COHEN, Rich – MACHERS AND ROCKERS: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll; Norton (2004) New York & London. 220 pp.
BROVEN, John – RECORD MAKERS AND BREAKERS: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers; University of Illinois Press (2009) Urbana & Chicago. 584 pp.
MARMORSTEIN, Gary: THE LABEL: The Story of Columbia Records; Thunder’s Mouth Press (2007) NY. 640 pp.
A few recent books have tried to deal with “this business of music” in the immediate post-war period when independent record companies filled the various niche markets that eventually lead to Rock & Roll’s “birth” in the 1950s. These are but two, one label-specific, the other not: both are well written with one detailed and accurate, the other not so much! Cohen is a New Yorker by birth; Broven lives on Long Island, but comes originally from Sussex in the UK. Marmorstein is another New Yorker. John wrote for BLUES UNLIMITED (UK) in the 60s and 70s, and was one of founders JUKE BLUES there. He also has written and produced albums for Ace Records’ (UK) massive re-issue program of vintage material from The States’ independent labels. Rich is a contributing editor at ROLLING STONE (NY), and has written a number of Jewish-centered books, and contributed to many NY area slick magazines (NEW YORKER, VANITY FAIR). Broven’s books about Louisiana musics are still the go-to places for information and color! Gary has written many articles for a myriad of magazines.
Cohen writes in a breezy, almost conversational style that seems often superficially involved in his subject and more involved with himself. That in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but there are too many factual errors, conflations of facts, and shuffling of time-frames to be acceptable. Broven also writes in a readable fashion, but he’s definitely got all his details in line and has not got a pre-determined agenda. He’s REALLY done his homework, over many decades’ worth of interviews with insiders of the record business in the fifties and sixties, both big and small. He even includes a few who were partially in the “kiddie record” side of the biz! Taking a broad-brush to the record business that includes more than “just” record men, he deals with manufacturers, distributors, and music publishers – radio is also a constant presence in his pages, as that is how the word got around for the independent companies. Marmorstein is quite good and detailed in his tracing the vagaries of Columbia Record from the git-go – possibly too detailed when he gets into the rock era! It’s a BIG book, folks
If one is mainly interested in Chess Records, a more thorough look-see would be journalist Nadine Cohodas’ fine book, Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records from St. Martin’s Press (2000) NY. For single artists there, go for Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man by Sandra Tooze from ECW Press (1996)Toronto; Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story by Etta James and David Ritz from Villard (1995) NY?; Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest & Mark Hoffman from Pantheon Books (2004) NY; Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines from Routledge (2002) NY.
The Columbia story is one of the flagship companies that arose at the beginning of the recording industry as a Washington, DC subsidiary of Edison’s initial corporations. The tale takes the reader through all the lawsuits that were active in the earliest of times – nothing new under the sun! The eventual rise in the 20s, the fall in The Depression, and the rescue by their English subsidiary are all part and parcel of it all. Then the next rise in the late 30s/early 40s and the combination with CBS Radio that gave it the financial (a.o.) clout to stay on or near the top. The various heads of the company, and the many important producers/A&R men are dealt with in sufficient detail. I found the later details to be a bit repetitive and mind-numbing, but it’s all there. What your particular musical tastes might well determine what you find the less the interesting parts, but there is something there for everybody.
Otherwise, stick with Broven for full and varied satisfaction! He deals in the main with the independent record labels that cropped up just after WW II. It’s the story of the rise of youth culture and ethnic culture, and the beginnings of Rock and Roll out of C&W and R&B. Indies big and little; successful ones (if short-lived) and failures – Broven at least touches on most of them that figure in his bigger canvas. The cut-off date is around the time of the “payola” hearings and the racially violent conference in Florida. The power of the radio DJ was subsumed more and more after those events until it was corporate control uber alles, and imagination fell by the way side and the bean counters took over programming. To pinch from B.B. King (and Roy Hawkins), the thrill was gone. The various stories are told in interweaving fashion in MUCH interesting detail (at least for me!), including things you probably didn’t know that you wanted to know!!
Peter B. Lowry
Publihed: BLUES TIMES: No. 220/July 2011; p. 10