Best in Class

I guess I ought to begin with the obvious question: what is common thread that connects Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Adele, and Beyoncé?

The answer is Columbia Records. Founded in 1888, it’s probably the oldest record label. Along with sister labels Epic, Okeh, and a few others–set the standard for the U.S. recording industry for half of the 20th century. This story, now in book form by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, is, well, epic. The book is called 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story (the term “360 Sound” refers to a tagline associated with Columbia’s stereo LPs).


“(I Ain’t Got) Nobody” was one of the many songs that made Bert Williams famous. He was among the first non-white stars in the United States.

After some novelty acts, Columbia establishes a firm footing with vaudeville superstar Al Jolson; the great singer and comedian who later starred in the Ziegfield Follies, Bert Williams, and one of the fathers of country music, Emmett Miller. A short time later, John Philip Sousa joined the label (at the time, his full band could not be recorded due to early microphones, so the sound was thinner than it was in live performances). Add W.C. Handy, and an equally impressive range of classical performers.

Columbia became a major force in “race records,” recognizing, early on, White consumer interest in Black performers. From this era came Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and artists that those familiar with the genres continue to buy: Blind Willie Johnson, for example. There was country (and western) music, too: Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff. Next came jazz pianist Art Tatum, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. And Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby. And gospel music: The Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson. And that’s all before the organization really found its way.

(As I said, this is an astonishing story. It’s wave after wave of the superb artists in every genre, all working, at one time or another, for the same label, or cluster of labels.)

So here comes the 1950s with Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Glenn Gould, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney… and almost no rock n’ roll. Mitch Miller–a company executive and in his own right, a very popular recording artist as a leader of a singing group–was against the whole idea. Still, they were strong in every other genre–classical in particular, and jazz. It was here that Miles Davis recorded most of his best work, with Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and so many others. Unfortunately, although quite classy, there wasn’t much profit in classical, jazz or (most) Broadway recordings. Country was better: Flatt and Scruggs, Lefty Frizell, The Stanley Brothers, and eventually, Johnny Cash.

Along the way, there’s some tasty back-and-forth between Columbia and its long-time arch-rival (in just about every musical category), RCA Victor (which, in its golden age, was owned by RCA, which owned NBC to Columbia’s CBS). The two companies do their best to mess with the other, stealing artists, introducing competing record formats (the LP came from Columbia and the 45 came from RCA).

For a while longer, they stick with easy choices, and steer clear of the growing revolution: they sign Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis (who sells an insane number of records), and Robert Goulet.

Columbia RecordsAnd then, it happens. They sign Bob Dylan. Everything begins to change. Simon & Garfunkel come next. Suddenly, the cool jazz label, the reliable country label, the powerhouse classical label, becomes the unbelievably great rock label. The Byrds are covering Dylan songs and selling lots of Byrds and Dylan records. Donovan is signed to Epic, and debuts with a hit (“Sunshine Superman”). There’s a new executive in charge (much of the whole story is told through the eras of individual executives). His name is Clive Davis, and now, Columbia is the place to hear Janis Joplin and Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. They sign Earth Wind and Fire; Johnny Cash records an album at Folsom Prison; Monk and Miles are selling lots of jazz, with Miles into fusion, and appealing to rock audiences. And then, by the mid-1970s, there’s another wave of newcomers: Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen. A great story is becoming better and better.

And then, another wave, this time bringing Willie Nelson to the company and making him a star. The jazz story continues to heat up with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and a newcomer from the young lions of jazz, Wynton Marsalis. On the classical side, Yo-Yo Ma is becoming a star.

All of this is one company, basically one record label. Of course, the story continues through hip-hop, Ricky Martin, an aging Bob Dylan, Michael Bolton and Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child and John Mayer. Chris Botti and Joshua Bell.

Yes, they’ve been bought and sold, multiple times (now owned by Sony). For me, the best part of the journey (oh yes, Journey was one of theirs, too), the best part of this coffee table book, is the era that picks up in the early 1950s and winds down about twenty years later. That’s when CBS was a very special place, in part because Columbia was just about the coolest record label around. It’s a good story, fun because of the memories, remarkable because of the achievement. And, I think, the best way to experience the era is on the vinyl records that Columbia invented, most of them now available, used, for about $5 at just about any good used record store.

columbia labels

So, I’ve been thinking about other labels with equally rich histories. The Warner Music Group includes Atlantic, Elektra, Nonesuch, and Warner Bros. Records. Historically, Atlantic’s strengths have been R&B and rock; Elektra’s have been folk and rock; Nonesuch has evolved into something like a (smaller) modern day Columbia Records with interesting artists, Broadway, classical, and international; Warner Bros. is, more or less, a popular music label. The crazy history of the labels that became Sony Music now encompasses Columbia’s long-time competitor RCA (Victor) as well as the Columbia labels; in just about every category, from Broadway to classical to country, RCA and Columbia were head-to-head, and although I want to write that Columbia did it just that much better on the rock and pop side, I’m reminded of the Jefferson Airplane (less so, the Starship), John Denver and others from the heyday (none were Dylan or Miles Davis–so maybe Columbia did do it better). In classical music, the labels now assembled under the current Decca Label Group, now part of Universal, include London/Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, but neither attempted the breadth of genres associated with Columbia. Similarly, the likes of Verve, A&M, and other Universal labels, lacked the grand ambition (and, probably, the monies available from CBS). EMI’s story is more complicated, and although its U.S. division, Capitol Records, released many pop and rock records, and some Broadway, it never established the breadth of material available from Columbia.

So, in terms of wide-ranging, deep-repetoire, and long history, it’s Columbia Records and its best competitor, RCA (Victor), but I urge you to have a look at all that Nonesuch has done, too.

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