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The Independent Record Labels of the 1950’s and 1960’s

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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.

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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 ‘independent. ’ It was a rectangular room with no acoustical treatment, and a control room with a used five-channel presto mixer, a presto 6-N lathe and one loudspeaker. Philips would take a while to realize that a huge prospect was about to enter his life and studio. Elvis Presley, a young truck driver, had come in to record two songs at a cost of $8 as a birthday present for his mother. Philips was actually out of the office so his secretary Marion Keisker recorded Presley.

Foreseeing talent, Keisker put aside a copy of the acetate master. Keisker continued to advocate to Philips the idea of investing in Presley’s commercially promising musical potential. Philips eventually agreed to give Presley a try and matched him up with local guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. This group became quite successful, and together, under the direction of Philips, helped to influence and redefine the ‘rockabilly’ genre of music at the time. It shows Sun’s success that by ’61, Phillips was able to buy a Presto 900-P recorder.

Elvis Presley’s presence at the label allowed Philips to once again upgrade his system, this time opting for a Tube 76-D broadcast console and two new Ampex 350 tape recorders. The growing sophistication of his studio rig is a testimony to the success that he accomplished with such sensations as Presley. He delayed one tape head slightly in relation to the other, which made the signature “Sun Sound. ” While Philips did find success for a while with artist Elvis Presley; Elvis’ popularity outgrew the facilities and financial capabilities of Sun Records by 1956.

Elvis also had a new manager who pushed him to sign to a major label (HMP, Chapter III, pg. 52). RCA approached Sam Philips about Presley’s contract, and since Philips knew that he wouldn’t be able to afford renewing contract with Elvis nice their current agreement had expired, Philips agreed to sell Elvis Presley’s contact for $35,000. Philips’ story is common in this time for smaller independent record labels: they find some success that eventually dissipates due to the influence of more established labels.

Philips’ relationship with Elvis Presley exemplifies the opportunity that was mutually available to local grass-roots artist and label/studio owners at this time of budding musical movements such as soul, R&B, rock and roll, and jazz. Rudy Van Gelder is yet another independent producer/engineer that was able to successfully make his own record label from the ground up. Van Gelder started as an optometrist and radio broadcaster, and became a pioneer in jazz recordings. His early works were recorded in his parents’ living room in New Jersey. He was known for his “meticulous and experimental recording techniques.

While his recording began in his private home, Van Gelder built his own studio. Over his fifty-plus year career, Van Gelder collaborated with such prominent Jazz labels as Verve, Impulse, Prestige, Venus, Blue Note, and more. As an optometrist who started recording and broadcasting from his house, his 10,000+ repertoire of recording is a testimony to his success as an independent producer/label. While these examples do show the possibility for financial success as an independent label owner in these times, there were definitely obstacles to their success.

One major trend that happened to act as an obstacle in this new market for independent labels was the absorption of independent record companies by larger labels, that had even begun as independent record labels them selves. For example, Atlantic Records was an independent record label, yet it gained such a holding that it began to buy out smaller independent labels. Atlantic Records acquired Spark Record Company in 1955… “Due to Tom Dowd’s technical prowess, (Atlantic Records) was one of the first independent labels to record in stereo” (HMP, Ch III).

Atlantic was formed in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun, son of a Turkish ambassador, and Herb Abramson. It started out as a Rhythm and Blues and Jazz label. In the early 1950’s Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun joined the team. Nesuhi started producing the jazz division in 1955 and signed the likes of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane (Jacobs, Pat). Atlantic went on to become a “powerhouse” in the 1960’s, signing such mainstream artists as Sonny and Cher. It was successful enough to also branch off into other sub-labels like Atco.

From 1960-1968, Atlantic, spear-headed by Jerry Wexler, had a distribution deal with the Memphis record company that became Stax records (Jacobs). Stax Studios is another similar yet unique case in this time and movement. The independent studio Stax was formed by Jim Stewart, along with the investment of his sister Estelle Axton. It began in an old storehouse, but they later moved it to an old movie theatre, which they converted to a control room, studio space, and a small record store. A young pianist, Booker T. Jones, lived nearby and began frequenting the studio.

He hooked up with other local musicians Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson. Together, this group became known as Booker T. and M. G. ’s, and they made up the backbone of the new Stax sound (HMP Ch. III). Stax had developed a distinctive soulful sound and Booker T. and the M. G. ’s had amazing chemistry as a band. Due to these factors, Atlantic soon took notice and began sending their head engineer, Tom Dowd, along with their own artists, to record at Stax.

In 1962, Johnny Jackson recorded a single at Stax. When the session failed miserably, they used the last thirty minutes f the session time to record Jackson’s driver, a young Otis Redding. The song that they recorded reached the charts in April of 1963, and Otis Redding came back to record an even bigger hit in September of that same year.

The eruption of these popular hits by new, poignant artists acted as a positive feedback loop for Stax business. Having successfully marketed Booker T. and the M. G. ’s, the Mar-Keys, Carla Thomas and Otis Redding, Stax attracted the attention of even more talents, through Atlantic and also on their own, independently.

These new acts included Sam and Dave and Wilson Picket, Willian Bell, Eddie Floyd, and the producer/writer duo David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Stax Records was obviously thriving at this time. In 1965, Stewart hired Al Bell as national sales director for Stax. With the rate of change and competition in the music industry at this time, however, things couldn’t stay the same for long. And along with the opportunities for independent owners came the means and motivation for the exploitation of the underdog by more powerful enterprises.

In 1965, Jerry Wexler told Stewart that Atlantic might be sold, and in order to save Stax, they should finalize their distribution agreement through a written contract. Stewart failed to consult a lawyer or examine the fine print of the contract, and essentially signed away the ownership of all Stax masters. Here is an evident example of the cutthroat commercialism and competition that began to take over the music industry in this time of change and commercial viability. Atlantic had sneakily tricked Stax into signing away ownership.

Producers and Business Owners in this changing, flourishing and cutthroat industry had to be on top of their game, or they could be exploited and manipulated. The same can be said for artists, who were often exploited, paid less than they deserved and far less in comparison with the cut that producers and label representatives were taking from the profit that they accrued from these artists. In addition to the hardship caused by careless contractual practices, Stax lost Otis Redding in a plane crash, his masters belonged to Atlantic.

Instead of giving in to Atlantic, Stewart sold the label Stax to Gulf and Western which went on the release hits by Booker T. and the M. G. ’s and Isaac Hayes. Today Stax masters prior to 1968 are owned by Atlantic Records. Masters recorded after the split between Stax and Atlantic are now owned by Fantasy Records. Leiber and Stoller of Spark Record Company are a good example of how this new business model could work to the advantage of the underdog. Leiber and Stoller worked as independent producers for Atlantic, meaning they were able to make records for other labels also, although Atlantic still proved to be the most profitable for them.

A significant amount of Atlantic Records’ pre-production from the late 1950’s took place in the Brill Building. The owners of this building rented out the spaces to music publishers because there were little other options due to the increasing economic depression. As a result, this building was filled with 165 music-related businesses by 1962. It should be noted here that detrimental economic circumstances inadvertently created a beneficial opportunity for independent music producers, label representatives, engineers, and artists. The Brill Building is, in fact, an example of vertical integration- quite literally.

The layout of the establishment allowed for personnel to go to one floor, write a song or pitch it to an array of publishers, go to another floor and have it arranged and notated for a small fee, book an hour-long session and hire local studio musicians on site. This unique and efficient set up gave artists and producer’s the ability to cut a demo, then show it to recording companies, publishers, and other artists in and around the building. In the late 1950’s, Atlantic attained success in the cross over record market, meaning Rhythm and Blues music performed by African Americans that appealed to the white music-buyer.

Atlantic Records provided the white consumer with authentic R&B recording artists such as The Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Coasters, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and more. It is one of the few labels to have notable success throughout this time period still operating today and can be considered a success story for the independent record label model of the 1950’s and 1960’s. One temporary independent success that didn’t last nearly as long was Vee-Jay records, owned by a black female DJ named Vivian Carter and her husband, James Bracken.

In 1953 the label opened in Gary, Indiana, and it soon became a powerhouse of major R+B. Before Motown, it was the biggest black-owned label of its time (Independent Record Labels). Its roster included John Lee Haooker, Little Richard, and the Four Seasons. They also released early Beatles material before they became massively popular in the United States. Once the British Invasion arrived, these Beatles recordings were bought out almost instantly. In early 1964, 2. 6 million Beatles singles were sold in a month.

Eventually, however, this label met with financial difficulties, and in August of 1966 Vee-Jay records filed for bankruptcy (‘Independent Record Labels’). Another prime example of a successful independent record label is found in Motown Records. While Motown did eventually sign and produce some of the soul legends whose popularity still holds up today, the label’s creator, Berry Gordy, did not find success instantly; he came up against a lot of failure along the way as well. When Berry Gordy left the military in 1953 he launched a jazz record store called the 3-D Record Mart.

It was financed by his family, who owned a number of businesses. By 1955 this record store had failed. He searched for success elsewhere, and eventually found it as a song-writer. His first success came with the tune “Reet Petite”, performed by Jackie Wilson. The song landed him 1,000 dollars. In addition, over the next two years, he wrote four more hits performed by Jackie Wilson. Encouraged by these successes, Gordy decided to pursue producing. He had an uncanny ability to sniff out talent, and this allowed him to find success as a producer.

In 1959, He discovered The Miracles, which included Smokey Robinson, at a talent show, and pitched a business relationship to them which would benefit him in the future. He borrowed $800 from his family to start his own record company that he called ‘Tamla’. Marv Johnson’s “You Got What It Takes” was released through Tamla that same year, and was the first big break experienced by Berry Gordy. It was such a success, in fact, that it placed within the top ten. By the late 1950’s, Detroit was one of, if not the last city that did not have its own strong independent record company.

This allowed for Gordy’s success because he was in the right place at the right time, and was able to provide a production outlet for the local talents of the area. The third Miracles recording was released in conjunction with another label that Berry Gordy had formed on the side, called Motown. In 1960, Gordy commandeered the contract of a young singer from Washington DC by the name of Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye did have one moderately successful release in the 60’s, but really hit it big later in the 1970’s. Through a Miracles connection, Steveland Morris auditioned for Motown and impressed Gordy.

Gordy signed the youngster and renamed him “Little Stevie Wonder”. In 1963, Stevie Wonder’s hit “Fingertips Part II” made it to the number one spot on the pop charts. Berry Gordy did indeed have a knack for finding talent and selling records. In fact, “Gordy turned Motown into the most profitable black entertainment company in the country” (HMP, Ch. III p. 59). The History of Music class binder attributes this in part to Gordy’s frugal business practices: the in-house writers, artists, and producers that he hired were paid on salaries that were deducted from their royalties for songs.

In addition, they were paid a flat-rate on a weekly basis and were required to be on call. Employees were only allowed to view the accounting records twice annually, and the RIAA was never allowed to view them. For this reason, Motown may have received less awards than they would have, because the real rates of sale were not publicly disclosed. Yet despite all these circumstances, Motown maintained a family-oriented reputation and attracted producers, songwriters, and artists from all over. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie and healthy competition in Gordy’s studio.

Gordy had a good eye for talented producers and artists alike, quickly adopting Smokey Robinson to his team. Under Gordy’s label, Smokey Robinson was uniquely permitted to produce his own work and other artists like Mary Wells, The Temptations, and The Miracles. Motown accumulated a number of artists that put out continuous hit songs, including a run of five Supremes hits in a row: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back In My Arms Again. ” The Robinson produced “My Guy” by Mary Wells in 1964, which also reached the #1 spot is a good example of the burgeoning mid 60’s Motown sound.

This string of successes gave Motown the names “Hitsville, USA. The Motown Sound, The Sound of Young America” which was painted over the headquarters entrance. In 1966, Motown produced fourteen songs that ranked in the Top Ten. In 1967, thirteen songs reached that status. And in 1968, ten singles reached that status. As you can see, while they did continue to rank in the Top Ten, the degree of their success decreased every year. This is yet another testimony to the fact that the success of these indie labels was rarely long-lasting.

Another example of an individual producer who found a pathway in to the music industry during the 1950’s and 1960’s is the eccentric engineer, Harvey Philip Spector. Hoping to break into the music business, Spector booked a session at a local independent recording business called Star Studios. He raised $40 for the session and the price of tape, aided by his mother and several friends to pay for this session and the tape to record onto. He produced and performed on all instruments for the single “Don’t Worry My Little Pet,” an original composition.

Spector and his friends, who were investors in his venture, formed the musical group “The Teddy Bears. ” They appeared on American Bandstand. They performed another of his original songs, “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which sold more than a million copies in two months. Phil Spector and his band The Teddy Bears signed on with Imperial Records, but they encountered problems while there. This is because Spector was used to being his own boss and producer, and now he wasn’t allowed to record at Goldstar, use stacked harmonies, or control production.

After unsuccessful releases with Imperial, Spector broke up the Teddy Bears and asked Lester Sill and Lee Hazelwood, two established producers/label owners, to show him the ropes of the business. Spector actually moved in with Sill and his family. Sill taught Spector how successful Rock and Roll Records were made (HMP, Ch. III). He was then given the task of recruiting new artists to the label, yet his choices didn’t prove to be beneficial investments. Spector became frustrated and asked Sill to disclose his contacts from Stax. Spector then moved to New York City and began working for Lieber and Stoller in 1960.

There at Lieber and Stoller’s studio, Spector started out as a studio guitarist, then worked as a producer for Ray Peterson and Curtis Lee, two artists on the label. Both of these artists’ releases were received very well, yet Spector faced failure with the public reaction to the release of the original “Twist and Shout,” which was performed by Top Note. Berns was outraged with Spector’s approach to “Twist and Shout,” and took this tune, reproduced it, and found success with it. Spector took this incident to heart and decided to leave Atlantic and return to the West Coast. There on the West

Coast, he then formed the Phelles Label in Hollywood with Lester Sill, his former boss. Spector developed a unique sound that he called “impressionistic sound productions. ” To the rest of the world, it became known as the “Wall of Sound. ” It was characterized by abundant use of reverberation and un-isolated instrument overdubbing. Spector hated the concept of isolation and focused on creating a sonic “wall” by fixating all of the instrumental pieces, objects and people in the room and also by recording solely in mono. He then fed those un-isolated microphone tracks into different echo and reverb chambers.

He was so extreme and specific in his endeavors that he wouldn’t even allow any of the people in his recordings to leave the room to go to the bathroom, or to even move around at all, claiming that it disturbed his perfect wall of sound: the relationship between the sound waves with all the surfaces and angles in the recording space. Within three years, he had put out twenty hits in a row, including “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “The Best Part of Breaking Up,” and others. In 1964, however, Spector’s success was cut prematurely by the British Invasion.

This British Invasion, or the ‘Second British Invasion’, as it could be ironically considered, was marked by the Beatles’ victorious entrance into New York in February of 1964. This event symbolized the success of the Beatles in the eyes of the American public and also paved the way for British musical talent in America. The relationship between American and British musicians and fans is quite interesting, because there are many parallels between the two. “Like their transatlantic counterparts in the 1950s, British youth heard their future in the frantic beats and suggestive lyrics of American rock and roll. ” (‘British Invasion’).

While the Beatles were trying to mimic the American pop style of the time, they inadvertently created their own style that reflected back to American audiences who became obsessed. With the advent of the Beatles’ more “sophisticated,” pop/rock sound, Phil Spector and other pop/rock producers faced a competition as the British wave swept over their consumer audience. Spector fought to prolong his success, but with his release of an Ike and Tina Turner record in 1966 that only reached number eighty-eight on the charts, he was humiliated and decided to retire from the industry, although he would make a minor comeback and a flop or two) in later decades.

Spector is an example of an independent record label whose niche was filled up by another entity. In England during the 1950s and 1960s, EMI, Philips, and Decca towered over small independent record labels as a trio of major record companies. As a result, it was quite difficult for the independent labels to become established. Still, many producers and musical artists set up their own independent labels. These producers included Joe Meek with his release of Triumph, Andrew Oldham (Immediate), and Larry Page with Page One.

One independent label that was able to thrive in this atmosphere and continued to grow and develop clientele was Chrysalis Records, the joint project of Chris Wright and Terry Ellis. Rock stars that launched their own record labels during this time included The Beatles with Apple Records, Elton John with Rocket, and The Rolling Stones with Rolling Stones Records. Unfortunately, these ventures did not succeed commercially on their own, while some were absorbed by the major labels.

Through the examples of Stax, Atlantic, Sun, Motown, Phil Spector, Vee Jay, and all the other players involved in this unique time in music history, we can see the complex combination of positive opportunities and negative repercussions of taking a chance with a label, with an artist, a producer, and/or a song. It is quite clear that all of these independent record label starters of the 1950’s and 1960’s faced a lot of competition and conflict in their attempt to make it, despite the unique opportunity for success that they were granted in the circumstances of the music industry, market, and economy of that time.

It seems that it took a while for the more major labels to catch on to the commercial viability of rock and roll and other new types of music, and yet at the same time, independent record labels who already had a holding on this new market had found success.


  • Jacobs, Pat. “Independent Record Labels of the 50’s and 60’s”. Rewind the Fifties, 1997. < http://www. loti. com/sixties_music/sixties_indie_labels. htm>] 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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