Art Rupe and the Wonderful Music Just Before Rock ’n’ Roll
Anyone who cares about early rock ’n’ roll will and should remember Art Rupe as the music man who gave us Little Richard.
What needs equal or more remembering about Art Rupe, who died Friday at the age of 104, is that he also gave us a small army of artists who are largely forgotten or ignored in music history today, but who were foundational building blocks of rock ’n’ roll.
The average fan can, browsing through Art Rupe’s musical roster, will recognize Little Richard. And Sam Cooke. Probably know Larry Williams (“Bony Maronie”) and Jesse Belvin (“Goodnight My Love”) and Lloyd Price (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”).
But to get the full breadth of the splendid music that was churning and bubbling in the decade from the end of World War II through the arrival of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, you also should know several other Art Rupe artists.
Like Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers, whose “Pink Champagne” was the best-selling record of 1950. Roy Milton and his Solid Senders, the essence of Rupe’s “urban blues,” morphing the traditional country blues guitar-trio sound into a more sophisticated mix with saxophones and horns. Camille Howard, an exquisite boogie-woogie pianist who got her start with Milton. Percy Mayfield, widely considered one of the greatest R&B songwriters ever and a singer himself on the classic “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” Guitar Slim, who scored a number one with “The Things I Used To Do.”
While Rupe like other record label owners is most remembered as a businessman, he always said his real skill was producing records, and he wasn’t wrong about that. He had ears, as they say, and beyond rhythm and blues he also produced some of the era’s finest gospel records.
The Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Swan Silvertones, all of whom sang in the gospel quartet style, did some of their most enduring work with Art Rupe behind the control board, urging them to “Put more church into it!”
Then as now, gospel recordings were their own niche. But they were a more prominent niche in those years, and they were a huge influence on secular artists, particularly vocal groups. Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, David Ruffin, James Brown and Lou Rawls were just a few of the R&B singers who brought their gospel background to rhythm and blues.
Art Rupe wasn’t the only record label owner who was catching and propelling these new waves in American popular music. King, Atlantic, Sun, Fortune, Duke-Peacock, Chess, Apollo and other independent labels were all capturing the rich music that the major labels, in most cases, were too detached and elitist to bother with.
Rupe had both the interest and the business skill to step into that gap. He grew up with a musical mother and was drawn to the music he heard coming from a local black Baptist church. After college he invested much of his life savings, about $2,500, in the Atlas Record Co. He was lucky to get $600 back when Atlas tanked, and he invested $200 of that in a stack of popular 78s from black music shops in Los Angeles.
He listened to those 78s over and over, analyzing what seemed to make them hits. Among his easier conclusions was that putting the word “Boogie” in the title helped. So he started the Juke Box label and his first release was “Boogie #1” by the Sepia Tones. It sold enough to keep him in business, and soon he started Specialty.
As this suggests, Rupe was a meticulous and methodical fellow, Some might say “control freak,” but if so, in the better sense of the term. When his artists were on the road, he would write them pep-talk letters about their next recording session.
“Sing like you are in a battle with the Blind Boys, the Spirits and Pilgrim Travelers,” he wrote to one gospel group. “And sing like you are following them and they have done such a good job that they tore the building down and it looks like you can’t do much more. Then you come on and really shout and make everybody happier and make all the old sisters fall out and really tear down the building. That’s the way you must sing on these records.”
It worked. Rupe insisted on tight rehearsals — partly because he didn’t want to waste expensive studio time — and in return booked the top studios and the best accompanists. A lot of the indy records from that era sound crude. Specialty recordings didn’t sound crude, unless that’s the sound Rupe wanted.
The fact he knew the music and the market did not, of course, mean he always got it right.
He loved the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group led by the well-known and much-loved R.H. Harris. When the Soul Stirrers showed up for a session and told Rupe that Harris had left, he was skeptical about their intended replacement, a kid named Sam Cook from the Highway QCs.
He remained skeptical right up until the group talked him into letting them record “Jesus Gave Me Water,” with Cook in the lead. It became a huge hit, by gospel standards, and it was clear Cook’s voice had that indefinable extra dimension.
Pop and R&B fans would hear that dimension later, after Cook added an “e” to his name and sang everything from “Another Saturday Night” to “Bring It On Home To Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
What Sam Cooke recorded with the Soul Stirrers for Art Rupe, however, will take your breath away. For two minutes of confirmation, listen to “Touch the Hem of His Garment.”
By 1957, Cook wanted to test the pop market, which was considered a risky move. Gospel fans might see it as a betrayal, trading the Lord’s music for the devil’s music. Rupe was okay with it, since the mainstream pop market offered a potentially bigger audience.
So Rupe had his A&R man, Bumps Blackwell, run a session at which Cooke would cut secular songs. But when Rupe walked in on the session and heard Cooke singing soft ballads with white backup vocalists, he exploded. That’s not what Specialty does, he told Cook and Blackwell, or ever will do.
He particularly disliked Cook’s “You Send Me,” saying no one would ever buy that kind of forgettable pop. The divide became so wide that Rupe soon sent Cook and Blackwell packing, with that whole pop session under their arms.
They took “You Send Me” to Keen Records, where it launched Cooke into mainsteam stardom. Rupe therefore wasn’t the one who cashed in on that stardom, and for whatever reason, he never forgave Cooke.
No need to pass the hat for Rupe, however. By then he had Little Richard, who had been a routine R&B singer on two earlier labels before Specialty turned him into the wild man who helped solidify early rock ’n’ roll’s reputation as a powerful and dangerous tornado.
As Billy Vera notes in the essay that accompanies the wonderful five-CD box set The Specialty Story, Rupe would have secured his place in modern popular music history if he’d only produced Little Richard singing “Tutti Fruitti,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” “Rip It Up” and “Long Tall Sally.”
At the same time, Little Richard also helped bring down the curtain on Rupe’s music years.
Richard was high maintenance, threatening to pull a reverse Cooke by giving up the devil’s music to become a preacher. For musical more than theological reasons, Rupe didn’t want that to happen. It did anyway, leaving Rupe with, for instance, only a single verse for “Keep A-Knockin’.”
Rupe salvaged that one by simply replaying the same verse after the sax break. But headaches like that, combined with mandatory participation in radio’s payola system, which Rupe despised, led Rupe to pretty much excuse himself from the music business by the early 1960s.
Here again, no need for a fund-raiser. He used his music profits to invest in the oil and gas industries, which made him wealthy enough to launch the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, whose missions include promoting “civil debate” in the American community and supporting caregivers for people with dementia.
By the end Rupe was one of the last of the music moguls from that post-war era, and he shared some of the reputation of his fellow owners. He paid his artists the going royalty rate, which was pretty much nothing, leaving some of those artists unhappy and getting his name into discussions about white owners short-changing black artists.
On the upside he recorded a rich spectrum of black music, from the rich combo blues of Daddy Cleanhead to Tony Allen’s bluesy “Nite Owl” and the smooth “Gloria” by the Crowns, whose lead singer Arthur Lee Maye was also a Major League baseball player who hit over .300 in four seasons.
Rupe’s rock ’n’ roll catalog also included Larry Williams, a squirrely character who was once Little Richard’s valet and who had three of his songs recorded by the Beatles. Don & Dewey were the model on which the Righteous Brothers built their act.
In 1993, Art Rupe told Vera, “I am pleased and, I must say, shocked that people would still be interested in these records after all these years.”
Three decades down the line, sadly, that’s less true. We remember the big bands and crooners that came before and we remember the rock ’n’ roll that came after. Yet somehow this critical transitional music has faded into the twilight.
Fortunately, Art Rupe’s music itself remains just as alive.