Independent Record Labels
by Pat Jacobs
In conjunction with regional sounds, many "indie" record labels
came to prominence during this decade. Some achieved lasting fame, becoming legendary. I
believe that when rock and roll was a rather new music genre, the major record labels of the time, such as
Columbia, Capitol, and RCA Victor, were reluctant to sign these acts; thus, sprung forth the independent
label. At least, that's my understanding of the situation.
Motown would probably be the most famous independent label during this time (and well beyond). But there were countless, numerous others; I'll
spotlight a few of them here:
Chess Records, based in Chicago, was run and owned by two Polish immigrant brothers, Leonard and Phil
Chess. It became one of the most important labels in rock-and-roll history,
renowned for its blues, rock, and R + B music.
Formerly known as Aristocrat Records, the two brothers brought a stake of the company in 1947. In
1950 they became sole owners and renamed it Chess Records. Muddy Waters,
Chuck Berry, Bo
Diddley, and Howlin'
Wolf have all recorded on this label.
Others included Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, The
Moonglows, Etta James, Minnie Riperton,and I believe, Billy Stewart and Jackie Ross.
Legend has it that The Rolling Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters album cut, "Rollin' Stone",
featured in The Best Of ..." that Mick Jagger owned.
Vee-Jay was owned by a black female DJ, Vivian Carter and her husband, James Bracken. The label was launched
in Gary, Indiana, in 1953, with the couple's first initials used for its name.
Vee-Jay quickly became a major R + B powerhouse; its first release made the top ten on the national R + B
charts. Before Motown, the company was the biggest black-owned record label of its day.
On the roster were Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim (again), John Lee Hooker, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler,
The Four Seasons, Betty Everett, Hoyt Axton, Little Richard (he re-recorded his
Specialty hits here in the early 1960s), and early Billy Preston.
There were also some jazz releases by Wynton Kelly, Lee Morgan, and Wayne Shorter. The jazz A + R
man was Sid McCoy, also a noted Chicago DJ.
This label's also famous for releasing early Beatles material before they caught on here.
Once the British Invasion took off, so did those early releases. (In early '64, 2.6 million
Beatle singles were sold in one month.)
There were cash flow problems, however, and in this year, August 1966, Vee-Jay filed for bankruptcy.
Imperial Records was established in either 1945 or 1947 (accounts vary) by Lew Chudd. In 1960 he also
purchased Aladdin and Minit Records. The Imperial roster included Fats
Domino and Ricky Nelson.
In 1963, Domino and Nelson left for other labels; Chudd then
sold Imperial to Liberty Records. Liberty then had success with Imperial holdover Irma Thomas,
Johnny Rivers, Jackie DeShannon, Classics IV (featuring Dennis Yost), and Cher.
During the British Invasion, Liberty's recordings were distributed by EMI in the
U.K. The label, in turn, licensed The Hollies, Billy J. Thomas and The Dakotas,
and The Swinging Blue Jeans, among others from EMI for release on Imperial.
By 1969, Imperial was phased out, with all artists
transferred to Liberty; EMI now owns the Imperial Records catalog.
Atlantic is a legend. It was founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun (son of a Turkish ambassador) and Herb
Abramson. Atlantic was originally a jazz and R + B label. In the early '50s, Jerry
Wexler (who became a producing legend himself) and Nesuhi Ertegun joined
the company. From 1955 Nesuhi headed the jazz division, bringing on board such talent as Charles
Mingus and John Coltrane.
Atlantic became a powerhouse during the '60s, as many mainstream artists, such as Sonny and Cher, were
signed. The company also begat several sub-labels (like Atco). From
1960-1968, Atlantic had a distribution deal with a record company in Memphis,
spearheaded by Jerry Wexler, which became Stax Records.
Atlantic's roster has included Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin (1968-1973), The Coasters (on
Atco), Crosby, Stills, and Nash (later Young), Dusty Springfield, The Rascals, Ruth Brown, Sticks McGhee,
and Wilson Pickett, among many others.
Atlantic's one of the few classic labels still operating today.
Specialty Records (formerly Juke Box Records) was the home of Little Richard, Larry Williams, and Guitar
Slim. It was launched in 1946 by Art Rupe (RN: Arthur Goldberg).
Scepter started in 1959 by Florence Greenberg. She also owned Tiara Records with an up- and-coming female
group, The Shirelles, and sold both for $4000 to Decca.
The group produced no hits for the label, so they were returned to Greenberg, who then signed them
to Scepter. By 1961 Greenberg launched the subsidiary, Wand Records.
In addition to the Shirelles, Scepter's lineup included Dionne Warwick and B.J. Thomas. Wand's
included Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown (I think).
King Records was based in Cincinnati, Ohio, started in 1943 by Sydney (Sid) Nathan. There were two
specialties-country music, at the time known as "hillbilly music". King's logo was "If it's a King,
It's a Hillbilly--If it's a Hillbilly, it's a King." The roster included Homer and Jethro, Grandpa Jones,
The Delmore Brothers, and more. There was also a "race records" label, Queen
In the 1950s, this genre outsold the country one, with such artists as Roy Brown, Otis Williams and The
Brown, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson (these two were distributed via sister label,
Aladdin's headquarters were in Hollywood, California. This label was formed in 1946 by brothers
Edward, Leo, and Ira Messner (0r Mesner) as Philo Records, then changed to its
better known name. Many Aladdin recordings were also made in New Orleans.
Label artists included Louis Jordan, Shirley and Lee, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, The Five Keys,
Lightin' Hopkins, Dave Bartholomew, Gene and Eunice, Thurston Harris, Johnny Ace, Charles Brown,
Cole, Billie Holiday, and many others.
Duke Records was launched in 1952 by David J. Mattis and Bill Fitzgerald; in 1953 Don Robey, a black
entrepreneur from Peacock Records, got control of it. The roster included Little
Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
Jules, Saul, Lester, and Joe Bihari (brothers) formed Modern Records in 1945. Throughout the '50s,
they also launched the subsidiaries of RPM, Flair, Meteor, Crown, Kent, and Yuletide
Records, which specialized in Christmas records.
Modern was a major R + B label, with Etta James, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Elmore James, and Lightin'
Hopkins (again) on its roster.
Sun Records was a legendary label started in 1952 by Sam Phillips. The label's original focus was R + B; Phillips
loved the genre and wanted to get black music recorded for a white audience.
He began signing and Sun became known for its roster of notable musicians such as
Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy
Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis (It was Sun producer and engineer
Jack Clement who discovered him while Phillips was away on a trip), and Johnny Cash. These and other Sun stars were very
influential in rock and roll and among many '60s stars, particularly The Beatles.
Reprise was formed in 1960 by Frank
Sinatra, who wanted more artistic freedom for his own recordings.
His fellow Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. also moved to the label. Comedian Redd Foxx also recorded for the label
during its early beginnings.
In 1963, Reprise was sold to Warner Brothers and treated as a sort of secondary parent label; many of
Warner's subsidiary labels have had their records released in conjunction with
Other Reprise artists have included Joni Mitchell and Nancy Sinatra. Like Atlantic,
Reprise is one of the few classic labels still operating today.
Brunswick Records has a long and varied history, going back to 1845! (The record producing and
manufacturing began in 1916-the early 1920s). By the 1950s, Brunswick was part of
the Decca family.
Decca decided to make Brunswick its rock and roll label, featuring artists like Buddy Holly. By the late '50s
and throughout the '60s, it was primarily used for R + B acts; Jackie Wilson was the label's only major star.
Wilson's manager, Nat Tarnopol, was (in 1957) a Brunswick executive and also had a 50% interest in the
label. In 1970, Tarnopol acquired the rest of Brunswick to settle disputes with
Decca management. (The Tarnopol family today claims ownership of label recordings since 1957.) Brunswick is currently run by president and CEO,
Paul Tarnopol, Nat's son.
Many of Brunswick's classic recordings were supervised by producer Carl Davis (who formed sister
label Dakar Records in 1967, first distributed by Atlantic, then by Brunswick in 1972).
The Brunswick and Dakar roster included Barbara Acklin, Tyrone Davis, The Chi-Lites, and Young-Holt
Apple may well have been the coolest record label to be on and work for. First, it was founded by none
other than The Beatles, the world's biggest and coolest group. And I understand that
Apple was often like being at a never ending hippie party (which was probably also why it had to be reconstructed).
Launched in 1968, Apple was distributed by EMI and Capitol Records until 1975; Apple owned the rights to
artists they signed, while EMI retained ownership of the Beatles' records.
From '68 onward, all the Beatle and the individual members' records were released
There was an eclectic roster of artists, covering the genres of rock, pop, experimental, Indian
(East), classical, and even jazz: Badfinger, Mary Hopkin, Billy Preston, Ronnie Spector, James Taylor,
Plastic Ono Band, Wings, Hot Chocolate, and Doris Troy, among others.
Did you know that there was a subsidiary of Apple, called Zapple Records? it was run by Barry Miles, a
friend of Paul McCartney's and was intended as an outlet for spoken word and avant-garde records. It was
active from October 1968 to June 1969, and only two albums were released on this label,
"Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and "Electronic Sound" by George Harrison.
Dunhill Records was started by Lou Adler, Al Bennett, Pierre Cossette, and Bobby Roberts in 1964 as
Dunhill Productions, basically for releasing Johnny Rivers records on Imperial.
Dunhill became a record label in 1965, distributed by ABC Records in this
year, 1966, thus creating ABC Dunhill Records. (Adler later started Ode Records.) Some notable artists here were Barry McGuire, The
Mamas and The Papas, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, The Grass Roots, and The James Gang.
Cameo and its sister label Parkway were based in Philadelphia. Cameo was founded in Dec. 1956, Parkway
in 1958, by Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann. Dave Appell joined early on as A + R director.
The roster included Charlie Grace (Cameo's first hit, "Butterfly", a no. 1 smash in early '57), The
Rays, The Applejacks, Bobby Rydell (Cameo's second biggest hitmaker), Chubby Checker
(the no. 1 artist here), The Dovells, The Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp, The Tymes, ? and The Mysterians, The Ohio Express, and an
early Bob Seger!
Between 1957 and 1966, Cameo-Parkway released 449 45 rpm singles and 158 albums.
Stax was the alternative, in a sense, to Motown. Motown strived for and achieved crossover appeal with
its sound and artists. Stax aimed for a grittier, more bluesy, funky, Southern, or "blacker" sound. While not as popular as Motown,
Stax still acquired a mainstream fan base in addition to its core
Unlike Motown, Stax was founded by a white brother and sister team, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (who
were both into country music) in 1957 or '58 (The company's original name
was Satellite Records. In 1961, as the label began to take off, Stewart became aware
of another record company called Satellite. To avoid litigation, the label name was changed to
Stax-ST for Stewart, AX from Axton.)
The artist roster soon included The Mar-Keys, Booker T. and The MGs, Otis
Redding, William Bell,
Eddie Floyd, The Mad Lads, Sam and Dave, and the producing/songwriting duo Issac Hayes and David
Porter, among others.
And there were countless other indie labels across the U.S. While some achieved national success (and
international success, in some cases), many were just a regional/statewide success. In my opinion, they ALL
played an important part in '60s music and rock-and-roll history.
more articles by Pat