning a bachelor's degree at UCLA and working toward but not completing a master's, he set about finding a place for himself in the entertainment industry. His first choice was the movies, hoping to be a screenwriter or in radio. But he found that end of the business "too clubby" and difficult to crack.
Being a very methodical person, however, he reasoned that the independent record business, at that time just a cottage industry, might be more open to newcomers, "especially a certain green kid who had a few hundred dollars to invest."
Following up on a newspaper ad placed by Robert Scherman seeking partners for a new record company, Atlas Records, Art Goldberg met and joined Scherman in 1944. Now with the more showbizzy name of Rupe, he quickly learned now not to run a record company. Atlas holds the dubious distinction of simultaneously having had under contract Frankie Laine, Nat "King" Cole, and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers featuring Charles Brown. "How do you manage to have three major talents like that and not be able to cut one hit between them?" recalled Art, years later.
He used his time at Atlas as a learning experience. Not having access to pressing plants and wanting to learn all aspects of the business, he climbed fire escapes late at night, peeping into the windows to see how a plant operated.
During this period, the major labels in Hollywood — Columbia, Decca, RCA Victor, and, after 1942, Capitol — began to trim their rosters and drop all but their best-selling pop acts. Decca A&R man Milt Gabler, recalled being forced to choose between keeping Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five or the King Cole Trio, reluctantly dropping Nat "King" Cole, who would go on to a tremendous career as Capitol's greatest star. All this created a vacuum for entrepreneurs willing to concentrate on the more marginal ethnic and specialty forms of music, such as jazz, hillbilly, and "race music," as the black vernacular music was called at the time.
"I looked for an area neglected by the majors and, in essence, took the crumbs off the table of the record industry," he recalled.
A plethora of small indies sprouted up around this time, including Savoy, National, Exclusive, Aladdin, Modern, Blue Note, Apollo, King, and, right after the war, Mercury, Atlantic, Chess, and Imperial. All of these became Rupe's (usually) friendly rivals. Some continued and grew into majors themselves, while others eventually fell by the wayside, unable to ride the tides of change.
From his experience with Atlas, Art came to realize that it was foolhardy to attempt to compete with the majors on their own turf. Capitol had gone into business well funded by an investment from Paramount Pictures' head of production, Buddy De Sylva, and record store owner, Glenn Wallichs, along with Johnny Mercer's reputation as a hit songwriter, but all Rupe had was a few hundred dollars to his name.
With an affinity for jazz and blues, he took two hundred of his last six hundred dollars and went down to Central Avenue, then the main stem of the city's black part of town, and bought all the race records of the day, the hits and the misses, to determine, in his methodical way, why some were hits and others were not.
"I made an analysis of what went into a record, technically and musically, and I dissected them. I used a stopwatch, counted the number of bars, the balance, the tempo. I used a metronome," he remembered. "I established a set of rules or principles which I felt would enable me to make commercial records. Some of this music moved me so much, it brought tears to my eyes."
His next step was "to find some talent." He scoured the after-hours clubs and found a small group suited to his limited budget: the Sepia Tones, a quartet composed of Paul Howard, clarinet and tenor sax; Nina Russell, organ; Mata Roy, piano; and George Vann, drums.
During his market research, he noticed that an inordinate number of successful records had the word boogie in the title. He also observed that many jukebox operators, who were the biggest customers for these race records, also acted as wholesalers for the small, independent record companies. "In the early years," he said, "jukeboxes accounted for more than 50 percent of our sales."
Thus, he decided to call his new label Juke Box Records, and his first release, by the Sepia Tones, was "Boogie #1."
"They had these places called mail-and-desk services that would answer the phone for you. I'd rent a desk, with a cigar box for my mail, all for two dollars a month. And that was the first home of Juke Box Records, down on 2719 7th Street."
Money was so tight that he engaged a man next door to his "office" to design his Juke Box label for the bargain price of six dollars.
Besides a lack of financing, the independent record men of the war years had to scuffle to find ways to get their records pressed. Prior to the era of vinyl, 78-rpm discs were made from shellac. Due to World War II, there were shortages of this material, most of which came from Asia. Plants were given allotments, and they parceled out the precious substance to the small, independent companies according to who paid their bills on time. One ally was Allied Pressing in Los Angeles. "We'd wait in line. If they had any scraps of shellac left over, they would pass it out to an independent like [Leon] Rene [of Exclusive Records] or me. They would ration their production. When they couldn't get enough shellac, they'd press from ground-up old records."
In time, Rupe would own two pressing plants. "The first," he recalled, "was during my Juke Box years when [Eli] Oberstein and [Al] Middleman joined me and was located in the downtown Los Angeles area. The second was in Hollywood. We pressed only our own records and opened the plants because the industry couldn't meet the demand of the growing market. We were small. We had no more than ten or fifteen presses."
Despite problems getting records pressed, "Boogie #1" managed to sell close to 70,000 copies, providing Art with working capital with which he was able to record three more artists: Marion Abernathy, whom he dubbed "The Blues Woman," backed by the Buddy Banks Sextet; noted singing pianist Roosevelt Sykes, renamed "The Blues Man"; and Roy Milton and his Solid Senders.
"In the process, I had to learn advertising, promotion, and distribution. Distribution in those days mainly consisted of grocery stores, drug stores, and furniture stores. My first big sale, 500 copies, was to Gold's Furniture in South Central, near the musicians' union on Central Avenue," he recalled. "I could've sold a lot more than 70,000 if I'd had distribution. All we had was California, Illinois, and New York."
At the time, there were two separate union locals in Los Angeles: Local 47 for the white musicians and Local 767 for Negro musicians. This would eventually change, largely through the efforts of arranger Marl Young and saxophonist Buddy Collette, enabling them and other black players to find work in the lucrative field of film soundtracks, as well as record dates for the mainstream pop stars.
But Art Rupe had proven to himself that he could make a record that sold a significant amount. Now all he had to do was make that all-important follow-up.CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST HITS
Two of the three new artist signings resulted in hits in the spring of 1946, a batting average better than DiMaggio's. "Voo-it! Voo-it!" by the Blues Woman reached number four on the Billboard chart, as did "Milton's Boogie" by Roy Milton. Roosevelt Sykes, despite having been a prolific record seller since the 1930s, didn't do as well under his new nom du disc, the Blues Man.
Knowing next to nothing about the business end of the music industry, Art took on a partner. "I kept two-thirds and gave Ben Seigel one-third because, as a sales rep, he knew how to sell the records. Ben went with Middleman [when Juke Box disbanded]. He told me, 'I don't think you're gonna make it.'"
With a couple of hits under his belt, Rupe had found new partners eager to join him. Al Middleman, who with Eli Oberstein had co-owned the Hit label, made a deal with Rupe whereby Middleman and Art would be partners in both Art's Juke Box label and Middleman's Sterling label.
According to an article in the August 10, 1946 issue of Billboard magazine, "Dissension [was] said to have come about when Rupe called for a count of the firm's take."
The article continued: "Confusing the situation were Rupe's remarks that Eli Oberstein, current recording talent chief for Victor Records, was part of Juke Box-Sterling Records, along with Middleman and himself ... It was generally thought in the trade that the Middleman–Oberstein partnership had ended."
Indeed, Victor would certainly have looked upon Oberstein's partnership in the smaller company as a conflict of interest, and Rupe, thinking he was getting one partner, could not have been pleased at finding himself with a second.
Already, Art was developing definite ideas about how records should sound. Recalling his youthful brashness, he told me, "I went to RCA recording sessions with him and I'd say, 'Mister Oberstein, you gotta bring out the guitar more' — and he did it! I was just a kid."
In April of 1946, Roy's second record, "R. M. Blues," began a twenty-five-week chart run, eventually winding up at number two on the race chart and number twenty on pop, something that very few black acts of the time, other than Louis Jordan and the King Cole Trio, had accomplished.
The Juke Box–Sterling arrangement went sour, and Rupe, according to the Billboard piece, "sold out his entire interest to Middleman. Rupe keeps a batch of masters in the deal which he will turn out under a new label called Specialty. Masters which Rupe will take with him into his new set-up include sides by the Sepia Tones, the Blues Man, the Blues Woman, Buddy Banks and Roy Milton orks [sic]."
"I had these masters, and I didn't know what do to," Art remembered. "I was going around, talking to Jules Bihari [of Modern Records]. I thought maybe he'd give me a job recording. See, I wasn't really interested in business; I wanted to be a recording guy. He said, 'You've got these masters. Why don't you go into business on your own?' I've never had a partner since."
Reluctantly, he went about the process of becoming a businessman. "The distribution, contacts, the record promotion — these were all things I had to do to get my kicks being in the studio, recording."
He took out an ad in the same issue (giving Specialty's first address as 2719 W. 7th Street, Los Angeles 5, California), stating that the sides were "now the sole and exclusive property of Specialty Records." And so ended Art Rupe's attempt at having partners.
Sterling went on to become primarily known as the first label to release records by Hank Williams, only to lose him to MGM, and Specialty was to begin an association with Roy Milton that would result in nineteen Top 10 records over the next several years.
Asked how he came up with the name for his company, Art recalled, "When I started Specialty, I was on my butt. I wanted to specialize, and I was naïve enough to think that after I got established, I'd change it to a 'better' name."
During the shakeup at Juke Box, Roy and his manager, Ben Waller, had become disenchanted with the label and left. With a local deejay, record shop owner, and pressing plant operator named Forest "War" Perkins, the three started up Miltone, a label at first mainly dedicated to recording and releasing Milton material. Each label featured wonderful cartoons by the black illustrator William "Alex" Alexander that have since become major collectors' items.
Regarding Miltone, Art stated, "They were successful in getting it off the ground. They just copied, rerecorded the Specialty hits, which further reduced the value of what I had. The way Perkins got Ben Waller and Roy to go with him was, he said, 'Why do you want to let these white boys cheat you? Give us a chance' ... to cheat you. Perkins absconded with the loot and wound up in the Philippines and here's Roy Milton, a little sadder but wiser. That's when he came back to me."
One of Rupe's arguments to get Roy to return was that, when distributors were unable to get copies of Milton's Miltone record of "Rainy Day Blues," Art cut a cover version in Chicago by Jump Jackson which, although admittedly inferior, outsold the Milton original due to Specialty's superior ability at marketing his product.
Perkins, a bit of a shady character, caused Roy and Ben to become suspicious at royalty time. Inability to properly service accounts put them out of business eventually. In February 1951, Billboard reported Perkins's death in the Philippines from "unknown causes."
Roy and his band fit with Rupe's idea to record a small combo in a way that would approximate the sound of Lucky Millinder's band, at the time a big draw among black audiences.
"I really liked the big bands, Lucky Millinder, Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and those people," he recalled. "I did the smaller groups because I didn't have any money."
Improved studio techniques, as well as the use of simple, Basie-styled riffs from the horn section, enabled Rupe to realize his idea.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rip It Up"
Copyright © 2019 Billy Vera.
Excerpted by permission of BMG Books.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Art Rupe,
1 In the Beginning,
2 The First Hits,
3 The Real First Rock and Roll Record,
4 The Spirit's in the Building,
5 Pink Champagne,
6 Stirring It up with Sam,
7 The Poet of the Blues,
8 Taking It to Church,
9 Tough Blues,
11 Good Help Is Hard to Find,
12 Bumps in the Road,
13 What Is a Star?,
14 The King and Queen,
15 Bumps, Bono, and Battiste,
16 That Bad Boy,
17 White Boy Rock and Roll,
18 The Doo and the Wop,
19 Jazz, Country and Red Vinyl,
20 Rock and Roll Revival,