Thursday, March 28, 2013

Capitol Records – A Towering Success


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Sometimes it’s fun to look back and see how much things can change in a person’s lifetime.

Digital sound files may have been a nascent idea as the second half of the 20th century began, but recorded music was still analog-based.

The music was preserved on tape and then transferred to vinyl by record companies who owned the rights to the music.

Cover art or photography was commissioned, someone wrote the notes and compiled the track information for the back cover and off went the newly minted 33 1/3 rpm long-playing records to a wholesale distributor who then made them available to retail outlets.

There are still recording companies today, some very large and others of the boutique variety which are usually devoted to a specific style of music. Much of today’s music is self-produced.

Almost all of today’s music is recorded digitally and distributed primarily through compact disc or some form of downloadable file-sharing system.

I doubt that the following story that John Tynan, the then West Coast Editor of Downbeat magazine, recounts of the first 15-years or so of Capitol Records’ existence could be written today.

And that’s what makes it so much fun to read.

What a difference a half-century makes!

© -  John Tynan/Downbeat magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"WHEN A RECORD COMPANY erects a $2,000,000 temple to its own greatness, it's time to probe the where­fore.

About the time of the outbreak of World War II in Europe, a quiet young Iowan named Glenn Wallichs was oper­ating a small recording studio at 5205 Hollywood Boulevard. With the country just pulling out of the depression, things were beginning to improve a bit business-wise, but it was still a scuffle for many small enterprises such as Wallichs'.

Sharing the premises with the record­ing studio, even to using the same tele­phone, was a radio announcer who owned a record store he called "The Stomp Shop." His name was Al Jarvis. Also operating from the same location — and using that same serviceable phone — were Charles Emge and Ward Humphrey the publishers of a lively weekly magazine, Tempo, which chron­icled the music activities of the west coast throughout the '30s. From this rather unseemly beginning grew Cap­itol Records.


WITH THE TURN of the decade Wallichs decided to open a record store. To this end he entered into partnership with his father, Oscar, who at the time owned an appliance shop in Hollywood. Together they launched Music City.

Music City quickly became hangout for assorted songwriters, pluggers, working musicians. Anyone connected in any way with the music business in Hollywood inevitably headquartered there on a cracker barrel basis.

One such songwriter, Johnny Mercer, who made Music City his base of social and professional operations, had by 1941 formed a fast friendship with Wallichs. The epoch-making negotia­tions between Mercer and Wallichs that led to Capitol's founding reportedly went something like this:

Wallichs: "Johnny, how would you like to start a record company?"

Mercer: "I wouldn't. But I know someone who would."

Wallichs: "Who is he? Can you get hold of him?"

Mercer: "Name's Buddy DeSylva. He's head of production at Para­mount."

Wallichs: "Let's get together with him and talk this thing over."

B. G. (Buddy) DeSylva did indeed want to start a record company. The three pooled resources, with DeSylva putting up $25,000 to kick the venture off. Wallichs contributed his technical and organizational know-how, and Mercer's offering was equally priceless  — his genius for writing good songs.


SO IT WAS DONE. In July of 1942 Capitol Records elected as its first offi­cers, B. G. DeSylva, president; Johnny Mercer, vice president; Glenn Wallichs, general manager.

What followed belongs a little in the realm of fantasy. Capitol first releases consisted of six sides, among them Cow Cow Boogie with music by Benny Carter and lyrics by Don Raye and Gene DePaul. Ella Mae Morse did the rocking vocal with the Freddy Slack orchestra. For anyone who has been conscious of popular American music over the last 15 years, nothing more need be said about Cow Cow Boogie. Along with Mercer's Strip Polka, it virtually put Capitol Records in busi­ness.

With that extraordinary acumen that enabled him to see the potential in a west coast record company interested in producing well recorded, good pop material, Wallichs immediately inno­vated another policy that was to revolu­tionize the marketing strategy of phon­ograph records. He announced the plan of providing disc jockeys throughout the country with complimentary copies of all Capitol records. The idea proved so successful that soon the other big companies followed suit.

THE YOUNG FIRM grew phenome­nally. Soon the demand for Capitol's product was so great that an agree­ment was reached for the Scranton Record Co. to supply limited amount of vital shellac in addition to that which already was contracted for in Holly­wood.


In the first six months of Capitol's existence, hits like Ella Mae Morse's Mr. Five By Five, Elk's Parade by Bobby Sherwood, and Johnny Mercer's I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City further consolidated the company's economic position. Branch offices were opened in Chicago and New York, and the following year two more were started in Atlanta and Dallas.

The second year of Capitol's life was marked, among other things, by the in­troduction of another new factor in the record business, the News Maga­zine. In addition, the careers of Jo Stafford, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and songwriter Dick Whiting's young daughter, Margaret, were spawned on the label in 1943.

No big-time record company is with­out its quota of album releases, and Capitol had big-time aspirations by 1944. A package titled Songs by John­ny Mercer was released to meet with immediate success, shortly followed by a second album aimed at the growing kiddy market, Stories for Children By the Great Gildersleeve.

WAR'S END saw an increasing ex­pansion by the label. In 1945, 14 albums were released and marketed to be joined by 19 more in 1946, one of which proved to be the biggest selling item in the children's field, Bozo at the Circus. The same year also witnessed the inau­guration of the Capitol Transcriptions firm and the outright purchase of Scranton Record Co. for $2,000,000. Capitol went on the market as a result, issuing its first stock April 30, 1946, offering 95,000 shares of common stock.

When the American Federation of Musicians imposed a ban on all re­cording by its members in 1947, Capi­tol plunged into a furious whirl of re­cording activity before the pre-announced deadline, thereby obtaining a huge backlog of sides. Among these discs, which turned into smash sellers, were Manana by Peggy Lee, Nature Boy by Nat Cole, and Pee Wee Hunt's Twelfth Street Rag.

One of the more remarkable facts about this remarkable business enter­prise is that the most profitable year in Capitol's history was 1948, a gloomy year indeed for the entire rest of the industry. Capitol's sales spiraled to $16,862,450, with a profit of $1,315,847, and this bumper year saw them extend their market to foreign countries.

THE FIRST FIVE years of the 1950s were a continuation of the success story, climax of which was reached last year with the purchase of 96.4% of Capitol Records, Inc., by the British firm of Electric and Musical Industries, Ltd., for $8,500,000, with Glenn E. Wallichs retained as president of the company.


In 13 years Capitol has risen from a less than audacious dream given ut­terance in a record store to Big BIG Business in the commercial music world. With its new international head­quarters completed and occupied this month, the Capitol Tower stands above Hollywood and Vine as a monument to the three men who begot the enterprise out of their creative talents, drive, initiative, and imagination — the late Buddy DeSylva, Glenn Wallichs, and tunesmith Johnny Mercer.”

Capitol Bandwagon Is Booming

“Should big bands ever rise to the peak of popularity they once knew, no one could be happier about it than Capitol Records. For they have assembled the most imposing list of top name orchestral talent to be found on any label.

And even if the music world never again experiences the phenomenon of bands leading the record-selling parade, Capitol is evidently quite satisfied with the results its stable is achieving even now.


Look at some of the crews now doing their waxing for Cap:

Les Brown, Harry James, Ray Anthony, Billy May-Sam Donahue, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Ken Hanna.

In addition, they have the big-selling Benny Goodman BG in Hi-Fi album still going for them, and though Duke Ellington recently left the company, there are discs of his still in the catalog as well as some yet-unreleased sides in the bank.

Plus which Guy Lombardo is now in the Capitol ranks — a man who sells steadily and well.” [!]

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