In the Pocket with Mr. Solid
By John Lee
The Top Ten Record Labels of Blues, R&B, and Soul
I have many times thought about which American record labels have had the greatest influence on the Blues, Rhythm and Blues and Soul music of the post World War Two era. I’m going to lay on you my opinion of which labels are the most important, along with some of the dynamic and important artists each one brought to the party!
1. Chess Records
- This Chicago label is possibly the most important of them all. Two artists that made their greatest sides for Chess, and helped influence American music to a very large degree are Muddy Waters
and Chuck Berry
. Chess was also home to many of the finest blues and R&B recording artists of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Etta James
, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter Jacobs
, Sonny Boy Williamson
(Rice Miller), and Bo Diddley
all made their finest recordings for Chess Records. Buddy Guy
, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, and many others made excellent records for Chess. For a great overview of the blues and rhythm and blues sides check out the "Chess Blues" and the "Chess Rhythm and Roll" box sets. They both are a stone groove!
3. Stax Records
in Memphis , Tennessee is celebrating 50 years in 2007. With a roster that includes Otis Redding, The Staple Singers
, Eddie Floyd
, William Bell
, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas
, Booker T. and the MG’s
, Sam and Dave
, Albert King
and the superstar Issac Hayes
. This southern soul label helped change pop music for the best. With a great group of in house studio musicians, Booker T. and the MG’s ( Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson), along with the Memphis Horns and great songwriters like David Porter
, Issac Hayes, and William Bell, Stax produced some of the finest music America had to offer in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Check out the Stax box sets or the two CD 50th anniversary set. You will dig them for sure. Stax has resurrected the label with the great Issac Hayes as the first artist on the “new school” version of Stax.
6. Specialty Records
based in Los Angeles . This great R&B label produced Little Richard's
best recordings that were made in New Orleans , with some of the finest musicians of the 1950’s (like drummer Earl Palmer
). The record company also made top-notch recordings with Larry Williams,
whose songs "Slow Down," "Bad Boy," and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" were covered by the Beatles. Specialty’s roster also included dynamic recordings by Jimmy Liggins
, Joe Liggins
, Roy Milton
, Don and Dewey
, and the master blues lyricist, Percy Mayfield
, to name a few. Sam Cooke
did his first recordings on Specialty with the gospel group, The Soul Stirrers. Lou Rawls
was also featured on the label with the Chosen Gospel Singers. Before the Meters and the Neville Brothers, Art Neville
did some fine tunes for Specialty. Check out the five disk boxed set, "The Specialty Story." It is a must for the honkin’ R&B fan.
7. Sun Records
out of Memphis, Tennessee. Before Elvis
, Johnny Cash
, Carl Perkins
, and Jerry Lee Lewis
, owner Sam Phillips
recorded the likes of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf
, Little Milton
, James Cotton
, Junior Parker
, Rufus Thomas
, and Ike Turner
. Many of these artists were recorded at Sun Studios, but the recordings were leased to other labels. "Rocket 88
" by Jackie Brenston and the His Delta Cats (essentially Ike Turner’s group) was turned over to Chess records. Many consider Rocket 88 to be the first Rock and Roll song. After many of the Sun Studio recordings became solid sellers for other labels, Sam Phillips began to press records on his own Sun Records label, sold Elvis’s contract, and then he pushed along the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. The Sun Studio is still active today, with the likes of Bonnie Raitt
, Ringo Starr
and the Stray Cats
recording tunes there recently. Check out the three disc box set of classic Sun studio material titled "The Sun Records Collection."
8. Hi Records
, in Memphis again! Producer Willie Mitchell
brought the world great soul and rhythm and blues recordings from the likes of Al Green
, Ann Peebles
, Syl Johnson
and Otis Clay
. Al Green had hit after hit for the label. Hi began with Bill Black’s Combo
and saxman Ace Cannon
instrumentals. Hi Records then moved into the realm of deep R&B and Soul. Very similar in its structure as its Memphis brother, Stax, with a great studio nucleus comprised of Teenie Hodges on guitar, brother Charles on organ, and brother bassist LeRoy and drummer Howard Grimes simply called Hi Rhythm
. This stuff is sweet soul music at its best! Check out the three disc set Hi Times, "The Hi Records R&B Years." This set is a great overview of the Hi Records story.
10. Swing Time Records
, based in Los Angeles is the dark horse on my list. This fine, but short-lived label was the first record home for Ray Charles
in 1950. Lowell Fulson
, Jimmy Witherspoon
, Big Joe Turner
, Charles Brown
, and others made great sides for Swing Time. Check out the two disc boxed set, "The Swing Time Records Story: R&B, Blues & Gospel 1946-1952. "
There were other important record labels that helped spread the R&B gospel, like Mercury
to name two. The order I listed the record companies is in no way meant to make one labels significance more important than another. This list is most definitely one person’s opinion and should not to be etched in stone, but blues, R&B, and soul are all meat from the same bone!
At a later date I’ll talk about early blues music and the labels that were the most important and influential. Until then, keep the faith and always stay on the good foot!"Dreams to Remember- The Legacy Of Otis Redding" DVD
John Firman (aka Johnny Nocturne) sent me a very cool DVD about the life and music of the late, great Otis Redding
. John Firman, my cohort in the group The 3J’s, sent this nice film along to me because he knows how much I dig Otis Redding! Interspersed with interviews and performance film clips, the DVD gives a great insight into what made up Otis Redding the artist and Otis Redding, the man.
The film has extensive interviews with Otis’ wife, Zelma Redding (who also produced the DVD), Stax records founder Jim Stewart, daughter Korla Redding Andrews, Memphis Horns
trumpet player Wayne Jackson, and long time collaborator and guitarist Steve Cropper
. These interviews really convey Otis Redding’s great humanity, drive, energy, and artistry. There are forty minutes of interviews in all. A few interviews with Otis himself are also included, one being conducted by Dick Clark
on American Bandstand
The DVD also includes sixteen performances throughout Europe and America . Some of the performance clips are on television shows like Where the Action Is
, Hollywood A Go-Go
, and The Beat. These clips use lip-synch, and Otis doesn’t appear to be very comfortable with this TV approach. The live clips in Europe and at the Monterey Pop Festival
with The Stax/Volt Review show him with microphone in hand and at his soulful best.
It has been forty years since Otis Redding’s death in an airplane crash at the young age of 26. He was just reaching his creative peak when he was taken from us. I am sure he would have gotten better had he been given “Just One More Day.” I know you will dig "Dreams to Remember- The Legacy of Otis Redding."Quote of the Month
R&B stands for Rhythm and Blues. When John Firmin (Johnny Nocturne), saxophonist and leader of The Johnny Nocturne Band
, and also a member of The David Bromberg Band
and the 3J’s refers to the category known as modern R&B, he says “ I understand the rhythm part, but were in the hell is the blues?” Amen brother!Electric bassist John "Mr. Solid" Lee was born in Alaska and has been active in the Seattle blues scene for about 30 years. He currently plays with the Crossroads Band. Photo by Mike Coyote.