Monday, March 1, 2021

The Rise of the Nat King Cole Trio and The Birth of Capitol Records by Will Friedwald

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There's a guy up at the Apollo. No one knows him, but he's going to be the biggest star in the world.”


“WHEN THE KING COLE TRIO cut its premiere session for Capitol Records, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, 1943, everyone involved, most especially the artist himself, seemed very much aware that this was going to be a historic occasion. It almost was predestined that this, to quote the last line of the most recent Oscar-winning best picture, was going to be "the beginning of a beautiful friendship." With this in mind, Capitol commissioned a photographer, one Holland Shreves, to document the date. The session took place on November 30 at the C. P. MacGregor Studios at 729 South Western Avenue, Hollywood, where Capitol customarily rented the facilities before they had the resources to acquire their own.

The session started with the "money" song, Cole's own original, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which was followed by three other numbers, all of which became instant classics as soon as they were released. Yet what Shreves captured with his camera was no less fascinating than the music itself. In the most famous photo from the session, Cole is the only one looking at the camera. Guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller are concentrating on their instruments and the music. Producer and Capitol co-founder Johnny Mercer is standing behind the piano, his hands in his pockets, his famous gap-toothed smile beaming very widely even as his eyes gaze down on Cole; he clearly knows that he is looking at a million dollars' worth of talent. At twenty-four, Cole looks young and handsome, but most of all fully aware. He is playing—his hands are on the keyboard—but clearly his mind is on something more than the notes; he's playing  to the camera and is engaged with it, as if it were an actual audience.

There are several posters on the wall that make the studio like a conference room in a World War II munitions plant, with mottos like "courtesy is not unpatriotic" and "serve in silence." There is also a sign over the door that clearly reads, "Positively No Smoking." In utter defiance of this, resting on the piano, is an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Alas, this too is an indicator of things to come.

VIEWED FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of history, that is to say, backward, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the King Cole Trio was destined to become the most popular "combo" of its era. There were three major trends in black popular music in the mid-1940s: bebop, rhythm and blues, and star vocalists—and the Trio incorporated all three of these developments, not just partially or lightly, but aggressively and completely. Fans of modern jazz (like Dizzy Gillespie), fans of blues and riff dance numbers and novelties (like Louis Jordan), and fans of superstar singers (like Frank Sinatra and Billy Eckstine) could all equally enjoy the King Cole Trio. More than any other musical act of the postwar era, the Trio perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of the time and offered something for everyone. In millennial parlance, they checked every box,

"One night at the 331 Club [West 8th St., corner of Ardmore in Los Angeles, CA, in late 1943 it was Johnny Mercer and Glenn Wallichs came in and told me they were forming a record company, Capitol Records," Cole said in a 1957 profile. They asked me if I'd be interested in recording for them. Well, that sounded groovy to me. Of course, I had been with Decca, but I wasn't too happy there. So, I decided to go with Mercer and Wallichs and just see what happened." As always, Cole was trying to make it seem as though everything about his career was highly casual, if not completely random. It was just pure luck that Johnny and Glenn just happened to stroll in to the 331. In actuality, Cole, Mercer, and Wallichs had all been dancing around each other for more than three years by the time of their first Capitol date.

As we've seen, the Trio's first ever recording (a 1938 Standard Transcription), was a Johnny Mercer song, and Mercer himself apparently had heard the Trio in person around that same time. "I was with Bing Crosby the first time I saw him," said Mercer, "in a steakhouse on La Cienega Boulevard called Jimmy Otto's. He looked about eighteen and underfed, and I didn't catch his name, but he was very, very good on piano. The Trio had a nice sound."

Cole probably met Wallichs in spring 1940 when the Trio was ensconced at the Radio Room on Vine Street, across from the NBC Studios. "He spent many days and evenings with me in the bar in the bowling alley next to Music City," said Wallichs. Wallichs, described as "a genial heavy set fellow," was preparing to launch his ambitious new store, Music City, that summer; he and his father, Oscar, were already so impressed with Cole that they hired the Trio to play at the opening. The Wallichses were from Nebraska, where Oscar (like the father of Peggy Lee in North Dakota), for most of his career, had been a railroad man, who was transferred to Los Angeles in 1916. Glenn Wallichs's original trade was selling and repairing radios, and he first met Mercer at some point around this time when the songwriter's wife, Ginger, hired him to install a radio in Johnny's car as a present for his birthday. Encouraged by Mercer and other celebrity clients, in 1940, Glenn and Oscar marshaled their resources to open their own permanent retail outlet. Music City, located "in the heart of the Hollywood Radio District on Sunset and Vine," quickly became the go-to emporium for records and sheet music in the Los Angeles area, especially because it also contained listening rooms and a rudimentary recording booth.

Thus, both Cole and Mercer were part of the Music City scene from the beginning, and throughout the first year of the stores existence, Mercer not only increasingly admired Wallichs technical ability but also began to get a sense of his business acumen and his understanding of the music industry. There they were, two young men (Mercer was only thirty in 1940) with invaluable experience on different sides of that business: Mercer in creating songs, Wallichs in selling them. They both had new ideas about how things should be done: "Mercer complained about bad arrangements, sloppy recordings, and the sloughing off of new talent. Wallichs thought that selling and distribution of the [established labels] was completely out of date." In the words of Dave Dexter, soon to become one of the first employees of the new firm, "One day, Johnny said 'Gee! You know, we ought to make records of our own.' " Apparently it was as simple as that.

At the time, the two biggest labels, Columbia and RCA Victor, were affiliated with major radio networks, CBS and NBC, while Decca, launched in 1934, started as the American wing of a powerful British corporation. Mercer and Wallichs launched Capitol Records with just their own experience, chutzpah, and, in 21st-century parlance, "sweat equity." They also enjoyed the resources, financial and otherwise, of an invaluable third and silent partner, George "Buddy" DeSylva. 

In 1941, DeSylva was best known as a successful and wealthy producer at Paramount Pictures; earlier, he had been a prominent lyricist, as one-third of the highly successful three-man songwriting team of the 19205, DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, who had written many hit shows and early talking picture musicals and dozens of standard songs. The three went their separate ways in the early thirties, and DeSylva climbed the Hollywood ladder, where he gradually assumed his place among the top Tinseltown moguls. He was not, however, a particularly Jong-lived one; he died at age fifty-five in 1350, Around 1941-42, both lyricists, Mercer, forever a working songwriter, and DeSylva, now one of the guys in charge, were talking at Paramount about the idea for a new label and the older man said, "Great! I'll give you $10,000 to start it."

But what to name the new venture? Their first choice was "Liberty Records." However, they were well aware that there was already a famous store on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan called Liberty Music Shop, which also operated its own "boutique" record label." Undaunted, Mercer and Wallichs went ahead and incorporated their new company in March 1941 as Liberty Records, hoping that they could acquire the use of the name from the Liberty Music Shop. On April 6, the new firm produced its first session, and the four titles had Liberty master numbers: LIB-1 and LIB-2 (Martha Tilton) and LIB-3 and LIB-4 (Johnny Mercer).

Alas, the company name "Liberty" was apparently the only thing that was not for sale at the Liberty Music Shop. "They were reluctant to let us have it and seemed steamed at the suggestion," said Mercer. It was his long-suffering wife, Ginger, who came up with the second choice: "Capitol Records." By May, the new name—and everything else—was in place, and none too soon. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was just about to announce a ban on all recordings, and there was just enough time for the partners to squeeze in about a dozen sessions before the ban officially put an end to new recording as of july 31. Capitol had its first releases in their hands by June; their earliest hits included "Travelin" Light," by Paul Whiteman's Orchestra with a vocal by an incognito Billie Holiday, and a wartime blockbuster, "Cow-Cow Boogie" by Freddie Slack’s Orchestra with Ella Mae Morse. Mercer himself was in a unique position; two of Capitol's earliest hits were "Strip Polka'' and "G,I, Jive," both of which offered words, music, and vocals by Mercer, who also served as producer and label co-founder.

The AFM strike went into effect on August first, which normally would have been a disaster for a fledgling operation like Capitol, but the twin leaders were quick to see the upside. "The war and even the musicians' strike made our little company better known and more quickly recognized," as Mercer later wrote. "Due to the shortage of other labels, we got heard a lot. We could do nothing wrong. Everything that should have held us back worked for us." Wallichs concurred, "When [AFM head] Petrillo slapped his ban on all recordings [the union wanted a bigger share of the revenue generated by playing records on radio programs] shortly after our first release, we again thought we were licked. But it turned out to be our biggest piece of good fortune. Before the ban, we worked night and day turning out such tunes as 'Cow Cow Boogie' and 'G. I. Jive.' When those tunes became popular, we were the only company that had recorded them and dealers all over the country began to buy from us."

In early 1943, the label hired its first public relations man, Dave Dexter Jr,, a longtime music journalist and reviewer from Kansas City. Dexter's primary job was to turn out press releases and write and edit the label's "house organ" publication, the Capitol News, but as a committed jazz and blues advocate, he also took it upon himself to help steer Capitol in that direction. Even with only three months of "runway," Capitol somehow managed to release twenty-five singles in its first (partial) year. Because they couldn't record anything new after July 31, Dexter scouted around for worthwhile existing masters that the company could acquire. "In 1943 I was instrumental in signing Nat Cole for Capitol," as he put it. "The year before there was a record he made where he sang all by himself. All his previous records had been ensemble singing with Oscar Moore and the old bass player, Wesley Prince. I used to hear this ballad 'All for You,' late at night on the record shows broadcast. One day, I had a chance to buy this master. This was the summer of 1943, and the Petrillo strike was still on. We couldn't make any new records and we were beginning to run low."

Dexter gave other accounts of this over the years but never contradicted himself. "We were waiting for the first Petrillo record ban to end," he said in 1977, "and one day on lunch hour when I was over in Music City, Hughie Claudin, who ran this place for Glenn Wallichs, told me that Bob Scherman had a record that had been getting a lot of airplay. And I said, 'Is it "All for You?"' And he says, "That's it!' And he said, 'Scherman wants to peddle it to another company.' "

What Dexter doesn't say, and what everyone seems to have forgotten, was that Excelsior Records, the independent "race" label that had originally released these two sides, had direct ties to Capitol from its inception. At least two of the men running Excelsior, Hughie Claudin and Oscar Wallichs, were directly connected to Glenn Wallichs: Claudin was apparently continuing to work at Music City (even while moonlighting at Excelsior) and Oscar, as we know, was his father. In retrospect, it seems probable that the Wallichses had planned this from the beginning; if the ban were to go on long enough (say, more than six months), with the help of Rene and Scherman, they now had the option to use Excelsior as a feeder label, a means by which Capitol could acquire issuable masters without having to deal with Petrillo.

Finally, Dexter said, "So we put out this record and it was a big, big seller. Of course, in those days, two hundred thousand copies of a single was a big hit and made the top ten chart." "All for You," backed with " Vom, Vim, Veedle," was released during the last week of October 1943, as Capitol 139, the label's thirty-ninth single. It was an immediate success, reaching number one on the race chart and number nineteen on the mainstream pop chart. This was only about eight months after "That Ain't Right" on Decca had reached number one; within one year, Cole had reached the top of the Harlem Hit Parade twice, and now even cracked the white charts for the first time as well.

When Decca declined to renew the Trio's contract at the end of 1941, it must have appeared to be the end of the world, but by summer 1943, it was starting to seem like a lucky break. Now they were at liberty to negotiate with an ambitious new startup label that could, potentially, do a lot more for them. Throughout 1943, King Cole had a remarkable trick up his sleeve—an ace in the hole; he was armed with a song that was, effectively, the Manhattan Project in 32 bars. Despite what Cole wanted us to think, the overwhelming success of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" was no accident. Rather, Cole planned his next move with the tactical skill and ingenuity of the scientists at Los Alamos and proved that he was the Robert Oppenheimer of pop music.”

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