One of the great labels of the post-war era was Savoy Records, the product of the mind of Herman Lubinsky, and begun in a small way in 1942. After WW II, things had become interesting in the music business as the major labels hadn’t a clue as to what to do (nothing new there) and smaller operations filled in the gaps for more specialized audiences. Savoy is known to collectors of many colors for a variety of things, depending on which style anorak one wore: Bebop, vocal groups, R’n’B, gospel, and even a little blues from time to time. A potential fund of knowledge about those days of the indie record business, Lubinsky was generally close-mouthed (save with Arnold Shaw a bit). I certainly tried, making many a phone call from my North NJ base (i.e.: my parents’ home!) with no positive reaction for the longest time. Eventually, Herman said to come to Newark, so I hurried off to Ferry St. to speak with him. I found him to be a racist (all African Americans were “niggers” to him and they were all junkies, drunkards, and sex maniacs… even the gospel performers. He had no respect for any of them.) and he was singularly unforthcoming, making me wonder why I had driven over in the first place. When I tried to ask questions and turn on my cassette recorder, he asked, “How much am I going to get paid for this?” I tried to explain the fiscal verities of BLUES UNLIMITED to him, but he didn’t care. “No money, then leave.” I left(1).
I didn’t go too far… just down the hall to see Fred Mendelsohn before I departed, a truly lovely man who loved the music. Fred had been involved with other independent labels in the forties and fifties – Regent, Regal, a.o. – and at that time was producing many of the gospel sessions that were the then bread and butter of the Savoy operation in the mid-sixties. (He agreed with me that the recordings he produced by Rev. C./J. Johnson were something special!) Fred was responsible for the last great “field” session by a commercial label of “country” blues musicians in Atlanta, ca. 1949. The artists involved were Curley Weaver, Frank Edwards, Little David (Wylie), and Blind Willie McTell. It was Zenas Sears, the most important DJ on Black Atlanta radio (although White himself), who helped set things up with announcements on his show as to where and when the sessions were to be held. Some of the performers recorded only a few sides (Frank Edwards, w. Curley), while others were done at greater length (McTell): Buddy Moss was not there being still in indentured servitude in North Carolina until 1950. Mendelsohn had the Regal tapes from those sessions with him in the Savoy Building (warehouse, offices, recording studio, etc.) and was very proud of them. Fred liked both the music and the musicians who made it (unlike his boos at Savoy). I had gone to Savoy with Mike Rowe and Peter Bullock a few years earlier; Lubinsky wasn’t in that day, but Freddie was… a blessing in disguise. He was quite open and was pleased that we were interested in his past efforts. He even pulled out one tape (7” @ 7 ½ ips) to play for us – Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver… mostly unreleased on Regal. Boy, it sounded good to us. Rowe wrote up the visit for BU along with a bit of a discography from the notations on the tape boxes we were shown.
A number of years later, Arnie Caplin (for whom I had done a bit of liner note work in the past) obtained those Atlanta tapes from Fred, as well as some other Regal material. He told me the situation for the proposed McTell album – missing were the songs on the tape that Fred had played for us! Rather than wait, the Biograph album came out without the contents of that tape reel. Fred did later locate the errant tape, but it was only enough for half an LP! Now you know why a later Biograph LP was half McTell and half Memphis Minnie – not an obvious pairing! A matter of necessity rather than philosophy. Some of the McTEll was on a Biograph CD, coupled with some material from the 60s by Skip James, and Bukka White. Acrobat has released most of the material (save a side or two on Delmark!), so a definitive, cohesive release from that Atlanta session is still lacking.
Herman Lubinsky died in 1974, aged 78, uninterviewed by me and probably mourned by only a few of his family and possibly a few close friends. In 1975 Arista Records purchased the whole Savoy thing and tried to keep it going, but they really hadn’t a clue as to what they had, nor what to do with it all. They did instigate a re-issue program of vintage jazz, blues, and R’n’B under the aegis of Bob Porter, plus they tried to keep the gospel line alive and active. By the early eighties they gave up and sold the secular catalogue to Joe Fields (Muse Records at that time) and the religious one to Malaco Records in Mississippi. Joe continued the re-release program with Bob Porter and others (including your truly) until he sold Savoy Jazz to Japanese Denon in the early nineties (just before all the copyrights ran out!). They at first recycled many of the original Savoy albums of the 50s as CDs; then they messed about with the stuff in almost random fashion. I’m not sure if the tapes and all the paper-work went over to Japan, but more recently they have moved it all outside of Atlanta for Denon. At that point, legendary producer Orrin Keepnews had been involved with a new re-release program that started from scratch and was then distributed by Atlantic Records! I hope that the program will continue and expand (doubtful), for there is some great unheard music in there in spite of its original owner. My mother* was not one to bad-mouth anyone… the strongest words of criticism that she used for someone she thought ill of were “unpleasant” and “disagreeable”. She would have found Herman Lubinsky to be both of those, as did her son.
- (1) I remember talking with Ralph Bass about Lubinsky later in Chicago (Chess Studios). He had been the West Coast producer for Savoy in 1948 (after working for many other indies over time), sending masters east that he had produced in CA. Their relationship “worked” up until Bass was cajoled into physically transferring to NJ by Lubinsky. It quickly soured (not just because of Herman’s ubiquitous pistol) when they had to deal with each other face-to-face. Ralph left Savoy to work for Syd Nathan (no bed of roses!), who created Federal Records for Ralph’s pleasure as an incentive!
* I still think that she was the model for the mother played by Mary Tyler Moore in the film “Ordinary People”, almost an ethnography of her.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM