The story of Specialty Records, the most influential label of all time
Main picture: Little Richard on stage in 1972. Credit: David Redfern / Getty
IIf it weren’t for Specialty Records, you wouldn’t be reading this article – and not just because it’s an article on Specialty Records. The label that first discovered the wild man of period rock’n’roll Little Richard in the mid-1950s was so influential that without his existence there almost certainly would not have been Beatlemania and kind from David Bowie and Prince.
In this unimaginable parallel universe, the needle is raised and the entire pop cultural landscape – in all its diversity and joyful dismantling of the status quo – becomes a barren tundra, leaving NME without modern pop music to rhapsodize.
âThe label was in business for a short time,â says Billy Vera, Beverley Hills-based soul singer and global specialty expert, âbut it was the lifeblood of rhythm and blues, rock’n ‘ roll and gospel. “
Founded in Los Angeles in 1945 by enigmatic impresario Art Rupe, Specialty only operated for a decade and a half, but managed to completely explode the music scene – and we’re still sifting through shards of it. shells here and now. That’s because Rupe took his chance on Little Richard, then a 23-year-old penniless dishwasher from Macon, Georgia, and in 1955 had him cut off the rock’n’roll ‘seismic banger Tutti Frutti. ‘, less a rock song than a Year Zero Moment that laid the foundation for all pop music for the next six decades.
When the “Rip It Up” singer passed away last year at the age of 87, all of the iconoclasts from Sir Paul McCartney and Debbie Harry to Questlove and Iggy Pop lined up to pay him a loving tribute. Macca acknowledged Little Richard’s direct influence on the Beatles when he tweeted, âI owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He said, ‘I’ve taught Paul everything he knows.’ I had to admit he was right.
Yet there was more to Specialty than Richard, whose hypersexualized personality and detonating gender norms predated David Bowie‘s androgynous appearance in 1977 on The top of the pops by two decades and Prince’s mega-steamy ’80s pomp by three. It was also the mecca of million-selling musicians such as Sam Cooke and Lloyd Price, as well as the lesser-known but equally brilliant Percy Mayfield, widely known as “the poet of the blues.” And the story continues in 2021, as the label celebrates its 75th anniversary (the numbers are a bit off, but the pandemic can be blamed for the delay) with ‘Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records’, a new compilation. current catalog owner, Craft Recordings.
Billy Vera, who scored a number one in the United States with âAt This Momentâ of 1987, before becoming a Grammy-winning music historian and author of 2019’s Rip It Up: The History of Specialty Discs, says his friend Art Rupe “is 103 years and older than you and I put together”, but “hates interviews – he really hates doing them”, letting Vera become the face of the new version. The historian is evangelical about Mayfield, best known for writing the R&B classic “Hit The Road Jack”, which was later made famous by Ray Charles, and describes him as “the greatest songwriter in history. blues “.
And Vera isn’t alone: ââin the 1980s, he found himself at a star-studded party in Hollywood, chatting with none other than Bob Dylan: “[We had] a two-and-a-half-hour conversation about Percy Mayfield and the brilliance of Percy’s wordsâ¦ Meanwhile, all these big celebrities were coming in and wanting to kiss the big Bob Dylan’s ring. Madonna – name it, they were all there. And he huffed them – rudely! He didn’t care who Madonna was; he just wanted to talk about Percy Mayfield.
For all its shattering brilliance, Specialty Records was actually a black music label owned by a white man. Breathtaking biography of author Charles White in 1984 The Life and Times of Little Richard saw his subject – who gave up rock’n’roll at the height of his fame in 1957, and vowed to devote himself to God – assert that Art Rupe had exploited him with a bad deal. âIt didn’t matter how many records you sold if you were black,â Little Richard said. âThe publishing rights were sold to the record company even before the record was released. “
“I think it’s very unfair,” says Vera, noting that Richard was “18 months on a three-year contract” during his religious awakening, meaning he was also legally obliged to waive all royalties. futures. âOf course the tax considerations came later and he came back to rock’n’roll. So, 20 years later, Richard had a different story. This story was: the Jew scammed me. You know, there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in the world.
Vera adds: “[Art] was a white man who grew up listening to black church music. He lived in a MÃ©tis neighborhood in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Every Sunday he would sit on the sidewalk outside the local black church just to listen to music all day. And he fell in love with this music. At that time, among the Jews who had been persecuted in all the countries they were in, they felt a connection with blacks who were also being persecuted in many countries. “
The historian insists that Rupe – who has maintained a long-standing friendship with Mercurial Richard, regardless of their disagreement – is a scrupulously ethical businessman who has refused to charge his artists the standard booking fees of 10% for shows: “Lloyd [Price] said to me, ‘As long as Art Rupe owned Specialty Records, I had a reporting and auditing every six months like clockwork.’ “
âThe specialty was in business for a short time, but it was the lifeblood of R&B, rock’n’roll and gospelâ – music historian Billy Vera
Despite his business acumen, the label boss has had a few sores. One was the decision to let go of Sam Cooke, who was portrayed in the Amazon 2020 movie. One night in Miami, at the dawn of the soul singer’s megastar. Another, Vera says, sold her publishing house, Venice Music, in 1990: âArtists die; songs never die. I think [that was his] biggest mistakeâ¦ The songs, who cares! And artists are always boring!
Rupe could also, he reveals, “have had the Beatles”, but refused when Richard implored him to sign them in the early 1960s. Incidentally, Vera points out how the Fab Four became so important that they eclipsed the initiator who inspired them: âAfter the Beatles and the Stones and all those who became popular, you almost had to be a guitarist to be taken seriously. And Richard was playing the piano.
Art Rupe closed shop in 1959, disillusioned with the music business, disgusted by the practice of payola (where labels paid DJs to run their artists) and, having let Sam Cooke go, without the second star of the escape necessary to achieve real longevity. The mogul turned his talents to a new outlet, explains his friend: âHe said, ‘I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard and I saw a sign that said,’ Get rich with oil ‘. And so I went inâ¦ I learned the oil business the same way I learned the record business. ‘ It just got very rich in oil. And, he said, with much less trouble!
In no time, however, Art Rupe helped Little Richard define rock’n’roll, bottling up the transgressive spirit that led to punk, hip-hop, and all the rebellious sounds you read on. NME today. Tear it up and start over? Specialty Records did it first.
– “Rip It Up: the best of specialized records” out August 13th via Craft Recordings