by Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt
Indiana University Press 1999
198 pages, $24.95
reviewed by Jim Linduff
"Little Labels—Big Sound" is an effort to describe the small, independent record companies and their owners that helped develop our American music: jazz, blues, country, and rhythm & blues. Much has been written about the stars that emerged from recordings made by the indie labels beginning with Louis Armstrong and reaching a pinnacle with Elvis Presley, but the owners and their approaches to surviving in a land of giant companies have not been as thoroughly chronicled. This book tracks ten companies beginning with Gannett and Paramount started in the 1920s through Chicago's Delmark which continues to operate today.
The authors, both with connections to Cincinnati newspapers, are well versed in researching the record business. Rick Kennedy is the author of "Jelly Roll, Bix and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz" (Indiana University Press, 1994) a highly acclaimed look at how jazz was first presented on record. Randy McNutt has authored "We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement," self-published in 1988.
Each author wrote five chapters; Kennedy doing the jazz labels (Gennett, Paramount, Dial, Riverside and Delmark), McNutt covering the blues/rock oriented ( King, Duke-Peacock, Sun, Ace and Monument). The chapters are all about the same length, concentrating on how each label achieved success. Several books covering individual labels have previously been written—Sam Phillips and the Sun Record story with the discovery of Elvis, Ross Russell and Dial Records with the recordings of Charlie Parker, but in "Little Labels—Big Sound" we also learn about guys like Fred Foster at Monument Records who discovered Roy Orbison and Syd Nathan at King who, while he didn't particularly like the music he was producing—country and blues—discovered artists ranging from Grandpa Jones to James Brown. In addition, the book tries to develop the common themes among the labels that lead to success.
Beginning with little more than a love for jazz, Orrin Keepnews began Riverside Records in 1952 and in a dozen years recorded many of the best in modern jazz; Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Nat and Cannonball Adderly, and Wes Montgomery.
Much of this music is still in print today attesting to the excellent recordings and choices of artists under the direction of Keepnews.
The Delmark chapter offers little most Chicago jazz fans do not know, and in fact the two-part Delmark article written by Bob Koester for the JIC covers the history from a better informed, first hand perspective. Like Keepnews at Riverside, Koester has survived in the business by being patient and maintaining complete catalogs of the music he loves.
The problems I have with this book concern the overall scope of the effort, the labels chosen, and the lack of depth provided. While the Preface explains that the labels were selected because their stories deserved wider recognition and they did business in the early years of the record business, 1920-60, it appears the selections were merely made because the authors had already done the research, giving the book a thrown together feel. Much of the information appeared in their earlier books and the Notes indicate many of the references were quite old.
Each of the label stories has something of interest, but to exclude Chess, Blue Note and Atlantic makes the survey incomplete. Blue Note, founded in 1939, was the leading jazz label for years; Chess produced some of the greatest blues records of all time and Atlantic helped initiate the phenomenon called rock ‘n' roll. Their stories and that of the owners must be included in any complete survey of independent record companies. Also, many labels started after 1960 (Rounder and Alligator, for instance) would expand the history to today with cutting edge work in rock, alternative, etc. Given the book's very short length of 198 pages, there certainly was room to do so!
Finally, the Discography is very short, listing only three or four reissues for each label. Even the most casual fan deserves a larger choice given the large output of all but the smallest labels. While it could be argued that three CD reissue albums is sufficient for a labels like Monument and Ace (labels perhaps chosen out of convenience rather than historical significance) limiting the output of Delmark, Riverside and Sun is inexcusable.
Those who are interested in the subject are advised to look elsewhere. Some of the label histories are available—Keepnews's "A View From Within," Colin Escott's "Good Rockin' Tonight," and "Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N' Roll" are examples. It's a subject worth exploring because in many ways, these people helped define American music. "Little Labels—Big Sound" is a superficial effort, at best.