Famous American Music Labels and The Outsiders Who Started Them

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Why is it that people born outside the U.S. often have sharper perspectives on American culture, appreciating it more?  It was a Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, who penned the first great study of America in 1835:  the masterpiece was Democracy in America.  This reflected French admiration for the founding fathers, who inspired the French Revolution (the French helped the Americans to fight the British too, and founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin learned a lot about human nature and politics from the late 18th century French Enlightenment of Descartes, Voltaire, and others).

Even I, while going to school in France in 1970,  experienced a greater understanding of America from living abroad, witnessing Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia and mining of Haiphony Harbor, as Nixon and Kissinger escalated their misguided strategy to win the war in Vietnam

A similar keen outsider appreciation seems true of American music as well.   Although the big labels like Columbia (Goddard Lieberson & Clive Davis), Capitol (Johnny Mercer & Glenn Wallichs),  and Motown (Berry Gordy Jr.)  strove for the pop success of Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Glenn Gould, Tony Bennett and others, smaller labels concentrated on and celebrated less popular idioms indigenous to America:  blues, rhythm and blues, folk, and jazz.  They didn’t have the big stars or make as much money as the major labels, but their passion and commitment to American music more than compensated.  And some of them, like the Arteguns, did become rich.

The iconic jazz label Blue Note was started by Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, two refugees from Hitler’s Germany.  Chicago-based Chess Records, which put out Argo and Cadet jazz, as well as Chess and Checker Records, was started by Leonard and Phil Chess, two immigrants from Poland.  Atlantic Records was founded in 1947 by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, whose father was the first Turkish Ambassador to the U.S..  Ahmet went crazy for jazz music after hearing Duke Ellingon while in London on one of his father’s diplomatic outings.   American-born Lester Koenig was a screenwriter who got blacklisted during the McCarthy era and then turned to music, founding Contemporary Records and launching the careers of  young jazz firebrands like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.  Koenig also was known for his state-of-the-art recorded sound, high production values,  and the great album cover graphics on Contemporary releases.   Another German, Chris Strachwitz came from England to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Arhoolie Records, a treasure trove of blues, folk, and regional styles like hillbilly, cajun, and zydeco. You can bet that musicians like Ry Cooder have a lot of Arhoolie Records (there was a store, too).

All these outsiders had in common one big thing:  they were wild about American roots music of all shapes and sizes:    jazz, r&b, blues, or folk.  They all loved black music in particular, a muscial mélange outside of European experience that only could have been synergized in America.    These guys weren’t out to get rich, though many of them did.  Chuck Berry, Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Bobby Bland,  Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and countless others–all came out of Atlantic, Chess, and Blue Note.

The great recordings o these pioneering labels reflect the great range of our American musical traditions, and their support of our musical heritage has had an unparalleled impact on the music the world enjoys today.  Their passion and belief in American music is something we should be forever grateful for.