70 years ago today, Capitol Records opened it’s first office in a second floor room, just south of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Founded by songwriters Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva, along with record store owner Glenn Wallichs, within a few weeks of this humble start it had released it’s first single Cow Cow Boogie, by Freddie Slack and His Orchestra featuring vocals by Ella Mae Morse. It quickly became their first number one single, and the first of many to sell a million copies. The rest as they often say, is history…
Mercer had already written many songs by this time, as well as releasing many records himself. DeSylva was also the Executive Producer at Paramount Pictures in addition to his many songwriting credits (many written with George Gershwin), whilst Wallichs ran the biggest record store in Los Angeles, Music City. Between them, they all thought there was a better way of running a record label, and set out to do so, and to maybe topple the dominance of those ones that controlled much of the music business at that time. As Mercer was famously quoted saying, “I’ve got this idea of starting a record company. I get so tired of listening to the way everyone treats music. I keep feeling they’re selling out. And I don’t like the way artists are treated either. Bing Crosby isn’t the only one who can make records. I don’t know, I think it would be fun”.
Also on this same day 70 years ago, Glenn Wallichs presented the first free record to a radio disc jockey by the name of Peter Potter. Such was Potter’s delight at receiving “a freebie”, Wallichs decided to give them out to other disc jockeys, becomeing the first in the business to do so, and starting a tradition that continues to this very day. So Happy Birthday to free records, too!
Here’s a video clip of that first record with Ella Mae Morse, courtesy of YouTube. Although it featured in the 1942 Abbott & Costello film Ride ‘Em Cowboy, this footage is from a ‘Soundie’, an early version of the modern pop video. Soundies played on coin operated jukeboxes in nightclubs and bars, and were often produced in Hollywood itself.
By 1946, Capitol had already sold some 42 million records. Some of their major artists included Les Baxter, Les Paul (who helped create and build their recording studios), Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman and Nat King Cole. The latter became so successful for the label that when the famous Capitol Records Tower (pictured above) was built a few years later, it was nicknamed “The House That Nat Built”.
They continued to build on their successes, and the arrival of the fifties saw them sign many more hit artists like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Andrews Sisters, Shirley Bassey, Dean Martin, Al Martino and Nancy Wilson, to name just a few.
In 1955 they were bought out by British company EMI, and their growth continued for many more years, helped perhaps in some part during the sixties when they had first refusal on releasing The Beatles records in the United States, due to the deal with EMI which helped usher in Beatlemania there.
All their releases shared superb sound recording, thanks to the aforementioned custom built studios precision designed by Les Paul, and built into the Capitol Records Tower building. And many of those albums and singles that came out all shared wonderfully designed sleeves featuring paintings and portraits (rather than photos) that came to have a very distinct ‘house’ style. Below is an example of this, with the cover art for the 1960 release from Ferlin Husky called Gone.
There’s too much more to do justice here in this article, but in more recent times the label was merged with Virgin Records in 2007 to create the Capitol Music Group, although the label imprint survives today. And they continue to be a major player, with Katy Perry one of today’s active artists.
So, Happy 70th Birthday to Capitol Records, may they continue releasing great records by great artists for many years to come! And keep sending free records to DJs…