September 13, 1992

The Aladdin/Imperial Labels.  A Discography.  Compiled by Michel Ruppli.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.  xiv + 727 pp., $75.  ISBN 0‑313‑27821‑0.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The huge field of pop and rock music has been ill served by discography, with most of the published work to date‑‑and there is a great deal of it‑‑consisting of simple release lists of issued records.  Even such sprawling general surveys as Ken Clee’s Directory of American 45 R.P.M. Records and Jerry Osborne’s new Complete Library of American Phonograph Recordings contain little more than title, artist and release number‑‑no information on recording dates, session personnel or matrix numbers.  Some discographers of pop and rock derisively say they don’t care about such “details.”  Most of the leading periodicals in the field won’t even print them.  Certainly release lists can be valuable predecessors to a more thorough study of a field.  But ultimately the “details”‑‑who recorded what, and when‑‑are what discography is all about.

Thus we should not quibble about details when a book such as The Aladdin/Imperial Labels comes along.  Arguably, Frenchman Michel Ruppli has done more to set high standards for post‑war popular discography than anyone with his book‑length discographies of the Prestige, Atlantic, Savoy, Chess, King, Clef/Verve and Blue Note labels.  (Others who have set similarly high standards in more limited areas include ARSC Award winner Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins with the Sun label, and reissue producer Richard Weize with his impressive box set “booklets.”)  Some information that we would like to see may still be missing, but Ruppli has provided a enormous amount, and perhaps more importantly has constructed the framework on which future research will be built.

Ruppli’s latest achievement is a considerable one, a 727‑page survey of Aladdin, Imperial and a dozen affiliated labels, covering a 25‑year period from the mid ’40s to 1970.  Aladdin (originally called Philo) was a small but significant jazz and blues label founded in Los Angeles in 1945, and absorbed by Imperial in 1961.  Imperial began in 1946 as a Los Angeles folk label, but quickly grew to become a major force in country, rhythm and blues and ultimately rock music; by the late ’50s it was one of the largest independent labels in America, boasting such superstars as Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson.  In the 1960s Imperial was bought by Liberty; both were absorbed by United Artists in 1969, and later became part of the EMI conglomerate.

The main body of The Aladdin/Imperial Labels is arranged in matrix (i.e., chronological) order.  There are four sections, occupying 606 pages‑‑Aladdin masters (1945‑1961), Imperial Folk/Dance series (1945‑1960), Imperial Popular series (1947‑1970), and masters leased or purchased from outside sources, including virtually the entire output of the Minit label, which was bought in 1963.  These sections are followed by numerical release lists for singles and LP’s, cross referenced to the main matrix entries, and a master index of artist names.

The main matrix entries are in “Rust format,” with location and date, session personnel, matrix, title, and issues (including subsequent reissues) for each title.  Ruppli and his many helpers have had access to the company’s files, so there is an enormous amount of information here on both issued and unissued takes.  Unfortunately much is also missing, particularly in the area of session personnel and recording dates.  Presumably this information is missing from the files.  However it is hard to believe that some of the gaps could not have been filled in by more thorough research in other sources‑‑for example artist itineraries, union files, and release information (no release dates are shown).  Virtually no dates are given for sessions after 1966; couldn’t these at least have been estimated from release patterns?  Even obvious leads are not followed up.  Aladdin no. 150 consists of highlights of a Louis‑Conn heavyweight fight, dated simply “1946.”  It ought not to be too hard to determine the date the fight took place.  Some later LP’s consist of motion picture soundtracks, but no dates are given for the films.  The Aladdin/Imperial Labels is a little like the first edition of Brian Rust’s fabled Jazz Records, a good start awaiting future researchers to fill in the gaps.

Another unfortunate omission is that of a title index.  Suppose you want to look up the session in which Fats Domino cut his biggest hit, “My Blue Heaven.”  There are 73 different page citations under “Fats Domino” in the artist index, so happy hunting!  Even worse was my attempt to find out when Slim Whitman, Imperial’s biggest country star, remade his early million seller “Secret Love” (it is the overproduced remake, not the strange, eerily simple original that almost always turns up in reissues).  No luck.  Slim has almost as many pages cited in the artist index as Fats, and sometimes dozens of titles listed on each page.  I never did find it.

Of course in all that searching you’ll run across other interesting tidbits that you never expected, for example the fact that country great Joe Maphis played lead guitar on Ricky Nelson’s first session in 1957, and that the unbilled female voice duetting with Fats Domino on “When I See You” in the same year may have been LaVern Baker.  (Could somebody ask her about that?)

The typed manuscript is clear and well laid out, although page headings to tell you which section you are in would have been helpful.  In all, the shortcomings (and I don’t mean to overemphasize them) are far outweighed by the wealth of information that is contained in this ground‑breaking book.  It will be of tremendous value to those interested in the labels or in the many important jazz, country, folk, R&B and rock artists who recorded for them.


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