Michael Jarrett: Early Record Men: How Talent Scouts, Managers, Recording Supervisors, Publishers, and A&R Men Shaped Music
We welcome a guest post today by Michael Jarrett, author of Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall. In histories of music, producers tend to fall by the wayside—generally unknown and seldom acknowledged. But without them and their contributions to the art form, we’d have little on record of some of the most important music ever created. Discover the stories behind some of jazz’s best-selling and most influential albums in this collection of oral histories gathered by music scholar and writer Michael Jarrett. Drawing together interviews with over fifty producers, musicians, engineers, and label executives, Jarrett shines a light on the world of making jazz records by letting his subjects tell their own stories and share their experiences in creating the American jazz canon.
In the following post, Jarrett explores how the music industry, jazz in particular, was shaped by those who worked within it.
Let us now praise famous record men: the architects, engineers, and contractors—the early guys—who built the music industry. Better yet, before any hymns of praise, let’s come to terms with a theory of record production. For starters, production as commonly understood began in the mid-1950s. The designation “record producer” earned semi-official status only after studios adopted magnetic tape. That’s because the recording medium determines how and when an industry worker can shape the sound of a record. To get Phil Spector, Brian Eno, Timbaland, and next year’s Svengali, record makers—analogous to auteurist film directors—needed control over the recording process to extend to every phase of production. Magnetic tape, a spoil of World War II, was the first medium to afford this level of control.
Before the advent of tape and for a long time afterwards, technologies for recording and reproducing sound worked to the advantage of companies, not musicians. (An artist could hardly declare, “Hey, I think you’re screwing me! I’m gonna take my beeswax masters and shop them around to other record labels.”) Entertainment companies and their designates managed musical production by controlling all facets of preproduction. A&R men—and it was always men—were tasked with choosing “artists and repertoire.” They determined who recorded and, working with music publishers, what was recorded. Thus, their power, whether invisible or inaudible, was enormous. They functioned as agents of selection. In seeking to ensure the survival and profitability of corporate interests, they profoundly shaped popular music.
Early record men, therefore, most resembled movie producers, not movie directors. Ultimately, their control derived from the power to grant or to deny access to capital. “I invented Louis Armstrong,” said Ralph Peer in a 1959 interview with Lillian Borgeson. He stated the claim matter-of-factly. To him, it didn’t sound the least bit audacious or preposterous. “I used to go frequently to Chicago for Okeh [Records] on sales trips,” he explained. “I got acquainted with Armstrong and his wife [Lil Hardin]. She . . . came to me and said ‘Louis has an offer to come to New York—Henderson’s Orchestra—could you give us recording work there?'”
“Later the girl came to see me again and said Louis wanted to go back to Chicago, so I created an Armstrong Orchestra for them so that they could get some work.… [W]e sent a recording unit out there … Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five…. I got the best musicians you could get ’cause I liked Louis Armstrong. Of course, they were all from [King] Oliver’s band. The funny thing was, I wasn’t even present when those records were made. I ok’d the musicians, all of whom I knew, and as long as Louis and the girl were there, I knew it would go alright” (qtd. in W.H. Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life, Oxford Univ. Press). And that, as a kind of parable, says everything anyone could possibly want to know about the record business in its early years. Below are fifteen of my favorite recordings supervised—even made possible—by American music’s legendary A&R men.
1. Ralph Peer/Richard M. Jones/Tommy Rockwell: Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia Legacy). A bundle of marvels: courtesy of Peer, who signed off on the deal; Jones, who supervised the acoustical recordings; Rockwell, who supervised the electrical recordings; and Armstrong, who provided the magic.
2. Jack Kapp: Bing Crosby’s Gold Records (MCA). Kapp’s rep suffers because his recordings of Crosby, Ruth Etting, and Guy Lombardo were so immensely popular, defining the mainstream and, hence, everything jazz bohemians reviled. Long live pop.
3. Milt Gabler: Various Artists, The Commodore Story (Commodore). The music Gabler produced at Decca signified “professionalism.” The music Gabler produced for Commodore, his own label, argued that amateurs (players motivated by love) made the best jazz.
4. Norman Granz: Charlie Parker, Confirmation: Best of the Verve Years (Verve). The role of the recording supervisor, Granz believed, was to serve—to facilitate and capture—artists as they fulfilled their visions. In other words the best producer for Parker was a devotee, a fan.
5. Fred Rose: Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor). Fred Rose’s partnership with Roy Acuff (a publishing house) and, then, with Hank Williams (at MGM Records) were sufficient to establish Nashville as the capitol of country music.
6. Mitch Miller: Rosemary Clooney, Songs from the Girl Singer: A Musical Autobiography (Concord). In his autobiography Jerry Wexler calls Miller “a model of the producer as artist rather than traffic cop.” Indeed, Miller was crucial to the transformation of A&R man into record producer.
7. Leonard and Phil Chess: Various Artists, The Chess Blues-Rock Songbook—The Classic Originals (MCA/Chess). To even out Sunday mornings (Chicago’s sizable contributions to gospel), the cosmic balance sheet demanded equal time for Saturday nights: hence, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
8. Lee Gillettee: Nat King Cole, Unforgettable (Capitol). The value that a producer recognizes in an artist is very often indexed by the musical settings he affords that artist. It’s evident that Gillette loved Nat King Cole.
9. Frank Walker: Bessie Smith, The Collection (Columbia Legacy). Ralph Peer’s most significant competitor in the 1920s, Walker recorded a wealth of “race” and “hillbilly” artists. He originated the movie soundtrack album (a collection of 78s).
10. Arthur Edward “Uncle Art” Satherley: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Anthology (1935-1973) (Rhino). The breadth of country music—a rubric big enough to include hot bands and silver-screen cowboys—owes plenty to Uncle Art, one of Columbia’s pioneering A&R men.
11. Art Rupe: Various Artists, Greatest Gospel Gems (Specialty). Displacing the complex harmonies of jazz and the singable melodies of pop, hard gospel pushed the limits of timbre and rhythm. That explains how Art Rupe could move from a roster of house-wrecking gospel stars to Little Richard.
12. Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, The Best of Thelonious Monk (Blue Note). Other packages are more complete; this one’s distilled to perfection. More than any other bop patriarch, Monk defined his calling not in technique—in flashing chops and running changes—but in sound, structure, and rhythm.
13. John Hammond: Abyssinian Baptist Choir, Shakin’ the Rafters (Legacy). Led by Alex Bradford, this Harlem-based mass choir swings harder than a big band. Informing its music is an irrepressible urge to testify—to communicate grace, not judgment. Just the sort of thing Hammond loved to champion.
14. Paul Cohen: Webb Pierce, King of the Honky-Tonk from the Original Decca Masters, 1952-1959 (Country Music Foundation). Cohen’s work at Decca, exemplified by these productions with Webb Pierce, laid the foundation on which Bradley, Bowen and Brown built a mansion on a hill.
15. Lester Melrose: Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams, Throw a Boogie Woogie (RCA/BMG). Though it’s hard to hear now, Melrose was the central figure in urbanizing the blues. His insistence on the 12-bar form and his use of in-house bands regularized variety.
Michael Jarrett is professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, York. His book Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall is now available.
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