Billy Vera – Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story
The Specialty Records label will forever be remembered as the label that provided the launching pad for Little Richard’s ascent into rock & roll history. But the label created by Art Rupe was so much more, as multi-talented Billy Vera reminds us in his loving tribute. A noted musical historian and veteran performer, Vera adeptly mixes in his own recollections and comments to the chronicle of the label, spicing up the narrative throughout. Part of the RPM Series, done by BMG Books, Rip It Up is the second edition highlighting a label of keen interest for blues fans. The first, Shake Your Hips by Randy Fox, scrutinize the Excello Records legacy.
Rupe (Arthur Newton Goldberg) had a normal childhood, getting his love of music from his mother. He grew up in the Pittsburgh area, eventually working his way west to Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree at UCLA. Interested in the entertainment industry, he tried to get a foot ion the door of the movie industry, but that door was slammed shut. Lacking funds to start a big venture of his own, he took a job at Atlas Records, where Vera notes “he learned how not to run a record company”. With his new name, he delved deep into the business, learning as many details as possible, including how a record pressing plant operated. He also broke down hit records in detail, striving to learn how to be commercially successful. His first label, Juke Box Records, had a strong seller out of the gate with “Boogie #1” by the Sepia Tones, but lack of distribution limited the success to a few regions of the country.
After several partnerships fell apart, Rupe started the Specialty label in 1946. His early hits came from Roy Milton and the Solid Senders. Vera devotes one chapter to the key contributions that Milton made to making the label viable. In another chapter, he covers the Liggins brothers. Joe had several hits, including “The Honeydripper”. Jimmy, a former boxer, did not fair as well but still made some fine platters, including ‘Drunk” and “Cadillac Boogie,” that in Vera’s estimation was the first real rock & roll record.
Several chapters deal with the stellar line-up of gospel artists on the label including Brother Joe May, Wynona Carr, the Pilgrim Travelers, Professor Alex Bradford, and the Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke. Rupe always wanted to make records that moved him, and he had the magic touch, especially on tracks like “Touch The Hem Of His Garment”. In the studio, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell was often the guiding light to the sound that Rupe craved. One of the label owner’s few mistakes was the inability to hear Cooke’s potential when he wanted to move beyond the gospel realm, releasing the singer from his contract to smooth the way to stardom.
One of blues finest songwriters, Percy Mayfield, had a two year run of hits before multiple injuries from a car accident sidelined his career for an extended period. Vera is an expert on the singer, having put together two discs of material for a Specialty CD reissue series, gaining a nod of appreciation from none other than Bob Dylan.
As you would expect, the longest chapter deals with the phenomenon known as Little Richard. Vera traces his early years, eventually arriving at the fateful day in New Orleans at the famed Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio, where Blackwell coached one last performance out of an exhausted singer. That song, the wild “Tutti Frutti,” took off, igniting Richard’s career that combined some of rock & roll’s best records with a flashy persona that captivated record buyers as well as movie goers for films like The Girl Can’t Help It. At the end of the chapter, the author explores a number of competing , and very interesting, theories as to what lead to the break-up between the two parties.
There were many other hit makers on the label – Lloyd Price, Camille Howard, Don & Dewey, Floyd Dixon, Larry Williams, Guitar Slim, and Jesse Belvin, on his own and teamed with Marvin Phillips as Marvin & Johnny. Vera offers highlights of their stories, always adding a personal touch that keeps the book from settling into a simple recitation of facts at hand. The connections that Rupe and Blackwell cultivated in New Orleans lead to important records with now legendary names like Art Neville, Clifton Chenier, and Earl King.
Over the years, the label made attempts to make in-roads in the blues, country, jazz, and doo wop markets. While many of these ventures failed to generate a hit record, Rupe never stopped searching for music that moved his soul. Still with us at the age of one hundred & two, Rupe proudly notes in his foreward that three of the Specialty artists – Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and Sam Cooke – have spots along with Rupe in the Rock Roll Hall Of Fame. While the hit records are an essential part of the story, Vera also enlightens readers as to the challenges that Rupe faced dealing with a variety of business associates, an ever-changing market place, and a myriad of details that must be mastered to have an hope of success in a business of razor-thin profit margins. It adds up to deftly rendered tribute to a record label that changed the course of 20th century music. Not to be missed!