The Independent Record Labels of the 1950’s and 1960’s
History of Music Production
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, a wave of new musical movements by independent record labels and new artists emerged in the United States. This movement is captured in the stories of those label creators and owners, and in the turbulent journey through their successes and failures. The first emergence was fueled by multiple factors: competitive economic circumstances, up-and-coming local musical talent in conjunction with the independent labels and studio owners, and the commercially viable musical interest and curiosity of consumers in these local artists. An article poses another causative factor that makes sense: when rock and roll was a new genre, major labels such as Columbia, Capitol, and RCA were “reluctant to sign these acts; thus, sprung forth the independent label” (Jacobs).
Grassroots production and engineering enthusiasts were given an in-road into the music industry and were able to gain their own clients in independent local artists. Independent label owners in connection with this local talent generate publicity and profit. One such example is found with the duo of Polish immigrant brothers named Leonard and Phil Chess, also known as the Blues Brothers. The Chess brothers bought sole ownership of Aristocrat Records in 1950, and change its name to Chess Records. Leonard specialized as the hands-on producer for the label, while Phil focused on finances and marketing. They found a signature sound in the electric guitar of Muddy Waters. Besides Muddy Watters, their rostser included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Nixon, Etta James, Little Walter, Billie Stewart, and Howlin’ Wolf.’ Chapter Three of the History of Music Production Binder states:
Chess Records flourished in those early days of both Rhythm and Blues and independent record companies…Chess, along with Atlantic, Aladdin, Specialty, Imperial, Modern and King were giving the public music that they couldn’t get from the larger, established, “major” record companies. (page 47)
This quote explains that there was a multitude of independent record labels that emerged around this time. How did all of these homemade labels gain bearings? They were allowed financial success because there was actually a public commercial market to invest in their musical productions. In other words, there was a significant number of people were looking for a different sound and these labels could produce local talents that had the sound these consumers were looking and listening for.
One of the independent labels mentioned in the quote above is Imperial Records. Founded in the late 40’s by Lew Chudd, its roster include Ricky Nelson and Fats Nelson. Chudd ended up purchasing Aladdin and Minit Records in 1960. In ’63, however, Domino and Nelson left for other labels and Chudd sold Imperial to Liberty Records. Liberty found success with the Imperial artists Irma Thomas, Johnny Rivers, Jacky DeShanon, and Cher. (‘Independent Record Labels’) During the time known as the ‘British Invasion’ which I go into depth about later in the paper, Liberty’s recordings were distributed by EMI in Britain. In turn, EMI licensed its artists The Hollies, Billy J. Thomas and The Sakotas, and others to be released on Imperial. By 1969, Imperial records had been phased out and all artists were absorbed by Liberty. Today EMI owns the Imperial Records Catalog.
The Memphis Recording Service, which became Sun Studios, was owned by Sam Philips. Philips was a local blues and country disc jockey whose business had been mainly comprised of recording local blues and country musicians and some weddings. He started by recording artists who were signed under other independent labels, and eventually decided to start his own record label. He called it Sun Records. The facilities at Sun started humbly and could certainly be considered...
References: Jacobs, Pat. “Independent Record Labels of the 50’s and 60’s”. Rewind the Fifties, 1997.
Theakston, Scott. History of Music Production, Course Binder. Chapter III. 2010.
Rogan, Johnny. "Introduction" in the Guinness Who 's Who of Indie and New Wave Music, Guinness Publishing, 1992. ISBN 0-85112-579-4
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