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Favorite classic record labels

Mon Oct 01, 2012 8:29 am

After you listen to classic hits over a long period you start to notice that a lot of your favorites were recorded on the same labels. Most often these were indie labels that had their own distinct sounds and artists rosters.

What are your ten favorite classic record labels? Criteria here is basically up to the ‘80s. Basically a lot of the indie character was subsumed by corporate overlord after that. Although if someone wants to throw in Death Row or IRS feel free.

If you can’t think of ten do five. It’s all in fun.

Here’s mine.

1. Motown, Tamla and all subsidiaries and sidelines- Finished up the breakthrough of Elvis and the early rockers in making R&B and black music THE mainstream in America. The amount of talent here Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five (which gave us Michael Jackson), the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and dozens of brilliant lesser lights like Brenda Holloway, the Contours, Tammi Terrell, Kim Weston, Mary Wells etc. If I could listen to nothing but Motown I don’t think I’d be that hard up. (Well I’d miss my Elvis and doo wop a lot.) That was just on stage, behind the scenes they had a cast of producers and writers that zoomed past anything ever assembled, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson (who besides being a great front man was also a great producer especially for female artists and vocal groups), Berry Gordy himself, Frank Wilson, Clarence Paul, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Ashford and Simpson. Then add to that the best house band ever. No label, even with all the resources of the corporations made more great music, at least not in rock and soul.

PS- This is a qualified reference. Motown today is just name. I’m talking about the Gordy run label.

2. Atlantic/Atco and subsidiaries 1947-1967- The pre Warner years. Although some of the label’s basic character held over for a few years, slowly gradually, it became evident in the 1970s this was just another label. But before the R&B, rock and roll pioneers. There for the early rock R&B sounds exemplified by the likes of Ruth Brown and the early Drifters, then for the flat out rock n’ roll of the Coasters, the switch into soul music exemplified by the pop Drifters and Ray Charles and Solmon Burke, and then soul’s apotheosis with Aretha, Wilson Pickett and others. And also happened to be Stax’s distributor for most of that label’s existence.

3. Chess/Checker and subsidiaries- This Chicago based label was like Atlantic, there for it all for a long time. Home to the great pioneers of electric urban blues like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howling Wolf. Phil and Leonard Chess also helped discover rock and roll by putting Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and the Moonglows on tape. Then they kept a high profile with great soul artists in the 1960s like Billy Stewart and Etta James, Like choices #2 and #4 just about ground zero for contemporary pop music.

4. Sun- The little label that changed the world. By recording artists others had overlooked, from Elvis to the great blues artists, Sam Phillips created the most democratic of all labels and in doing so he turned the world upside down. He made a joke of the lines of class and race segregation that dominated mainstream American culture to that time because his artists proved the humanity and vitality of the underclasses. As an Elvis fan, and because of the label’s impact, I’d like to rate this one higher. However, Sun’s catalog doesn’t quite have the depth of the previous few labels.

5. Cameo/Parkway- I can hear rock as rebellion purists screaming in pain at this. But more than Motown even this was the little label that could. You have Bernie Lowe, a man in middle age, throwing it all away and opening a little studio in his basement to record local artists and he produces dozens of hits over a seven year period in part because he’s lucky enough to have a national TV show in town. When American Bandstand had a cancellation and needed a quick fill in, Cameo sent their stars over. Much more remarkable because in no way did Lowe have the talent behind the scenes that Motown did. They would hop on contemporary dance crazes and craft songs around them. Steal melodies and simply credit the original author to avoid dispute. Although one can dispute the creativity of the label’s talents, they can’t dispute their enthusiasm or the fact that the label’s artists and songwriters were in touch with what was going on in kids’ lives at that time. Records like Chubby Checker’s “Dancing Party,” the Dovells “You Can’t Sit Down,” Bobby Rydell’s “Wildwood Days,” the Orlons’ “Wah Wah Wa-tusi” all sounded like a party in the studio. In many ways as much as the sound of early ‘60s Young America as Motown. It really caught the good times.

6. Goldner/Gee/Rama/End and subsidiaries- These were the labels owned by New York City horseplayer and doo wop impresario George Goldner. Many of Goldner’s artists like the Crows established the love of the beat in teenage America. He was constantly starting a label and then losing it to the mob due to racing losses but wherever he went it was always constant doo wop gold- the Cleftones, the Dubs, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Flamingos and many others. One of his great specialties was recasting a classic pop tune in the doo wop style best exemplified by the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” an absolutely spectral record that transformed a modest Tin Pan Alley into an all time classic.

7. Philles- One man show. But what a man- the great Phil Spector. Oh gosh was he good. Of course, best known today for the Wall of Sound which featured hordes of instruments playing together in a mono mix for maximum impact. The most durable exciting sound of the early to mid-60s. Everybody copied it. He was, of course, more than just that and knew how to feature a great voice as well as anybody. Arguably, Harvey Phil was the first rock artist to approach his work as “art” setting a standard for everything that came after from the Beatles to “Rolling Stone” magazine. Not the depth of some of the labels here but that’s because of the love and passion that went into every single track. This label existed solely for Spector productions. Produced at least three candidates for greatest rock n’ roll record of all time- “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals and best of all the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

8. Vee Jay- Black owned little Chicago R&B specialists gave us great records by the Dells, Jerry Butler, Betty Everett, Dee Clark, the Spaniels etc for almost a decade. Provided a home for blues greats Jimmy Reed and (some of the time) John Lee Hooker. Even a spot for a rehabbed Little Richard. Dabbled with the white big time with the Four Seasons and yes the Beatles. (The latter of which undid the label because of the problems of dealing with distribution and because of the uncertainty of the group’s status as a future Vee Jay act. Store owners wouldn’t pay back payments for Beatles’ records because Vee Jay couldn’t necessarily withhold future releases for lack of payment. This cut the cash into the business off.) If you slapped together a 40 greatest hits originally released on Vee Jay you could put it up against the rest of the industry without apology.

9. Philadelphia International and subsidiaries- The inventors of much of the disco groove as well as the successor to Motown as the premier black record label in America. At their best Owners/lead producers/writers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff could come up with danceable grooves, socially relevant lyrics and still leave room for great singers like Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler and Teddy Pendergrass to leave their mark.

10. Stax- I don’t rank Stax quite as highly as some fans (if the world breaks down into Stax and Motown people, I'm Motown) but my musical experience would be much lesser without the likes of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.Gs, William Bell (one of the most underrated soul singers around, very smooth, very incisive delivery) Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes etc. Unlike Motown a real world as well musical leader.

Re: Favorite classic record labels

Mon Oct 01, 2012 9:00 am

Sun/Phillips International. is the only label I buy anything I can get on. AMAZING catalog.
I like most of the Motown hits through about 1975 or so.

Re: Favorite classic record labels

Wed Oct 03, 2012 1:29 am

Motown and Chess would be my favorites of the ones listed.

I'm like you i could listen to Motown forever and i also liked it more than STAX.

Re: Favorite classic record labels

Thu Oct 04, 2012 9:42 pm

Gotta go with Motown. If you're in the Detroit area, checkout the Motown Museum-awesome!

Re: Favorite classic record labels

Fri Oct 05, 2012 2:51 pm

How about Coral Records, with the likes of BUddy Holly, McGuire Sisters' Sugartime and Sincerely, and Debbie Reynolds' Tammy were all on this label.