January 30, 2000

Little Labels–Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music.  By Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt.  Indiana University Press, 1999.  198 pages.  ISBN: 0-253-33548-5. $24.95.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

This lightweight volume is a collection of articles about minor labels which, according to the authors (and most others, I suspect) made a major difference in the course of recording history.  Ten labels are profiled, ranging from the 1920s to the 1960s, all active in jazz, blues or other “minority music.”  They are Gennett, Paramount, Dial, King, Duke-Peacock, Sun, Riverside, Ace, Monument and Delmark.  Each receives from 15 to 20 pages outlining its history and major artists.

Like most books about record labels, Little Labels–Big Sound is really about the personalities involved–the men (sorry–no women) who built the companies and the artists who recorded for them.  In the words of the authors, “our purpose was to profile record industry underdogs, who, despite tough odds, produced memorable music that is still very much with us” (p.xi).  Some, like the Gennett family of Richmond, Indiana, and Otto Moeser of Paramount, had little interest in music themselves, operating their labels as offshoots from other manufacturing enterprises.  Fortunately they employed people who did care about music, like Paramount’s H.C. Speir (a talent scout based in Jackson, Mississippi) and J. Mayo Williams (one of the earliest black record producers).  Some label executives were real characters, like King’s blustery Syd Nathan and Duke’s gangster-ish Don Robey.  Others, like Sam Phillips of Sun and Fred Foster of Monument, were men possessed by a certain “sound” they were driven to create.  Orrin Keepnews of Riverside loved his music and ignored business realities so much that his label ultimately went bankrupt.  He later commented, “I ruined a perfectly good hobby by making it my profession.”  However he did preserve a great deal of good music.

Also profiled are the artists in front of the microphones (or in some cases, the recording horns).  James Brown struts through these pages, alongside such unlikely partners as Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Thelonius Monk, Big Mama Thornton (watch out for her!), Little Richard (who says that label-owner Robey physically assaulted him to make him sign a contract) and the multi-octave Roy Orbison.

Unfortunately what we read about these interesting people is mostly brief career sketches and well-known anecdotes.  While the narrative is breezily written and certainly entertaining, there is little here that is new.  Nearly all of these labels have been treated elsewhere in greater depth.  Co-author Kennedy, in fact, has written an entire volume about Gennett (Jelly Roll, Bix and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz, Indiana University Press, 1994), on which the present chapter was based.  The Paramount chapter draws from (and credits) the extensive research by Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow, published over multiple issues of 78 Quarterly.  An excellent book on Duke/Peacock, by Galen Gart and Roy C. Ames (Big Nickel Publications, 1990), was reviewed by this writer in ARSC Journal 22:2.  And there has been enough written about Sam Phillips’ Sun label to fill a moderate-sized bookshelf.

Many of the artist anecdotes sound familiar.  There has been much written about Bix, Charlie Parker’s drug addiction, and Johnny Ace’s sudden death (playing Russian Roulette backstage).  Even the authors seem a little embarrassed recounting once again how Elvis Presley came to make his first recording at Sun (p.95).  To be fair, some of the quotes are presumably new, at least in book form, as they are credited to personal interviews by the authors or to articles they have written.  But even then they may be oft-told tales; Carl Perkins for years told interviewers how he composed “Blue Swade Shoes” on a potato sack in the middle of the night, while he was living in a housing project (“I didn’t even know how to spell ‘suede'”).  In any event, one would expect to find this type of artist information in a book or article about the artist, not in a book about “little record labels.”

Most chapters offer relatively little information about the business aspects of the labels, their recording methods, marketing, matrix series, etc.  Also, given the book’s subtitle, there is surprisingly little analysis or in-depth discussion about just how these fringe labels “shaped American music.”  Did they?  An interesting discussion might have been framed around the question, “which had the greater impact–Victor or Gennett?”

There are useful black and white photographs scattered throughout the text, primarily album covers, record labels, and publicity shots.  Oddly, several of the label owners who are central to the various chapters are not pictured.  A short appendix lists a limited number of reissue CD’s drawn from the catalogs of the labels covered.  Although there are footnotes for direct quotes, most specifics are unsourced (as was the case with Calt and Wardlow’s work).  Thus we cannot judge the reliability of specific dates and relationships that are asserted, a liability for future researchers.

In summary, Little Labels–Big Sound is a conveniently organized, entertaining book and a good introduction to the field for newcomers.  It is probably at its best covering labels that have not already been widely written about, such as Dial and Riverside, as opposed to the much-covered Gennett, Paramount and Sun.  The information seems to be generally accurate.  However the general air of superficiality, and the lack of documentation, will make it a marginal choice for scholars seriously interested in this subject.


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