June 30, 1991

Duke/Peacock Records: An Illustrated History with Discography.  By Galen Gart & Roy C. Ames, with contributions from Ray Funk, Rob Bowman and David Booth.  Milford, NH: Big Nickel Publications, 1990.  234 pp., illus., $35 plus $4 shipping (U.S. and Canada).   Available from Big Nickel Publications, P.O. Box 157, Milford, NH 03055.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

This is the book that should have won the 1991 ARSC Award for Excellence in the field of Record Labels or Manufacturers.  It is a striking achievement.  This is not to detract from the book that did win the award, Alan Kelly’s fine His Master’s Voice: The French Catalogue.  Kelly’s book is a straight numerical listing of issues.  Duke/Peacock is a much rarer type of book, combining meticulous research into the who, what and when of a label with an unusually vivid word picture of that label and the people who built it.  Most books are fortunate to do one thing well.  This one does two: it is a first rate reference, and a extremely entertaining “read.”

It helps, of course, that Duke/Peacock was built by some pretty colorful characters.  Foremost was its founder Don Robey, a powerful, charismatic black man who built the label from scratch in the late 1940s.  Robey, a Houston night club owner, lived in a rough world and knew how to deal with it.  How many label owners keep a large pistol in their desk to aid in artist negotiations?  Though no musician himself, he had an ear for blues, R&B and gospel talent and with them he built a significant “minor label” of the 1950s.

Robey’s two principal labels, Duke and Peacock, had few hits in the pop field but a great many on the R&B and (later) Soul charts.  Several of his artists are revered by collectors and historians interested in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.  Perhaps the most successful was Johnny Ace, a handsome young black crooner (nearly all of Robey’s talent was black) who scored several major R&B hits between 1952 and 1955.  One of these, “Pledging My Love,” has since become a pop standard.  Ace’s personal problems stemming from his overnight celebrity, and his sudden death are carefully documented here.  The story of the young singer’s tragic death (was he playing Russian Roulette?), backstage at a holiday show, is well known.  Here, perhaps for the first time, we have the full story of exactly what happened, including the “alterations” made later to enhance the tragedy.

Other Duke/Peacock artists make scarcely less interesting reading.  Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”) was a 250‑pound “bull dyke lesbian” who terrified everyone in sight except Robey.  Little Richard was, well, inimitable.  Other artists were perhaps less colorful but even more important musically: Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, B.B. King, the Dixie Hummingbirds, O.V. Wright and more.  Their stories are all told here, and many are quoted.  Indeed, Duke/Peacock Records at times threatens to become a parade of artist biographies‑‑until some new twist in Robey’s career reclaims the spotlight.

Duke/Peacock vividly portrays the seamy underside of the record industry, but authors do not overlook the significant socioeconomic and cultural contributions Robey made to the industry and to the convergence of black and white popular music.  He was a rare breed, a black man succeeding in a white man’s business, in the South, at a time when that was not encouraged.  By the end of the book, through his own flowery quotes and the reminiscences of others, the reader feels he has come to know this unusual man and his world.

The authors have tapped many primary sources, including interviews with associates of Robey, original files and trade papers of the period.  When a key player or piece of information has disappeared entirely, they say so and shed whatever light they can on the situation.  Prior work on the label and its artists is fully credited.  This is a refreshingly honest book.

The book includes a full discography (as much as can be reconstructed without the company’s missing recording logs) and more than 100 fascinating illustrations, many of them rare action shots.  The production values of the book are thoroughly professional.

Robey’s labels continued to operate through the “soul years” of the 1960s, until the entire catalog was sold to ABC Records in 1973.  Robey died two years later at the age of 71.  Many of the masters he cut are now considered classics and will continue to be reissued, probably forever.

Duke/Peacock Records is clearly the definitive history of those labels, as well as one of the best books yet written on the wider subject of black labels during the R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll eras.  Future work in this field will be measured against its high standards.  Don’t miss it.


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