Friday, February 3, 2017

Black History Month: Recording Labels and the Musical Entrepreneur

Today's music listeners are probably well aware of record labels devoted to music by African-Americans.  Russell Simmons  and Rick Rubin launched Def Jam Recordings in 1984.  Cash Money Records, founded in 1991, launched the careers of Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj.  In 1989, in conjunction with major label Arista Records, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antionio "L.A." Reid launched LaFace Records, which has since been absorbed by RCA.

This isn't a new phenomenon.  Since the beginnings of the recording industry, black entrepreneurs launched many successful labels which in turn launched the careers of many artists who otherwise may not have found an audience.

The Music Collection has CDs and information about many of these labels.

1921: Black Swan Records is founded in Harlem by Harry Pace.  It was the first black-owned record label that produced music by and for black Americans.  Pace recorded ground-breaking artists such as Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, one of the first great dance bands, and songstress Ethel Waters.  Composer William Grant Still was one of the regular accompanying instrumentalists.  The label was short-lived but its impact continues to this day.

During the 1930s and 1940s, black artists recorded for white-owned labels, many making a lot of money and becoming superstars of their time.  Records marketed to black audiences were called "race records."  Okey, Columbia, Paramount and Decca made millions from this market.

In the 1950s artists and the recording industry rebelled against the polished pop sounds of the post-war era.  In jazz, small bebop combos recalled the earliest days of jazz, when improvisation within small groups gave artists such as Louis Armstrong creative freedom.  There was also a folk music revival, which brought rural sounds to the fore.  White artists such as Pete Seeger and The Weavers popularized white folk music, the blues of rural black America experienced a renaissance that eventually resulted in the new genre of rock 'n' roll.  The Library of Congress's folklore programs brought both black and white folk music to urban consciousness through its records (Most now available on the Smithsonian-Folkways label)

Motown, named for the Motor City, Detroit, was the first big label dedicated to and owned by African-Americans.  Founded and run by Barry Gordy in a two-story house, the label produced many superstar artists, and the label became synonymous with the soul sound of 1960s African-Americans.  It also became synonymous with self-affirmation in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. "Power to the Motown People" is a compilation of songs from 1968-1975 that expressed the varied feelings of artists during turbulent times.  The label continues to produce African-American artists' work.

Selected CDs in the Music Collection:
Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection

A Cellarful of Motown: The Rarest Detroit Grooves
Catalog Subject Search:  Motown Record Corporation

Read more about the African-American recording industry in The Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (log in required from off campus)




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