Record Makers and Breakers
University of Illinois (2009 640 pages)
John Broven, the author of Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans and South to Louisiana, to important studies of regional Louisiana music, has authored an important new volume Record Makers and Breakers. Subtitled Voices of the Independent Rock’n’Roll Pioneers, Broven has provided an invaluable history of the many small independent labels that helped launch most of today’s contemporary music. While his prior books had a primary focus on the artists, while discussing some of the regional labels and the men who were behind the label, the aim of the present volume is a focus on the emergence of the small labels and other aspects of the independent record scene through interviews with the label owners, A&R folk, juke box operators, independent distributors, radio personalities and some performers.
This history of the Independent record Industry is documented in 480 pages of the main body of the text which Broven developed in interviews over the past several decades. There are 97 photographs of some of the people discussed, and appendices with US Record Sales, a listing of Independent Record Distributors over several points of time, a listing of pressing plants, a listing of many postwar record labels and their current owners, list of record men in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, biographical data on Record Makers, and those he conducted oral history with. The are 44 pages of End Notes, and 11 pages of Bibliography that includes a list of selected reissues from these small labels and a very extensive index.
Taking us from the early days of the Indie labels including a couple like Capitol and Mercury that would become majors, we learn about how the Bihari Brothers and others started recording performers to have records for juke boxes they company serviced. We join John R and other radio legends as they start broadcasting rhythm and blues on radio sponsored by Randy’s in Nashville and meet other characters and innovators. There is Sam Phillips in Memphis who starts recording Howlin' Wolf and others for the Bihari Brothers and then when he feels that the Biharis were not doing him right sends Rocket 88, to Leonard Chess and soon Joe Bihari himself is traveling in the Deep South with Ike Turner recording Elmore James, Sunny Blair and others leading to the eventual resolution of the dispute with Chess that gives Howlin’ Wolf to Chess and Roscoe Gordon to the Modern labels and results in Phillips forming Sun records.
It isn't simply the well-known stories like Sam Phillips and Sun that is the subject of Record Makers & Breakers. The meat and potatoes of the book focuses on the personalities and the doings of independent record companies. Leonard Chess and others get into their cars laden with records and travel to meet distributors, juke box operators and disk jockeys. This iss a world of payola for dee-jays and free records for promotional persons. Labels would provide their distributors with 1000 records to distribute to mom and pop stores and other retail locations while adding another 300 for the distributor to use when visiting dee jays and other promotional activities. Then there was the small independent pressing plants that were used, and if luck struck and one had a hit, the label hopefully would get paid so it get more copies pressed. One hears about how artists got ripped off, but the labels themselves often were on a tightrope in their constant battle to keep producing hits and stay in business.
The focus on the labels and distributors is initially on the R&B and hillbilly labels and some of the regional labels that focused on ethnic music such as cajun music, but there are slight detours into the world of children’s music as well as the New York office of a British label that licensed the music of various independent labels for English release. There are shady characters and mob connections, bootlegging of smash hits and the payola scandals along with the decline of the independent labels during the sixties and seventies as the major labels fully embraced rock’n’roll.
This only suggests some of the threads that Broven weaves together in this history of the post-war Independent Record labels. There are some independent labels that are not discussed, but practically every single major label that led to the rise of rock’n’roll gets its due. Obviously in considering the history of popular music, the performers and styles are prominent. However, without the business of producing, manufacturing and distributing for sale, and broadcast, music, the music simply does not get disseminated and distributed. Record Makers And Breakers is a book that anyone seriously
interested in understanding today's popular music and the development
of the record industry needs to obtain.
I likely received a review copy from the publsiher or a publicist for the publisher. This review was written several years ago, but I do not believe it was published. There is a paperback edition for this book and it is available as an ebook.