Little Labels — Big Sound

Little Labels — Big Sound

From the publisher...

Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music

"There would be no record business as we know it without the passion of these pioneers. Today's leaders and label heads pale in comparison to these legendary giants. Show me a man today who could stand up to a Syd Nathan or a Don Robey, and I'll show you a man behind bars — not behind a desk. Why, without Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and the man who unearthed Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, and Howling Wolf to name but a few, there might not even have been any rock 'n' roll, electric blues, or rockabilly music."
— Al Kooper, from the Foreword.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, scores of small, independent record companies nurtured distinctly American music: jazz, blues, gospel, country, rhythm and blues, and the 1950s offspring of R&B, rock 'n' roll. Operated by families or individuals, often on the fringe of mainstream culture, these labels fostered America's musical voice by discovering original artists who would become giants of popular culture.

Little Labels — Big Sound profiles ten such companies. Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, James Brown, Roy Orbison, and other musicians, black and white, brought regional American styles to a world audience and won enduring fame for themselves.But often forgotten are the colorful owners of small record labels who first recorded these musicians and helped to popularize their sound before the dominant, more bureaucratic competitors knew what had happened. And yet, so many of these small labels crashed and burned almost as fast as they rose. Sometimes, their owners were visionaries.

Ross Russell, a record-store owner in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, risked his last dollar to create Dial Records because he was convinced that an obscure jazz saxophonist named Charlie Parker was creating a music revolution with his bebop jazz.Because Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis recorded white country and black R&B singers in the early 1950s, he knew exactly what he was looking for when a shy, teenaged Elvis Presley walked into his storefront studio in 1954 and asked to make a record. Other owners had little appreciation for the music but were street-smart entrepreneurs.

The white-owned 'race' labels of the 1920s, for example, recognized in black consumers a market that had been ignored by the major companies that dominated the recording business. Some small record companies have been extensions of a nightclub, record store, or booking agency. Influencing the development of music wasn't what these record label owners had in mind: they were trying to earn a living. While most of these record labels are long gone, the music that they produced on primitive equipment remains fresh — and bigger than life.