The rise and fall of Ace Records: a case study in the independent record business.
The record industry in the United States was controlled until
the 1950s by a half dozen major companies, which produced
music directed primarily toward the white middle class. The
following article uses the history of Ace Records, a small,
regional, independent company, to examine the nature of the
record industry in the 1950s and 1960s. The article explains
the shifts in demography and technology that made possible
the growth of the independents, as well as the obstacles and
events that made their demise more likely. It also traces the
changes that such companies, by recording and promoting
rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll, introduced to the
Ace Records was one of the small, independent record companies that served as catalysts for the rock 'n' roll revolution in the music business during the 1950s. These companies developed the national market for rhythm and blues (R&B) and rock 'n' roll. They democratized the music business by bringing previously neglected songwriters, musicians, and ethnic and regional groups into the national record market. In the process, they dramatically increased the dollar volume of record sales and took control of the Billboard Top Ten rankings. The music establishment initially fought these changes through publicity campaigns, lawsuits, and congressional hearings, but, unable to stem the tide, by the late 1950s and early 1960s the large record corporations were also recording rock 'n' roll. They often moderated its rawness and energy with a standardized and "whiter" sound, and they coopted many of the stars of the independent companies or the companies themselves. Few of the independents survived this exercise of corporate muscle, but they played an important role in the history of the phonograph record business.
In spite of the importance of the independent record companies, few have been studied.(1) The literature has focused on the musicians and their songs and provides essentially anecdotal information about the company owners. Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City contains the most complete information on the independents but, given the scope of the book, does not examine any in great detail.(2) Business files are not readily available. Independents were often owned by one person, who was necessarily more concerned with selling records in a very competitive market than with preserving data for historians. Files were lost; owners died or left the music business. Even the documentation on Ace Records, whose owner is alive and marginally active in the music industry, is sparse, for a fire and a leaky roof destroyed most of the Ace files, and others have been lost since 1963, when the company ceased to be a factor in the music business. Enough information about Ace is available, however, to give scholars a better understanding of the independent record company in the 1950s and, through it, of the rise of rock 'n' roll.
The Ace story is worth telling for other reasons as well. Most successful independents were based in heavily populated U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where there were large numbers of black people to whom they could sell blues and R&B records. King Records of Cincinnati was one exception, and Ace was an even more improbable major player. It was located in highly segregated Jackson, Mississippi, and owned by an ambitious white Mississippi entrepreneur who could neither read music nor play an instrument. Ace used New Orleans, with its rich tradition of black music, as its recording site, pioneering as that city's first successful local record company and providing experience and opportunity to New Orleans musicians, black and white, who would continue to record long after Ace was defunct. Ace followed the pattern of many independent labels in first recording the blues, migrating to R&B (or black rock 'n' roll), and then trying to compete with the major companies by recording teen idols. For both its typical and its unique characteristics, therefore, Ace Records is a useful case study of success and failure in the music business.
Other factors besides the entrepreneurial talents of the independent record company owners created the conditions necessary for the companies' emergence into the popular music mainstream. The nature of the music business, technological changes in the reproduction of sound, the transformation of radio, and the rising economic power of adolescents all played a role.
The Music Business before Rock 'n' Roll
Six major record companies (Columbia, RCA, Decca, Capitol, MGM, and Mercury) dominated the record business in the late 1940s and the early 1950s; of the 163 records that sold over one million copies, all but 5 were recorded by one of the major record companies. The largest two, Columbia and RCA, each sold 25 percent of all records; these two, plus Decca and Capitol, placed over 75 percent of all the records listed in the Billboard top sellers chart.(3) Their initial refusal to record true rock 'n' roll and R&B cost them this dominance (see Figure 1).
Columbia and RCA, the giants of the business, promoted their records over CBS and NBC, their radio and television broadcasting networks. The majors, so defined because they had their own recording studios and distribution systems, produced for whites who could afford home entertainment and who also constituted the cultural mainstream of the post-Second of Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP), represented the economic and cultural interests of the white, middle-and upper-class urban elites, who valued the European secular and religious musical traditions. Early in the twentieth century, they had condemned jazz for its African and African American origins and, after Jewish composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin began incorporating jazz into popular songs, as being Jewish.(4) In time, however, this new music acquired respectability as show tunes and white jazz gained popularity, and the popular music establishment defended this new orthodoxy against the perceived threats of "hillbilly," blues, R&B, and rock 'n' roll music.
Neither ASCAP nor the major record companies had much interest in music created and performed by ordinary people, especially that which could be identified with an unpopular ethnic or regional group. Southern music (blues, R&B, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and country music) was considered too primitive and inappropriate. This was also true of the urban blues (electric guitar blues such as that of Chicago or rhythm and blues), which had its origins in the South, and of Hispanic-American music. Cultural elitism, with its accompanying paternalism, was the ruling variable. The gatekeepers were, in their view, keeping the "riffraff" out and preserving the integrity of what they believed to be the "proper" American culture. Billy Rose, an ASCAP member, eloquently expressed the attitudes of many members of his organization in 1956 testimony before a congressional investigating committee:
Not only are most of the BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.] songs junk,
but in many cases they are obscene junk pretty much on the level with
dirty comic magazines. . . . It is the current climate on radio and TV
which makes Elvis Presley and his animal posturings possible. . . .
When ASCAP's songwriters were permitted to be heard, Al Jolson,
Nora Bayes, and Eddie Cantor were all big salesmen of songs. Today
it is a set of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely
due to the zootsuiter and the juvenile delinquent.(5)
Both rural southern whites and rural and urban blacks were treated as marginal groups. Because these two groups did buy some records, the majors had subsidiary record labels to appeal to rural southern whites ("hillbilly music") and to blacks ("race" music until 1948 when it was renamed "rhythm and blues" in order to give less offense), but this market was too small to draw much corporate attention. When shellac shortages occurred during the Second World War, the majors abandoned these minority markets in order to concentrate on the more profitable white, middle-class market. The independents filled the gaps, aided by the social and technological changes created by the war.(6)
By 1950, the music establishment had yielded a bit on country music but not at all on black music. Southern white outmigration into northern and western industrial cities spread the geographical scope of country music. During the Second World War, country music was so popular with U.S. soldiers, regardless of regional origin, that the majors released a limited number of country songs, often first converting them into the mainstream style. It was relatively easy for ASCAP to accept a few country music songwriters (who were white) into its ranks, but blues and R&B were usually excluded. Although jazz had become respectable, the genre had little mass appeal. The "acceptable" black singers, such as Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, and Sarah Vaughn, sang in a white style.
A self-defeating act by ASCAP in 1940-41 created unusual opportunities for independent record companies. Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) was created by radio station owners in 1940 to license music that ASCAP would not license. Both organizations licensed songs for airplay, collected royalties, and distributed proceeds to the copyright owners. Unlike ASCAP, BMI was willing to let any songwriter or publisher join, thus opening the gates to the musicians rejected by ASCAP. BMI grew in importance when ASCAP, in a gambit to increase royalty rates dramatically, boycotted radio stations for most of 1941; BMI songs replaced ASCAP songs.(7)
ASCAP favored long-established songwriters and publishers, for it distributed only 20 percent of the royalties in a given year to the people whose songs created those royalties; the remainder were distributed to persons whose songs had been popular in the past but were no longer. Such a system made it very difficult for a new songwriter or publisher to survive on royalties but provided a steady income for those who had been long-standing members of the "club."(8)
ASCAP controlled the bulk of American popular music between the society's founding in 1912 and the 1940s. ASCAP decided who could belong to the organization. Each music publisher had one vote for each $500 in royalties earned in the preceding year. By 1958 three music publishing companies controlled 51 percent of the publishers' vote. Writers got one vote for each $20 in royalties earned in the preceding year; in 1958, less than 5 percent of the writers controlled 51 percent of the writers vote. Since writers depended on music publishers, the latter held the power.(9) ASCAP instigated lawsuits and congressional hearings in an unsuccessful effort to weaken BMI and, in the process, to beat back the rise of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. That seems to have been the primary motivation of the payola hearings of 1960, for the argument throughout the hearings was that R&B and rock 'n' roll would never be played on radio (and thus records sold) were it not for bribery on the part of the independents.(10)
The Impact of Technology and Demography
Technological Change * Technological changes enabled small companies to enter the market and, ultimately, to revolutionize the music business. The majors had controlled the market because they had the capital necessary to own and operate the studios and the expensive disk recording and cutting equipment. Performers were recorded directly onto master disks. Without access to such machines, which few could afford, one could not make records. One result of the Second World War, however, was the acquisition of tape recording technology from the Germans in 1945. Small businesses could afford tape recorders; portable machines meant that one could record anywhere. One's "recording studio" could be and often was a storefront office. Mastering and pressing plants rarely operated at full capacity and liked the little jobs that took up some of the slack.
In the late 1940s, recording industry engineers discovered how to overcome the limitations of the 78 RPM disk, the standard until the early 1950s; in doing so, they inadvertently helped the small companies. The 78 RPM record was fragile, low fidelity, and limited to ten minutes of playing time on each side. Listening to a classical work, a Broadway show, or a movie soundtrack, the kind of music the majors and ASCAP liked, meant tolerating poor sound quality and frequent interruptions. Peter Goldmark of Columbia solved these problems by inventing the microgroove plastic record, which produced high fidelity sound. Goldmark's team also had to invent better microphones and loudspeakers to match the higher quality sound. Columbia created the 33 1/3 RPM Long Playing (LP) record. To compete with Columbia's new LPs, RCA developed the 45 RPM plastic record, which produced even better fidelity than the LP. To market this new record, RCA sold the necessary record changers or record players below cost and used them as promotional prizes, virtually giving them away in order to sell the records. Since the 45 RPM record played for only a few minutes and thus required frequent changes for a long piece of music, it was better suited to the popular music market, where prompt release is critical.(11)
Demographic Shifts * The minority record market had also been small because many blacks and rural southern whites could not afford to buy phonographs and records; the Second World War changed that. War mobilization clustered them, whether as part of the sixteen million persons who passed through the armed forces or as part of the millions who got jobs in defense plants in such cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They began losing their prewar isolation and learned that they had similar musical tastes. Rural southern music, black and white, was carried into urban neighborhoods throughout the United States, creating small but definable markets. Wartime jobs gave these southerners more discretionary income. Job discrimination barriers fell in many industries outside the South, and wages were high in those jobs; overtime guaranteed plenty of money. At first, they had to rely on the jukebox to hear their music, because few radio stations played it. Those fortunate enough to own a phonograph often had to buy used records or exchange an old record for a new one because of the wartime shellac shortage.(12)
The Impact of Television * The phenomenal success of television between 1947 and 1957 forced most radio stations to shift to an all-music format in order to draw audiences, thus increasing the demand for any kind of recorded music. Live musical broadcasts, dramas, and comedy shows were soon replaced by recorded music as network owners began moving their capital into the much more profitable television business. They lost interest in radio programming and gave station managers wide latitude as long as they produced profits. These station managers programmed recorded music, following the lead of the small, independently owned radio stations, which had long used records in lieu of more expensive live musicians. Nevertheless, the total recording industry's 1950 sales of $189 million were substantially less than the previous 1947 peak of $224 million.(13) Television and the national record market targeted the same consumers, who now preferred watching television to listening to the radio.
Radio stations could and did provide markets for minority music, much of which entered the mainstream as rock 'n' roll. In 1955 there were 2,732 AM radio stations in the nation (FM radio was insignificant at this time). Radio's effort to remain profitable inadvertently aided record companies, especially the independents, for the all-music format devoured records and served as free advertisements for the records. One measure of the impact of all-music radio was the dramatic increase in record sales after 1955 (see Figure 1).
Disk jockeys (DJs) became gatekeepers of the marketplace. The key to selling records was convincing DJs on one or two dominant radio stations in the regional market to play a record and to play it often. Other stations would then also play the record. If one could "break out" in one key city, stations in other cities would be more likely to give the record airtime as well, and the record could become a national hit. Disk jockeys at some of the 50,000-watt radio stations in the United States or the 100,000-watt stations on the northern border of Mexico used their late-night programs to broadcast non-traditional popular music - that is, blues, rhythm and blues, and country and western. Some of the listeners subsequently bought the records they heard, but they remained outside the mainstream. There were a number of regional record markets, with powerful and popular regional radio stations influencing the smaller stations in the area, but no national market existed. These musical styles remained concentrated regionally, for there was no national communication or distribution system that would allow persons in Painted Post, New York, to be aware of and listen to music originating in Boron, California, or Indianola, Mississippi, or in any number of other places.
To promote a record into hit status, record companies concentrated on relatively few locales. In 1958 New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan accounted for 51 percent of all record sales, with New York and California together accounting for 25 percent.(14) In practice, this meant trying to get airplay in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit. Seven other cities were also important record markets: New Orleans, Dallas, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, and Charlotte.(15)
Independent record companies filled the gaps created by the neglect of minority music during and after the Second World War and the increased demand for records by radio stations when television hit full stride (see Figure 2). With a small amount of capital, one could create a record company and sell in a local or even a regional market. One needed a magnetic tape recorder, some performers, and credit with pressing plants and printers. Ward and Gillett, citing a Billboard article of 23 May 1951 assert that new record labels were appearing on the order of two or three a week, even though R&B records constituted only 5.7 percent of total record sales. Gillett asserts that, by 1952, there were over one hundred independent record companies. Between 1945 and 1955, Los Angeles had the largest number of successful independent record companies in R&B, including Specialty, Aladdin, Modern, Swingtime, and Imperial.(16)
Neither the black nor the "hillbilly" market could sustain this many record companies, and neither could create many national hits, but white adolescents could. They had been empowered culturally and financially by the postwar devotion to children.(17) They had discretionary income to spend on records and phonographs, a high level of energy, and an intense interest in sex, a common subject of R&B. They were natural risk-takers, willing to challenge the cultural consensus. They tended to want immediate self-gratification and also had short attention spans. For record companies, they were ideal consumers, because they would buy and use a product, tire of it, and then quickly buy another.
The successful independent record company owners came to understand this combination of factors and to exploit it. In the early days, they often shared information about what was selling and why or rented their studios to each other, since many of them sold only in a regional market and were not competitors. This informal network
( 1) Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, Sun Records: The Brief History of the Legendary Recording Label (New York, 1980), and Charlie Gillett, Making Tracks: Atlantic Records and the Growth of a Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry (New York, 1974) are based primarily on interviews and have few, if any footnotes. Michel Ruppli has compiled two discographies, with some narrative materials, of two other independents of the 1950s; see his The King Label: A Discography, comp. Michel Ruppli, with assistance from Bill Daniels (Westport, Conn., 1985) and The Savoy Label: A Discography, comp. Michel Ruppli, with assistance from Bob Porter (Westport, Conn., 1980). Motown, which began just as Ace was in decline, has received a lot of attention. See Peter Benjaminson, The Story of Motown (New York, 1979); David Bianco, Heat Wave: The Motown Fact Book (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1988); Sharon Davis, Motown, the History (Enfield, Middlesex, 1988); Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise & Fall of the Motown Sound (New York, 1985); David Morse, Motown and the Arrival of Black Music (New York, 1971); J. Randy Taraborrelli, Motown Hot Wax, City Cool & Solid Gold (Garden City, N.Y., 1986); Don Waller, The Motown Story (New York, 1985). Bert Muirhead, Stiff: The Story of a Record Label, 1976-1982 (New York, 1983) is a superficial book on a British record company from a much later era.
( 2) Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, rev. and expanded ed. (New York, 1983).
( 3) Gillett, Sound of the City, 7; Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo, Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry (Chicago, Ill., 1979), 15; R. Serge Denisoff, Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry (New Brunswick, N.J., 1975), 114, list these as the major record companies. See Gillett, Sound of the City, 39, and Denisoff, Solid Gold, 113 for figures on sales.
( 4) Macdonald Smith Moore, Yankee Blues: Musical Cultural and American Identity (Bloomington, Ind., 1985), 169-71.
( 5) As cited in Ian Whitcomb, After the Ball (London, 1972), 209.
( 6) Ibid., 8-9.
( 7) Chapple and Garofalo, Rock 'n' Roll, 64.
( 8) U. S. House, Select Committee on Small Business, Policies of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; Hearings before Subcommittee No. 5 of the Select Committee on Small Business, House of Representatives, 85th Cong., 2d sess. (Washington, D.C., 1958), 89 [hereafter cited as Policies of ASCAP].
( 9) Policies of ASCAP, 25-26.
(10) Gillett, Sound of the City, 18-22; Chapple and Garofalo, Rock 'n' Roll, 64-68.
(11) Peter Grendysa, "Origins of the Species: The Microgroove Revolution," Goldmine (17 Jan. 1986), 50.
(12) Bill C. Malone, Southern Music, American Music (Lexington, Ky., 1979).
(13) Chapple and Garofalo, Rock 'n' Roll, 13-15.
(14) Ibid., 15.
(15) John Angle, sales and distribution manager of Ace Records, 1958-62, interview with author, 22 Nov. 1985, in Jackson, Miss.; John Angle, The Complete Changing of a Musical Era (Jackson, Miss., 1985), and audio cassette; and John Vincent Imbragulio, founder and owner, Ace Records, interview with author, 17 Oct. 1987, in Jackson, Miss. From 1985 through 1987, I talked with Vincent numerous times in Jackson and took notes, but it was not until 17 October 1987 that I taped an interview. Citations refer to the taped interview.
(16) Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (New York, 1986), 86; Gillett, Sound of the City, 10, 14.
(17) The literature on the origins of the postwar baby boom and the empowerment of children is vast and beyond the scope of this study; see Joe Hawes and Ray Hiner, eds., Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective (Urbana, Ill., 1985) for an introduction to this literature and its findings.
PHOTO : Figure I Record Sales, 1950-1962
PHOTO : Figure 2 Market Share of Top Ten Billboard Hits
DONALD J. MABRY is professor of history at Mississippi State University. work was important because it enabled the owners to overcome the shortcomings inherent in a storefront operation. Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, Art Rupe of Specialty Records, Lew Chudd of Imperial Records, and the Bihari brothers of Modern Records, all in Los Angeles, the Chess brothers of Chess Records in Chicago, Don Tobey of Peacock/Duke Records in Houston, Johnny Vincent of Jackson and New Orleans, and many other record producers knew each other well. Eventually, they became fierce competitors, raiding each other's talent and suing over copyright infringement. To some extent, they were all hustlers in a very competitive business.
The Creation of Ace Records
Johnny Vincent (John Vincent Imbragulio) was the entrepreneur who created Ace Records, and its history is intimately tied to the personality of the man. Vincent was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on 3 October 1927, one of five children of Italian immigrants, but he grew up in the even smaller down of Laurel. Dropping out of high school in 1944 during the war, Vincent joined the maritime service, attended a maritime training school in Florida, and received a commission as an ensign. By the time he left the service in 1945, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander. He returned to Laurel, earned a General Education Diploma, and attended Jones Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, for seven months.(18)
Vincent knew little about music or the music business when he entered it. He knew jukeboxes, for he had helped a jukebox operator change the records in the machines while an elementary school student in the late 1930s, and his father, a restaurateur, had owned some jukeboxes. He bought ten Rockola jukeboxes when he left the maritime service in 1945 to guarantee himself an income.
Marriage in 1947 meant that he had to find a steady job and no longer rely on jukebox income. When he could not find a job in Laurel or elsewhere in Mississippi, Vincent used $3 of his total $6 in capital to take a bus to New Orleans, where he answered a newspaper advertisement for a salesman placed by William B. Allen of Music Sales of New Orleans, a distributor of Mercury, Imperial, and other record labels. On the basis of his jukebox experience, Vincent convinced Allen that he was better qualified than the many other applicants and got the job.(19) Through the Music Sales job, Vincent learned the distribution and the talent recruitment sides of the music business as he traveled through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and part of Florida, areas often ignored by the major record companies. At night, he frequented live music venues, including black bars and clubs, so he could tell the record companies he represented and the record distributors what people liked.
In this era, before the record business was highly organized and institutionalized, record salespeople were promoters who had to learn local musical tastes and then convince jukebox operators and retailers that the salesperson's particular records woud be played and bought. In the early 1950s, the more than 300,000 jukeboxes were the largest single market for records, for, at five cents a play, they consumed records at a rapid pace.(20) The second largest retail record market consisted of the numerous variety stores, music stores, and retail appliance stores (which sold some records as a necessary sideline to phonographs, themselves a small, but growing, part of the appliance market). The promoter also made calls on DJs at radio stations to encourage them to play the promotional copies the salesperson provided.
The job with Music Sales proved temporary, for, in deference to his wife's antipathy to his frequent absences from home, Vincent left Allen and bought a record store in Jackson, Mississippi. The store, located in one of Jackson's black areas, sold records, mostly blues and rhythm and blues, to jukebox operators within a 159-mile radius as well as to local customers. Vincent continued his practice of asking about musical preferences, paying attention to which kinds of records sold best, listening to music being played in the neighborhood, and occasionally going to hear live entertainment at establishments patronized by blacks. He learned that blues and R&B sold well even though virtually ignored by the majors. His customers bought records by black Mississippians such as Big Boy Crudup, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters.(21) Vincent started distributing records from Chess Records of Chicago, one of the principal record companies for these and other blues artists.(22)
Vincent soon created his own blues label, Champion. He lacked venture capital, so he recorded local artists such as Crudup, Joe Dyson, Bonnie Williams, Tommy Lee Thompson, and Junior Blackman. The actual recording was done at the small, primitive Trumpet Records studio owned by Lillian McMurray.(23) The production values were low, but the first record sold well in the Jackson area, encouraging Vincent to record more. Slowly, small numbers of Champion records began circulating in the South and, eventually, throughout the nation, aided by the black outmigration from Mississippi occurring at the time. The record store and Champion sales were sufficiently profitable to allow Vincent to build a house, but his two small businesses could barely support this new acquisition. Fortunately, Vincent came to the attention of Art Rupe, owner of the much larger and more prosperous Specialty Records of Los Angeles, also a blues and rhythm and blues label. Rupe needed a new artist and repertoire (A&R) person and drove from New Orleans to Jackson to talk to Vincent.
When Rupe and Dick Sturgill of A-1 Distributors in New Orleans arrived at Vincent's record shop one afternoon in November 1950, Rupe was trying to find someone who would aggressively represent Specialty outside California. He and his former sales representative, Sonny Bono, had parted ways because Bono had refused to drop his Italian name. Sturgill, who distributed Champion Records, recommended Vincent. Rupe realized that Vincent was a 23-year-old rarity in the music business, for he knew talent identification, recording, selling, and distribution. Vincent's creation of Champion meant that he liked black music, a prerequisite for someone working for Specialty. Vincent also knew the market that Rupe wanted to penetrate.
The negotiations took two days. Rupe invited Vincent to New Orleans, where Specialty recorded some of it black artists, and he put him in charge of a recording session to test his ability to work in a studio more sophisticated than the Jackson one. Rupe had not been impressed with the sound quality of the Champion records. Satisfied, Rupe gave Vincent the $600-a-month job, a new car, and an unlimited expense account.(24) In addition, Vincent was promised a penny-a-record royalty for every record he sold. Rupe also bought the Champion label so Vincent would not be competing with him.(25) Rupe convinced John Vincent Imbragulio to use the name John Vincent professionally because many people would have trouble with Imbragulio. Rupe had found his "triple threat," as he publicized Vincent.(26)
New Orleans was the key to Vincent's future. As Specialty's new A&R man, his territory had been defined as everything outside California, but, in practice, he spent most of his time in cities with large concentrations of black people, the principal buyers of Specialty's product. Of these cities, New Orleans was especially fertile ground. Known primarily for its jazz, the city was also a major center for blues and R&B. New Orleans produced a distinctive sound that could not be reproduced elsewhere. The key to that sound was the group of studio musicians associated with Cosimo Matassa's studio.(27) Independents such as Ace, Specialty, Imperial, and Atlantic, and, later, the major companies would use combination of these musicians.
By going to the Club Tiajuana or the Dew Drop Inn, Vincent heard the best of the New Orleans blues-based music and met many future Ace performers.(28) Vincent was one of the few record company people to visit Doc Wonder's Curio Shop, which many of these musicians used as an informal meeting place and office.(29) Vincent used Mantassa's studio to record such people as Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, John Lee Hooker, and Wynonie Harris for Specialty, but also such future Ace artists as Earl King, Huey Smith, Mercy Baby, and Frankie Lee Sims.
Although Vincent increased Specialty record sales dramatically, selling, by his account, at least 1.5 million records within the first six months (a phenomenal number, since the entire industry sold only 189 million in 1950), his work as a talent scout and record producer was more important.(30) To learn why a record was a hit (some 90 percent of issued record were failures), Vincent would play a record repeatedly, sometimes for several days. His greatest personal success for Specialty was recording Guitar Slim, whose "The Things I Used to Do" became one of the biggest blues hits of the day and remains a classic. The Guitar Slim story is worth recounting in detail, for it shows how Vincent worked, and the episode established him as an important A&R man.
Guitar Slim, part of the local black homosexual community, was known for his flamboyant clothes, multicolored dyed hair, and guitar antics. He was born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi, on 10 December 1926. He never knew his father, and his mother died when he was five. The young orphan grew up on a plantation near Hollandale, working as a farm laborer and learning the Delta blues guitar idiom. In 1944 he married and entered the army, serving two years in Georgia and the Pacific. After his discharge, he returned to Hollandale and worked for a cotton compress. He left his wife and Hollandale in 1948, mysteriously showing up in New Orleans in 1950 as Guitar Slim. He added a fifty-foot cord to his electric guitar so he could continue playing while walking offstage, through the audience, out into the street, and back to the stage. His act made him a successful club performer in black clubs in and around New Orleans, preferring the Dew Drop Inn, where Vincent found him.(31) He had had one unsuccessful record.
Vincent recognized Slim's potential and, in 1954, convinced him to record with Specialty. Once Slim agreed, Vincent rented Matassa's studio, hired session musicians (he had to bail the pianist, Ray Charles, out of jail), and began the recording session at six in the afternoon, finishing at five the next morning. Self-taught, Slim had trouble hitting the right notes and maintaining his timing, problems that had previously been masked by the din inside the clubs and the loudness of his electric guitar. Vincent decided to record Slim's guitar as loud and as high as possible. The best cut from the session was "The Things I Used to Do," a mournful electrified Delta blues song written and sung by Slim.(32)
Vincent's handling of "Things" illustrates both the attributes that later enabled him to make a success of Ace Records and the tasks of any record promoter. Rupe did not like the results of the Guitar Slim session, including "Things," but, as a favor to Vincent, agreed to release the record and let him promote it; Vincent hit the road, carrying the test pressing of the 45 RPM record with him. He worked his way north through Memphis and on to Cleveland, talking to disk jockeys and distributors, trying to convince them that his record would be a hit. In Cleveland he persuaded Alan Freed, one of the few white disk jockeys who played black music, to play the record for four nights to see what would happen. Freed's help was critical, for his radio show reached both a black and a white audience. The record got a positive response the first night, and Freed decided to play the record every night. Vincent went to see the major Cleveland distributor, who ordered five thousand copies of what was still an unpressed record. Vincent quickly called Rupe in Los Angeles to place the order, but Rupe would send only two thousand, believing that his young A&R man was unduly enthusiastic. Within three days, the distributor had increased the order to ten thousand copies. Vincent headed for Chicago and Al Benson, the most prominent black disk jockey in the city. A fellow Mississippian, Benson promoted the record on the air. When Vincent left Chicago, the distributors there had ordered fifteen thousand copies. Although Vincent's claim that the record sold over a million copies is unverifiable, he had undoubtedly made it an extraordinary success.(33)
Rupe fired Vincent in 1954. According to Vincent, Rupe did not want to pay Vincent the unexpectedly large royalties on "Things" and denied ever having agreed to do so. Rupe also announced that Vincent's sales expenses would be deducted from any money that Specialty owed him (Vincent was being treated the same way many independent record companies treated their artists). Since the contract was oral, its exact terms cannot be established. Vincent acknowledges that Rupe was angry because Vincent had been using Specialty stationery and recording techniques for his sideline business, but he does not confirm the rumor that he recorded non-Specialty artists and sold the tapes to other independent record companies.
After another short stint in the distribution business, terminated by another firing, Vincent created Ace Records. Unable to find employment in Jackson, to which he had returned, he welcomed a job offer by Allstate Distributors in Atlanta. Vincent was given Georgia, Alabama, and part of Tennessee as his territory. Within a year, however, the Allstate owner sold his Atlanta company and became a partner with Leonard Chess in a Chicago distributorship. Vincent, out of a job again, headed back to Jackson, where he used his own principal capital, himself, to create Ace Records in 1955. He knew the independent
(18) Vincent, interview with author. Dr. Dan E. Cox was kind enough to give me a typed copy of his January 1979 interview with Vincent.
(19) John Vincent Imbragulio in the interview "Making a Hit," Figaro [New Orleans], 1 Dec. 1980, 32-37.
(20) Chapple and Garofalo, Rock 'n' Roll, 6.
(21) Elvis Presley was deeply influenced by Crudup and chose Crudup's "That's All Right" as one of the first songs he recorded.
(22) Vincent, interview with Cox, Jan. 1979.
(23) "Making a Hit."
(24) Vincent's salary was generous; the median income in 1950 for white workers was $248.50 a month; see U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Statistical History of the United States, from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 1976), 304.
(25) Vincent, interview with author.
(26) Dan Cox, in his January 1979 interview with Vincent, suggested to Vincent that the latter changed his name because he associated with Jews such as Leonard Chess and Art Rupe. Vincent agreed that he associated with Jews and noted that Rupe had changed his own surname to make it sound less Jewish, but Vincent did not assert that the Jewish issue was the reason he did not use Imbragulio professionally. Regardless of their ethnic identity, many people in the entertainment business commonly changed their names so they sounded more Anglo-Saxon, for such names were the only "acceptable" ones, another reflection of the cultural dominance of white Anglo-Saxons.
(27) The musicians included Justin Adams (guitar), Lee Allen (tenor sax), Eddie "Little" Booker (piano), Salvador Doucette (piano), Wendel Duconge (alto sax), Frank Fields (tenor bass), Clarence Ford (baritone and tenor sax), Edward Frank (piano), Herb Hardesty (tenor sax), Earl King (guitar), Ernest McLean (guitar), Earl Palmer (drums), the young Malcolm John Rabennack (piano and guitar), Huey P. Smith (piano), the young Allen Toussaint (piano), Alvin "Red" Tyler (tenor sax), and Charles "Hungry" Williams (drums).
(28) Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and Tad Jones, Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music since World War II (Athens, Ga., 1986), 54, 62.
(29) Earl King, interview with Tad Jones, Living Blues, 38 (May-June 1978): 8.
(30) Vincent, interview with author. Vincent said Rupe owed him between $15,000 and $20,000 in royalties, which would mean between 1.5 and 2 million records sold. Rupe denied that Vincent had sold that many. Since Specialty's account books are not available, it is not clear who is correct.
(31) Berry, et al., Cradle, 81-85. Berry and his coauthors say that Slim had recorded for Imperial but "Making a Hit," 33, says Bullet Records of Nashville.
(32) Vincent, interview with author; John Broven, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans (Gretna, La., 1983), 50-53; Berry, et al., Cradle, 81-85; "Making a Hit," 33-34. Broven asserts that Rupe told Vincent by phone how to record the session, but Vincent denies it. The record and the album have the Vincent touch. An unverified story about the session is that, to pacify Ray Charles, who was upset about the poor music quality of the session, Vincent and the others let the blind Charles drive Vincent's car around New Orleans in the middle of the night.
(33) Vincent, interview with author; "Making a Hit," 34. Again, the exact number of copies sold is impossible to ascertain.
PHOTO : Johnny Vincent, c. 1981 * Born John Vincent Imbragulio, Vincent used his knowledge of New Orleans rhythm and blues music and his experience working for another independent, Specialty Records, to found Ace Records. (Original photograph in the possession of the author.)
PHOTO : Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup * Vincent recorded Crudup on both the Champion and Ace labels, but the R&B music could not attract a national audience. It remained for Elvis Presley to achieve commercial success with Crudup's "That's All Right" in his 1954 recording. (Photograph from Richard Reichag Collection.)
PHOTO : Cosimo Matassa with Jimmy Clanton, 1958 * Matassa's New Orleans recording studio was the site of many R&B and early rock 'n' roll sessions, including those produced by Johnny Vincent. Matassa also became Jimmy Clanton's manager. (Photograph reproduced from John Broven, Rhythm and Blue in New Orleans, copyright 1974 by John Broven; used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.)
PHOTO : Guitar Slim, c. 1953 * A regular performer on the New Orleans club scene, Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) wrote and recorded "The Things I Used to Do" on the Specialty Label; its success helped to establish Vincent's reputation as a promoter. (Photograph in the possession of the author.)
PHOTO : Disk Jockey Alan Freed * Freed, who joined Cleveland radio station WJW in 1951, claims to have coined the term "rock 'n' roll," and he undoubtedly was the first to provide a large-scale outlet for rhythm and blues music and performers. His "Moon Dog Rock & Roll Party" was a radio predecessor of Dick Clark's television program, "American Bandstand." (Photograph by Steve Petruszyn.) record company business well, and his success with "The Things I Used to Do" established his reputation nationally. He had shown that he could locate talent, produce records, and sell them.(34)
Although living in Mississippi, Vincent had to look to New Orleans for help. He knew some New Orleans musicians and their desire to become recording artists. He also knew Cosimo Matassa and his recording studio and record distributors and disk jockeys there. Moreover, New Orleans and its hinterland, stretching into three states and connected to Memphis and Chicago by the Illinois Central Railroad, would give him an adequate market base. Unlike Jackson, New Orleans had clout in the national scheme of things. Ace, although headquartered in Jackson, would be a New Orleans label, the most important one there between 1955 and 1962.(35)
Ace started modestly. Vincent first returned to McMurray's studio because he could not afford Matassa's. His early releases fared poorly, even those by the famous bluesmen Big Boy Crudup and Elmore James. He even tried a country and western group, Al Terry and the Louisiana Hayriders.(36) The turning point came when Earl King and Huey "Piano" Smith, two of New Orleans's leading black musicians, asked Vincent to record them, no doubt hoping that Vincent could make them as successful as their buddy Guitar Slim. They were so anxious to record that they agreed to come to Jackson if Vincent would pay their travel expenses. Those sessions produced Ace's first big record, Earl King's "Lonely, Lonely Nights." Smith played piano and Joe Dyson's band played backup. The record sold at least eighty thousand copies.(37)
"Lonely, Lonely Nights" taught Vincent some valuable lessons, for, in spite of his experience, the 28-year-old Ace owner was still naive about some aspects of the record business. Specialty had Johnny "Guitar" Watson record the same song, threw its muscle behind it, and turned it into a national hit in the R&B marketplace, swamping the King version. Anyone can record a copyrighted song. Copyright royalties are supposed to be paid to the owner or owners, but, since Vincent had no publishing company, he had given the song copyright to Rupe, leaving only the less valuable performance royalties to be split between himself and King. Neither Vincent nor King would make much money on "Nights," but Vincent learned that he had to have his own publishing company and copyright ownership if he were to prosper.
Nevertheless, Vincent had proven that he could produce a modest hit record on his own, giving Ace the credibility it needed. He finally had some working capital, enabling him to get credit from Matassa and from the pressing and printing houses. Distributors were now more willing to stock Ace records. Disk jockeys who played rhythm and blues would now pay attention to a record with the Ace label. Most important, the New Orleans artists, who had not had much success with other labels, were more willing to record with Ace.
As is often the case with entrepreneurs, Vincent was lucky, for the rock 'n' roll revolution was under way. The origins of rock 'n' roll are complex and not necessary to recount in detail here. The most important fact was that white adolescents, flush with enormous purchasing power, discovered the joys of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll and bought 45 RPM records by the millions. Much of early rock 'n' roll was, in fact, rhythm and blues, and one of the most popular R&B styles came from New Orleans. Vincent was in the right place at the right time.
The problem was to find the right combination to exploit this rising market. Ace's initial records appealed primarily to the small market among blacks and to a limited number of whites. Vincent released records by important R&B and blues men such as Earl King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Eddie Bo, Lightning Hopkins, Bobby Marchan, Roland Cook, Frankie Lee Sims, and Mercy Baby, but sales were modest and primarily in the small R&B market. His efforts to penetrate the country and western market came to naught. Vincent needed an act and a song to capture the imagination of white teenagers.
Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns and their song "Rockin' Penumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" were the right combination. Smith's song was catchy, singable, and highly rhythmic. One could dance to it, for Smith played close to a shuffle beat. Its lyrics appealed to the adolescent sense of the ludicrous, of the absurd. Listeners could tell that the Clowns (Bobby Marchan, who sang lead, Junior Gordon, and Roland Stone on this record) were having fun. Those who saw them on tour knew they were, for Vincent encouraged them to be as zany as possible. "Rockin' Pneumonia" was a classically irreverent, good times, party record that appealed to white adolescents without threatening the racial and sexual status quo. Parents might find it silly but certainly would not think that it would lead to sexual exploration or race mixing. Its rise to #52 on the Billboard pop chart and to #9 on the R&B chart in 1957 established Ace on a firm footing. By March 1958, the group's second national hit, "Don't You Just Know It," was climbing the Billboard charts as well, eventually reaching #9 on the pop chart and #4 on the R&B chart. In December 1958, the group was on the national charts again with "Don't You Know Yockomo," which reached #56 on the pop chart. After a hiatus, Smith and the Clowns had a 1962 hit with "Pop-Eye," which reached #51.
Ace profited from records by other black musicians as well but could rarely place their records on either the Billboard pop or R&B chart. Ace records by such bluesmen as Earl King, Joe Tex, and Bobby Marchan sold well enough in the national R&B market to be profitable but did not appeal to the mass white audience. These record sales and the income they generated from concert performances and bookings in black clubs helped sustain Ace. The company continued to record and profit from black music, but the market for records among blacks was too limited for anyone who was financially ambitious. Whereas fifty thousand copies was a hit in this market, such volume barely rippled in the white market, where a big hit sold in the millions. Ace tried to find records, by blacks or whites, that could sell well in the national pop market, where the huge profits were. The love ballad, "Gee Baby," by Joe and Ann came close to entering the Top 100 (reaching #108) on the national pop chart in 1960, but it was a fluke. Long before the hit with "Gee Baby," Vincent recognized that the mass market, which was white, was shifting away from black musicians and the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis to white teen idols.
In the late 1950s, white adolescent girls bought the majority of 45 RPM records, and they wanted "dream boats" or teen idols. They gave Elvis Presley his success, for they liked his male beauty as much as his voice, and they continued to buy his records even after RCA softened his rock 'n' roll. First hitting the national charts in 1956, Presley had thirty-four Top 100 hits by the end of 1958, sixteen of them in the Top Ten. No other singer or group came close, and certainly no black singer in the 1950s could possibly do what Presley was doing, for the very thought of white girls excited by black male sex objects was abhorrent to most Americans. Rock 'n' roll, especially the Presley phenomenon, had shaken up the record business.(38)
Record companies began trying to imitate RCA's success with Presley. They created a hybrid music, rock and roll, by toning down and orchestrating the music and choosing lyrics that emphasized such values as love and marriage (instead of raw sexuality). They recorded white singers who combined innocence with sex appeal. In some instances, they simply did for young Italian-American singers such as Fabian what they had done earlier for Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. In this industry shift, the majors had the advantage, because they had the financial resources, organization, and experience to market this kind of product.
Ace also went after the emerging teen idol market, scoring its first success with Jimmy Clanton. Clanton, a handsome 17-year-old Louisiana State University student from nearby Baton Rouge, showed up with his band for a $25 recording session at Matassa's studio. Matassa, who became his agent, and Vincent decided that Clanton, backed by the black musicians, might be a commercial success, and Ace began issuing his records. Clanton proved to be a gold mine for Ace. His "Just A Dream" hit the pop chart in April 1958 and reached #4. By October, his "A Letter to an Angel" was on the charts, headed for #25. On the basis of these hits, Vincent got Clanton a starring role in the 1959 Hal Roach movie, Go, Johnny, Go, which also starred Alan Freed and Chuck Berry. Clanton sang "My Love Is Strong," "It Takes a Long Time," "Ship on a Stormy Sea," and "Angel Face." None of these songs made the Billboard Top 100, but his appearance in the company of Berry, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Harvey, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, and the Flamingos confirmed Clanton's importance. Movie exposure helped Clanton's career and Ace's reputation as a company that could promote its singers. Clanton's "dream boat" status was publicized in teenage magazines. His "My Own True Love" and "Go, Jimmy, Go," both released in 1959, reached #33 and #5, respectively. In 1960, he had hits with "Another Sleepless Night" (#22), "Come Back" (#63), and "Wait" (#91). His career then began faltering, for only one song, "What Am I Going to Do," made the charts in 1961, reaching #50. In 1962 he had hits with "Venus in Blue Jeans" (#7) and "Darkest Street in Town" (#77), but he left Ace Records for another company, where he never repeated his previous success.(39)
Vincent also tried to find and develop other teen idols. One was the Italian-American Frankie Ford (born Frank Guizzo), who had developed friendships with the black musicians used by Ace and had become a studio musician. Huey Smith had written and recorded two songs ("Loberta" and "Sea Cruise") that seemed to have promise, but Vincent decided that they would sell better if sung by a white singer, especially one young white girls would see as a dreamboat. He changed "Loberta" to "Roberta" and dubbed Ford's vocals on top of the original. Although "Roberta" did not make the pop charts, Vincent tried the same tactic with "Sea Cruise," with greater success: it entered the charts in February 1959 and reached #14 on the pop chart and #11 on the R&B chart. Ace then released Ford's "Alimony," a humorous lament on the subject, but it reached only #97, perhaps because the topic held little interest for adolescents. His "Time after Time" did better in 1960, reaching #75, but Ford was not destined to be a star. Drafted into the military in 1962, he found his recording career so disrupted that he bought a New Orleans nightclub when he was discharged in 1963. Vincent also tried to develop Ike Clanton, Jimmy's brother, into a teen idol, but Ike had only one minor hit with "Down the Aisle," which reached #91 in 1960.
So much money poured into Ace Records that Vincent had to incorporate. He did not know what to do with all the checks and cash. Soon, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden in his office and feared that it would be stolen, lost, or burned in a fire or that he would somehow get into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. His accountant advised him to incorporate into different companies both to keep track of his businesses and to lower his taxes.(40) On 26 June 1958, he and his wife Hazel created a production company, Ace Record Company, Inc., in Mississippi with $10,000 in capital stock. On 25 March 1959, Vincent and his attorney, Earl Keyes, created Ace Publishing Company, Inc., to handle the copyrights. He also incorporated his record stores and record distributorships, businesses that he had to create to sell his records.(41) Ace records had been institutionalized. Between 1957 and 1963, it would have nineteen records on Billboard's Top 100 chart (see Table 1) and seven on Billboard's R&B chart (see Table 2).(42)
Table : Table 1 Ace Records in the Billboard Top 100
Date Artist Song Highest Charted Rank 8/12/1957 Smith, Huey P. Rockin' Pneumonia 52 & Boogie Woogie Flu 3/24/1958 Smith, Huey P. Don't You Just Know It 9 4/14/1958 Clanton, Jimmy Just A Dream 4 10/20/1958 Clanton, Jimmy A Letter to an Angel 25 11/ 3/1958 Clanton, Jimmy A Part of Me 38 12/ 8/1958 Smith, Huey P. Don't You Know Yockomo 56 2/ 9/1959 Ford, Frankie Sea Cruise 14 8/ 3/1959 Ford, Frankie Alimony 97 8/ 3/1959 Clanton, Jimmy My Own True Love 33 12/ 7/1959 Clanton, Jimmy Go, Jimmy, Go 5 1/18/1960 Ford, Frankie Time after Time 75 4/25/1960 Clanton, Jimmy Another Sleepless Night 22 5/23/1960 Clanton, Ike Down the Aisle 91 8/22/1960 Clanton, Jimmy Come Back 63 9/26/1960 Clanton, Jimmy Wait 91 1/ 9/1961 Clanton, Jimmy What Am I Going to Do 50 2/17/1962 Smith, Huey P. Pop-Eye 51 8/18/1962 Clanton, Jimmy Venus in Blue Jeans 7 1/ 5/1963(a) Clanton, Jimmy Darkest Street in Town 77
Source: Joel Whitburn's Top Pop, 1955-1982 (Menominee Falls, Wis., 1983). Whitburn's books are compilations of every record ever listed on a Billboard chart.
(a) According to Joel Whitburn's Bubbling under the Top 100, 1959-81 (Menominee Falls, Wis., 1982), one more Ace record made the national pop charts: "Gee Baby" by Joe & Ann rose to #108 in the 31 Dec. 1960 chart.
Table : Table 2 Ace Records on the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) Charts
Date Artist Song Highest Charted Rank 7/ 6/1957 Smith, Huey P. Rockin' Pneumonia 9 & Boogie Woogie Flu 7/19/1957 Clanton, Jimmy Just A Dream 1 3/22/1958 Smith, Huey P. Don't You Just Know It 4 11/11/1958 Clanton, Jimmy A Part of Me 28 4/12/1959 Ford, Frankie Sea Cruise 11 12/18/1960 Joe & Ann Gee Baby 14 1/17/1960 Clanton, Jimmy Go, Jimmy, Go 29
Source: Joel Whitburn's Top Rhythm & Blues Records, 1949-1971 (Menominee Falls, Wis., 1973). The Billboard R&B Chart counted only the most popular fifteen records between 1955 and 1958, then increased that to twenty for ten months of 1958 before going to the Top 30.
Vincent owned Ace Records, Inc., Ace Publishing Company, Inc., Vin Records, and Record Sales, Inc. Ace Records was a nonunion company that both produced records and served as the umbrella corporation. Vin, on the other hand, was a union company that also did production. None of the records released on the Vin label hit the Top 100. Ace Publishing was a "paper" corporation to administer the copyrights owned by Vincent, his companies, and his artists. Record Sales, Inc., was a distribution company based in New Orleans. Corporate headquarters was in Jackson, Mississippi, and was staffed by Vincent, his secretary, John Angle (head of promotion and distribution), Angle's assistant, a bookkeeper, a certified public accountant, an accounting clerk, a receptionist, and an office clerk. Legal matters were handled by Earl Keyes of the Jackson law firm Sullivan, Sullivan, and Keyes.
Ace's production costs can only be estimated, because few of the company's business files survive. Most recording sessions took place in New Orleans in the studios of Cosimo Matassa. Although a recording session consisted of four songs according to union rules, the number of hours needed to record four songs varied. In late 1959, Cosimo billed Ace for one and one-half hours of studio time at $20 an hour and for three 1,200-foot tapes at $2.50 each, for a total of $37.50. Huey "Piano" Smith signed a contract in December of that year, which guaranteed him $10 for each song he recorded ($40 for a full, four-song session) plus union scale as a musician on the session. Ace was a nonunion company but paid union scale. In August 1960 the American Federation of Musicians Local #174 charged Vin Records $1,070 for a four-song recording session; the band leader received $135, thirteen other musicians received $67.50 each, and one received $57.50. For a three-song session in October 1960, however, the local
(34) Vincent, interview with Cox.
(35) Broven, Rhythm and Blues, 113; Jeff Hannusch, I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues (Ville Platte, La., 1985), 123.
(36) The first Ace singles, numbers 500-508, were by Al Collins, Little Bo, Al Terry and the Louisiana Hayriders, Big Boy Crudup, Bobby Fields, Lightning Slim, Lou Millett, Jimmy and Jack, and Elmore James, respectively. See the back dust cover of Ace Story, Ace-Chiswick Records, vol. 5 (CH98), 1984 for a complete listing of Ace Records releases.
(37) The record became a bone of contention between Earl King and Vincent. King in his interview with Living Blues, 17, argued that he produced the record, not Vincent, that Vincent's ineptitude was responsible for the poor technical quality of the record, and that the record sold more copies than Vincent ever admitted. Vincent argues that he produced the record, and that, if it were true that King was the producer, then King is responsible for releasing a record on which instruments are out of tune. How many records were sold is hard to determine. In his interview with Cox, Vincent asserts that it sold 125,000-150,000 but in "Making a Hit," 34, he says about 80,000. The difference can be explained by the time of the interviews. The song has continued to sell over the years, mostly to collectors. In later years, Vincent's decision to try to cash in on the rising fame of Fats Domino by putting "piano by Fats" on the label also drew criticism. Vincent, of course, was primarily concerned with selling the record. Vincent's comments can be found in Vincent, interview with Cox.
(38) Gillett, Sound of the City, 472; Joel Whitburn's Top Pop, 1955-1982 (Menominee Falls, Wis., 1983), 327-31, provides the data on Presley's records.
(39) Billboard's rankings of record popularity were determined by a variety of imprecise indices. The number of units shipped (as reported by the record company and sometimes verified by pressing plants) was used instead of the number of records sold. Because distributors could return unsold records ninety days after receiving the original shipment, record companies often did not know how many records they were selling. Given the short life of most popular records, Billboard rarely had any interest in most records after three months. In addition, Billboard also asked some DJs how often they played a record and some record stores how many copies of a record was being sold. Neither of these two techniques was precise. A common record company tactic was to create the illusion that a record was a hit in hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes expensive advertisements were bought in Billboard in the hope that the periodical would raise the ranking of a record. Industry standards for a "gold" record ($1 million in sales based on list price) were created in 1958. There was no system to verify these sales, and it was in the interest of a record company to try to assert that a record was "gold" because doing so would spur further sales. See Harvey Rachin, The Encyclopedia of the Music Business (New York, 1981), 163-64. Vincent asserted that selling 200,000 copies would put a record above #50 on the Billboard chart. See the discussion in the text about the volume of record sales and what constituted a hit.
(40) Vincent, interview with author.
(41) Secretary of State, State of Mississippi, Charter of Incorporation of Ace Record Company, Inc., 26 June 1958; Secretary of State, State of Mississippi, Charter of Incorporation of Ace Publishing Company, Inc., 25 March 1959.
(42) See Whitburn, Top Pop, 1955-82.
PHOTO : Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns * With this group's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," Vincent had a truly national hit, followed by several others between 1957 and 1962. The group's "Don't You Just Know It" was resurrected for the movie The Big Easy, set in New Orleans. (Photograph from the album cover, reproduced courtesy of Ace Records.) union charged $618 ($103 for the band leader and $51.50 each for the nine other musicians). If these two sessions are representative, musicians' wages for a record (two songs) cost about $480. Ace also often had to pay for arrangements, copyists, and vocal groups. For an August 1960 recording session for Jimmy Clanton, Crescent City Concerts Association charged $565 for four songs ($265 for arrangements, $100 for copyists, and $200 for vocal groups on two songs). In addition, the record company paid for food and drink before, during, and after the recording session. If a participating musician did not live in the New Orleans area, the company also paid for housing.(43)
Ace, like other record companies, incurred additional costs in transforming a recording session into a plastic 45 RPM record. The producer (usually Vincent for Ace) had to listen repeatedly to the tape or tapes produced from the session to determine which cuts would be used for the record, whether or not to merge portions of different cuts of the same song into a better version, and whether to dub additional instrumentation or vocals onto the original. The process was lengthy and laborious, but the value of this labor cost is difficult to determine. When the producer had settled on the two songs to be included on the record, the tape was sent to a plant in Chicago where the selected songs were converted from the acetate master into a "mother," then to a metal "mother," and finally to a metal stamper. Ace then contracted with plastic products factories to press records from these stampers. The plastic manufacturers' charges were based on the number of units pressed, with a discount or rebate when the record company ordered a high quantity (see Table 3). Such rebates, when they occurred, reduced the original cost of the record. Major record companies, which consistently placed large pressing orders, could demand cheaper pressing prices, but small independent companies such as Ace could not. In addition to having the record pressed, Ace also contracted for the printing of labels and record sleeves. In 1962 Queens Lithographing of New York charged Ace $581 for 5,200 album covers, or 11.2 cents each; 45 RPM sleeves were much less expensive.
[Tabular Data Omitted]
Ace's gross profit on a 45 RPM record was thirteen cents: the production costs averaged thirty-three cents; the record was sold to a distributor for forty-six cents. The net profit was considerably lower.
Record companies bombarded disk jockeys, especially those working for major stations in key markets, with thousands of records, hoping that the DJ would like and play the record. The first challenge for a record promoter, therefore, was simply to convince a DJ to listen to a record. DJs played hit records automatically, of course, and they monitored record sales by distributors and retail stores, the playlists of competitors and of smaller radio stations, and listener requests to determine which were the hits. DJs also wanted to be the first to play what would become a hit, for being a trend spotter, like Alan Freed, meant higher salaries, payola, and fame. To sort out the potential hits from the "stiffs," a DJ often relied not only on listening to records but also on the advice (or salesmanship) of the record company representative, the reputation of the label, and the fame of the performers.
Vincent understood all of this and resorted to a variety of techniques to sell his records. He had put "Fats on Piano" on the label of "Lonely, Lonely Nights" in the hope that DJs would play it thinking that the famous Fats Domino was part of it. He also mislabeled other records when he thought it would help. For a Frankie Ford of Jimmy Clanton record, Ace would ship 60,000 copies to distributors, according to Vincent, and then try to increase orders through promotion. Promoting a record depended on who one knew. To persuade the big New Orleans radio stations to play his records, Vincent would have them played on the nearby, smaller Eunice and Opelousas stations, to which the New Orleans DJs also listened. The very popular late-night "Randy's Record Mart" show on Nashville's 50,000-watt WLAC radio station reached thousands of listeners in the eastern United States. Vincent hired adolescent girls to write postcards requesting that one of his songs be played and then mailed the cards to the station as he traveled. He also hired adolescents to go into record stores and ask for his records or he would buy some himself, thus creating the illusion of demand. People were sent to play Ace records on jukeboxes, thus encouraging jukebox operators to buy them. The requisite advertisements were placed in the trade magazines. Ace tried to curry favor with DJs.(44)
Ace also used the industry's standard promotional techniques. Promotional copies were sent to DJs and distributors. Using the photograph of a young, attractive, and provocatively clad woman with the caption "Miss Ace Says" to grab the attention of clients, who were almost always male, the company sent news of Ace releases, chart rankings, and future recording plans. The promotion department assiduously answered letters from DJs and distributors. The company ran weekly advertisements in Billboard, Cash Box, Music Recorder, and Music Vendor. If sales of a particular record seemed to be moving it toward hit status, Ace spent the necessary $1,500 for a full-page advertisement in Billboard in hopes that the periodical would be more generous in assigning it a rank.(45)
The record business involves many risks for both the company and the performer. Performers are expected to pay their recording and personal expenses out of future royalties. Since royalties, if they are earned at all, are created over time, the record company loans the performer money in the form of cash, clothing, equipment, automobiles, or other items. If a record sells enough, the performer receives cash income after such loans are repaid. Hit records also lead to live performances, on which no royalties have to be paid. Performers often forget that these advances are loans, not salary, that they are venture capitalists, not employees. If a record fails to sell, the record company absorbs the loss and hopes that some future record by that performer will generate enough income to pay the debts. At least 90 and perhaps 95 percent of records lost money in the 1950s, so the probability of never recovering advances was quite high. The record company risked existing capital or used credit for manufacturing and promotion. Performers had to be supported until their records earned enough royalties, if ever, to repay recording, manufacturing, promotional, and living costs. Companies also had to hire lawyers to enforce contracts and to stop copyright infringements; they were sometimes unable to recover payments due from distributors.(46)
The number of records one had to sell to have a "hit" is not clear. Some writers on rock music history consider 40,000 copies as constituting a hit and 100,000 a big hit. Citing an unidentified Billboard study, they argue that fewer than 10 percent of the records released became hits (selling between 100,000 and one million copies) and that the true number was closer to 5 percent. Further, 60 percent of releases sold between 2,000 and 3,000 copies; 20 percent sold up to 25,000; and only 10 percent sold in excess 50,000. Moreover, 80 percent of the records released resulted in losses for the record companies and the distributors. Johnny Vincent believes that to be in the Top 50 during the period when Ace was active, one had to sell 200,000 records.(47) Ace, with 19 hits out of 190 releases, at least reached the industry average and, perhaps, did better.
Distribution was always a serious problem for independent record companies like Ace. The major recording companies had their own distribution systems and the power to encourage other distributors to stock their products. The scores of independent record companies, however, had to build a national network of distributors if they wanted to have national hits. Distributors wanted only records that sold. Since records produced by the independent companies were often of unknown marketability, distributors demanded concessions before they would stock such records. Records were sent on consignment to distributors, who had ninety days to pay for the records or to return unsold ones for full credit. Ace gave distributors three hundred of the first one thousand copies the distributor took on consignment from the company. The distributor could always sell those records, even when the record was a "stiff," a record that could not be sold in the general market.
Determining how many records were actually sold also presented a problem. Distributors ordered records from the nearest pressing plant with which the record company had a contract, with copies of these orders going to the record company, but the distributorships kept the accounts on how many copies they sold. A record company therefore had no independent accounting of how many of its records had actually been sold. The number of records pressed did not automatically equal the number of records sold. The company often had to wait ninety days to begin to determine the initial net sale of a record. Although distributors were to pay within ninety days of receipt of a record shipment, they often did not do so. Ace's biggest problem was always with distributors (who were also waiting for payment by their customers) who were slow to pay or refused to pay. Ace, at its height, placed its records with at least thirty-six and perhaps forty distributors throughout the United States, but the company had to give these distributors a rebate.
Most record companies probably promoted records through payola, the practice of trying to influence DJs with cash or gifts to play a company's records. The practice existed in the late nineteenth century when songwriters and music publishers paid band leaders to play their songs in order to promote the sale of sheet music. When recorded music replaced sheet music, the practice continued except that the record companies became the payers and DJs and record distributors became the recipients. The practice was not illegal and was widespread in the music business, because DJs could listen to only a few of the hundreds of records released each week. Since people bought records they heard, no record could become a hit unless it was played on the radio. Record companies showered DJs with gifts of money, meals, drinks, merchandise, partial or total ownership of song copyrights, the loan of recording stars for record hops, or anything else the DJ might want. Influential DJs in major markets reaped most of the payola.
Ace used payola as a promotion technique, but to what extent remains unclear. Vincent took DJs to dinner, gave them gifts, and sent artists, at Ace's expense, to DJ's record hops. He contends that Alan Freed never wanted money from him but did expect Ace to pick up the tab when Vincent and Freed "bar-hopped." The tab could be as high as $2,000, for Freed liked to buy drinks for everyone. Vincent gave part of the copyright to "Don't You Just Know It" to Kincord Corporation, one of Dick Clark's publishing companies, and sent Clark a royalty check for $2,000. Ace was one of the companies cited for distributing payola during the 1959-60 payola investigation of the Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.(48)
The payola investigation and hearings hurt the independent record companies, which seems to have been the intention of the major companies and ASCAP. A close reading of the 1,600 pages of testimony certainly suggests this conclusion. Scattered throughout the testimony from major record company officials and ASCAP members are admissions that payola was a long-standing and common practice among nearly all record companies. The thrust of the hearings, however, was the argument that R&B and rock 'n' roll (both usually licensed by BMI) would never be played by radio stations if DJs were not bribed and that payola had driven good music off the airways. Opponents of rock 'n' roll (and thus of the independents) were asserting that the independent record companies and BMI had conspired to corrupt the United States by inundating the airways with bad music, full of sex and disrespect for authority. Although none of this was true, Congress outlawed payola in 1960, and radio stations began hiring program directors to monitor song selection. Independents lost the opportunity to persuade DJs with whom they had cultivated personal and fiscal relationships to test the marketability of a record by playing it on the air. If the record was not heard by enough people, it would not sell. The destruction of Alan Freed's career not only removed the chief national champion of the independent companies in radio, but it also discouraged anyone else from taking his place. The large corporations, however, which owned radio and television networks and, in some cases, motion picture studios, could get their records played in major markets or nationally. Moreover, many DJs hoped to obtain the higher paying jobs found on stations owned by the large corporations. By closing some of the gateways to the marketplace provided by the kind of payola used before 1960, the major companies reasserted their control of the market. The new law helped kill many of the companies that had fostered rock 'n' roll.
Vincent agrees with this assessment, but he is also convinced that the hearings were targeted at Dick Clark, host of the highly influential national television program, "American Bandstand." Clark's show was the only national program featuring R&B and rock 'n' roll and, more important, it was broadcast over the nation's most powerful medium, television. Although records played repeatedly on the show would not automatically become hits, as critics contended, exposure on "American Bandstand" so enhanced a record's possibilities that Clark was wooed by record companies and did take some gifts. Much of the hearing focused on Clark, as the subcommittee spent days hearing testimony from DJs, record company owners, Clark's associates, and, finally, Clark himself. The subcommittee flew Vincent to Washington to testify, but his testimony has never been released to the public. Vincent asserts that he told the subcommittee that Clark was honest and believes that he was instrumental in turning the tide in favor of Clark. Regardless of who was responsible, the subcommittee exonerated Clark of all charges at the end of the hearings. Clark emerged the victor of the payola controversy, but he had to sell off his very profitable personal holdings in the music business. Thereafter, he continued to play adolescent music but rarely the kind recorded by the controversial independents.(49)
The Failure of Ace Records
Exogenous factors drove Ace and other independents out of the mass market. Tarred by the brush of the payola scandal, they had trouble getting their records played. Freed, their best friend in the national radio marketplace, was gone. More important, however, was competition from the major labels. The independents had grown and prospered because they had developed a market in which the majors had little interest, but, when the major companies recognized how lucrative that market could be and moved into it, the independents lost their competitive advantage and began to go under or to sell off their assets. The majors had the financial resources to buy artists and catalogues from independents or to lease songs from them. They also had extensive distribution systems. Aladdin folded in the late 1950s. Specialty had effectively quit releasing new records by 1960, about the same time that Art Rupe first began leasing his masters and not long before he sold his catalogue. Sam Phillips of Sun and Phillips switched his attention to the newly founded Holiday Inn motel chain after his major artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, either switched labels or temporarily retired from recording. Atlantic, perhaps the strongest of the independents, survived until 1967, when it was purchased by Warner Brothers.
Ace, which had successfully moved into the teen idol market, might have survived had it not been too dependent on the talents of one man, Vincent, whose strengths were salesmanship and driving energy. His song selection strategy was reactive, not proactive, for his musical knowledge was limited. Ace never had enough staff to handle the specialized duties inherent in the record business. Although hiring John Angle to handle promotional work helped, Ace also needed a full-time business manager, at least one talent scout, and a sophisticated producer. Vincent tried to do the last three jobs himself; they were too much for one person. Moreover, Ace erred in depending almost exclusively on a single coterie of New Orleans musicians. Adolescents tired of the New Orleans sound. Teen idols more exciting than Jimmy Clanton appeared on the national scene, but Ace, too limited in its talent identification network, was unable to find new artists who could sell records.
The company might have found a way to overcome these limitations if Vincent had not made an ill-fated distribution deal with Vee-Jay Records of Chicago. Distribution problems were the key factor in Vincent's 1962 decision to tie the fortunes of Ace to Vee-Jay Records. Founded in 1953 in Chicago, Vee-Jay appeared to be a very strong company. It had consistently released hits by
black artists such as Jerry Butler and, by 1962, was also producing hits with the Four Seasons, a white group. Vee-Jay's black owners wanted to expand into the white market and believed that an alliance with a white-owned company would help. Ace had successfully sold records by the white teen idols Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clanton. Clanton had just had a major hit. The first Ace record to be released after the Ace-Vee-Jay arrangement would be "Venus in Blue Jeans," also a major hit. Under the arrangement, all of Ace's sales, promotion, and distribution would be handled by Vee-Jay, thus relieving Vincent of the most troublesome aspect of the record business and giving him more time to develop new artists and to produce. Ace pulled its records from the network of distributors Vincent had built up, most of whom owed Ace money, and placed them with Vee-Jay distributors.(50)
Vincent believes that aligning Ace with Vee-Jay Records brought about the demise of his company, for it cost him, by his estimate, $1 million in one year. Vee-Jay was being badly mismanaged and would go bankrupt in 1965. Its successes with the Four Seasons and, in the 1963 and early 1964, with the Beatles (it was the first company to release a Beatles record in the United States) demonstrated that it was undercapitalized. It lacked the funds with which to press records fast enough, the achilles heel of the independent record company. Vincent asserts that "Venus in Blue Jeans" sold 1.5 million copies, but Vee-Jay disputed the figure and never paid full royalties to Ace. Vee-Jay never paid Ace for switching distributors, and the old Ace distributors, believing that Ace was going out of business, also refused to pay outstanding bills. Lacking money, Vincent could not operate, and Ace was effectively dead. The Vee-Jay bankruptcy in 1965 ended all hope of recouping an appreciable amount of money from Vee-Jay. The 1964 "British Invasion" of white British musicians singing American rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll captivated American adolescents, but few small companies had the funds necessary to sign British acts. The major companies did.
The story of Vincent's creation of a national company from such modest beginnings is intrinsically interesting, but it also has broader significance. The Ace story demonstrates how owners of small, independent record companies identified a market niche, took risks, persisted in the face of failure, worked extraordinarily long hours, developed their markets, and prospered. They had the vision that the operators of the giant record companies lacked; they were not burdened by their own bureaucracies, dependent on tradition or front-office managers. They had to pay attention to what people - white, black, and adolescent - wanted if they were going to sell records, so they made their long, boring, tiring, and lonely talent recruitment and sales trips. Vincent, operating in the segregated South, unlike Rupe or Leonard Chess and some others, had to face the prospect of physical harm, especially in the early years. More than one white person drew a gun on him when he was trying to recruit black talent.
Ace Records survives as a name under which songs are licensed or an occasional "oldies" album is released, but the terms of that survival indicate the problems faced by small businesses in a market dominated by giant corporations. Vincent owns many of the song copyrights (he bought Huey Smith's share of some of the songs they co-owned), and he owns the masters. The copyrights yield royalties, which, although small, are a source of income. Leasing the masters for revival or collectors' albums produces additional income. Other artists have "covered," or re-recorded, some Ace songs, and Vincent earns both copyright and performance royalties. He was paid $1,000 for the use of "Sea Cruise" in the movie American Hot Wax and a lesser amount for "Don't You Just Know It" for the movie The Big Easy. He occasionally releases records under the Ace label, though the prospects of having another hit are dim. Sophisticated production and distribution techniques in the record industry today are so costly that storefront companies such as Ace cannot raise the capital necessary to be effective competitors. Moreover, the necessity of producing a music video for MTV, now required to make a record a hit, keeps most small companies out of the national market. In addition to the high technology costs, the distribution system, relying as it does on rack jobbers who are interested only in stocking records with proven sales potential, favors the large corporations. Small companies can overcome these obstacles, but few do.(51)
(43) Cosimo Recording Studios bill to Ace Records, 11 Nov. 1959; recording contract between Huey P. Smith and Ace Records, 21 Dec. 1959; Phonograph Recording Contract between American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, Local #174 and Vin Records, 29 Aug. 1960; Phonograph Recording Contract between American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, Local #174 and Vin Records, 29 Oct. 1960; Crescent City Concerts Association bill to John Vincent, Vin Records, 7 Sept. 1960. Copies of these documents are in the business files of Ace Records, Inc., and in possession of the author.
(44) Vincent, interview with author; "Making a Hit," 34; Hannusch, Hear You Knockin', 132.
(45) Angle, interview with author, 22 Nov. 1985.
(46) Many of those who performed blues, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll in the 1950s knew or cared little about the business side of recording; many of them were also adolescents, inexperienced in the ways of the world or overconfident in the future. The glitter and fame of having a hit record was often sufficient motivation to get them into a recording studio. Vincent asserts that he always paid his performers all of their royalties and often more than they ever actually earned but that other independents often did not. See Vincent, interview with author. Atlantic Records, originally a New York-based independent, enjoyed the rare reputation of paying its performers their legitimate due; see Gillett, Making Trucks.
(47) Ward, et al., Rock of Ages, 86, 188; Vincent, interview with author.
(48) Vincent, interview with author. On Ace and the payola hearings, see U.S. House, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, Responsibilities of Broadcasting Licenses and Station Personnel, Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, 86th Cong., 2d sess., on Payola and Other Deceptive Practices in the Broadcasting Field (Washington, D.C., 1960), 668, 1479.
(49) Vincent, interview with author; House Subcommittee, Responsibilities. See also Dick Clark and Richard Robinson, Rock, Roll, and Remember (New York, 1976), 193-225, for Clark's comments on the incident. The payola controversy, including Clark's role, deserves a study of its own.
(50) Broven, Rhythm and Blues, 131-32; Vincent, interview with author.
(51) Contract between Ace Music Company, Inc., and Huey P. Smith and John Vincent, 15 Nov. 1964; for $3,500 to Smith and $3,500 to himself, Vincent bought "Don't You Just Know It," "High Blood Pressure," "Roberta," and "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." On the contemporary problems facing small companies, see R. Serge Denisoff, Tarnished Gold: The Record Industry Revisited (New Brunswick, N.J., 1986).
PHOTO : The Ace Label * Ace Records, as a going concern, existed from 1955 to 1962. It had nineteen records in the Billboard Top 100, eleven of them by Jimmy Clanton. "Don't You Just Know It" reached #9. (Photograph by Fred Faulk.)
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|Author:||Mabry, Donald J.|
|Publication:||Business History Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1990|
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