Rob Bowman – The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story
The Malaco Press, a Division of Malaco, Inc.
192 pages Hardcover edition
Over the last 75 years, the world has seen hundreds of record companies rise up, only to fade away, sometimes in the proverbial “blink of an eye”. In the realm of blues and soul music, independent labels like Chess, Stax, Hi, Modern, Excello, and Specialty Records put out many records that are now considered classics in those genres. And all of those labels eventually faded away, victims of bad business decisions or a tempting offer to sell their catalog.
As labels are bought and sold, often ending up in the hands of a huge entertainment conglomerate, one company has managed to survive for fifty years as a true independent entity. From its beginning as booking agency, Malaco grew to be a force in the soul blues arena, and perhaps even more importantly, in the gospel music industry. The compelling tale is the focus of this handsome tabletop book loaded photographs of the label’s amazing roster of artists and many of the key employees central to the label’s success.
The author, Rob Bowman, wrote the definitive book, Soulsville U.S.A: The Story of Stax Records, in addition to contributing liner notes for more than 250 recordings, winning a Grammy Award in the process. In 2020, his body of work was recognized by the Blues Foundation in Memphis with their “Keeping The Blues Alive” Lifetime Achievement Award. His insights throughout the book help readers gain greater appreciation for all that the label has accomplished, and his personal favorites among the label’s many releases will have you checking songs out on your favorite music service as you enjoy the book.
The saga starts with Tommy Couch, who was tasked with booking bands for his fraternity at the University of Mississippi at the age of nineteen. Seeing there was money to be made, he started his own booking business. A native of Alabama, Couch was familiar with musicians like guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bass player David Hood, and songwriter Dan Penn, all of whom became fixtures on the Muscle Shoals, AL recording scene. Eventually he convinced his accountant brother-in-law, Mitchell Malouf, to join him, combining the first letters of their names to form Malaco Attractions. They got plenty of assistance from another pharmacy major, Wolf Stephenson, who became a licensed electrician as a teenager, making him invaluable whenever one of the bands had problems with their equipment.
It wasn’t long before Couch wanted to open a recording studio in Jackson, Mississippi, taking after his friend Rick Hall’s FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, where Couch had whet his appetite for recording while hanging out with Johnson. After securing a building and equipment, the studio was ready for action in September, 1967. The trio figured it would be easier to book bands if they had some records to use for promotion. One of the first sessions birthed “Looking For My Pig” by Haran Griffin, a danceable number that first saw the light of day on the six disc box set The Last Soul Company, released to celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary.
Times got tough as the intrepid trio went through growing pains learning the record business as well as how to operate a quality recording studio. Couch and Malouf handled the business while Stephenson by default became the recording engineer. Their initial efforts bore little fruit, until they brought in the renown, brilliant arranger from New Orleans, Wardell Quezergue, for some planned releases. It was a stroke of genius. They hit the big time with two massive hits, “Groove Me” by King Floyd, and “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight. When they couldn’t interest anyone in the first song, a new label called Chimmneyville was formed to be distributed by Atlantic Records. Knight’s classic was released on the Stax label, credited to Quezergue and Malaco Productions.
By 1975, lean times had come back around. The label struggled to find another song that could captivate the buying public. They had started recording gospel groups, finding that gospel record buyers were committed fans, providing a steady income from sales of records at each live appearance. But that business was in its infancy. The turnaround was provided by a veteran Jackson vocalist, Dorothy Moore, who rendered a performance for the ages on the ballad, “Misty Blue”.
From there, Bowman spins an exciting summation of the label’s storied history, through records by legendary artists like Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, Latimore, Denise LaSalle, and Bobby Blue Bland. He makes a point to give plenty of credit to Dave Clark, a well-known record promotion man who could get records on the air in any market, who raised the label’s stature in the industry. It was Clark who convinced singer Z.Z. Hill to sign with Malaco, leading to his massive hit “Down Home Blues,” a record that once again provided financial stability as well as defining what the label was all about.
Bowman also goes in depth on the contributions of singer Frank Williams, the counterpart to Clark in the gospel arena, who helped the label acquire what is undoubtedly the finest collection of gospel music on the planet. Malaco purchased the Savoy Records gospel catalog in 1986 for a million dollars, then sold records through a telemarketing campaign that made the company the State of Mississippi’s biggest customer in terms of shipping volume and C.O.D. fees collected. Williams was also the catalyst for getting Malaco to release recordings by a number of the best mass gospel choirs, opening up yet another business opportunity.
As you might expect, it wasn’t all fun and games. Bowman doesn’t shy away from recurring financial issues, the tragic deaths of Hill and Williams in their prime, and the inevitable nastiness in general in the record business. Through it all, the company worked hard to maintain their focus, which was sorely tested in 2011 when a tornado ravaged Jackson, destroying the studio. Somehow, none of the employees were injured. And a generous insurance payment had the new studio up and running a year later.
Sprinkled throughout the hardcover book are bevy of B&W and color photos that really enhanced Bowman’s narrative. It makes for a truly deluxe recounting of a little dream that grew into a business that shared outstanding music with people around the world. Congratulations, Malaco Records, and here’s to the next 50 years,
In the meantime, grab a copy of this highly recommended title – or add it to your Christmas list!