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