THE READING ROOM: ‘Rip It Up’ Tells the Story of Specialty Records
Many of us recall the first 45s we bought at the local dime store, department store, or, if the town was big enough, record store. Long before we had enough money to plunk down for a new album, we could head downtown every Saturday to buy one or two 45s and wear out the grooves listening to them every day of the following week.
The coolest thing about heading out to find the newest 45 — we hadn’t started calling them “singles” yet — was searching for the new music that a certain record company had put out. Back then, the labels on the 45s were distinctive, and we all looked for our favorites: the distinctive yellow of Bang records with its little gun shooting out a bubble with the label’s name inside it; the red and black of Atlantic Records; the brown and yellow, whose design changed over time, of TAMLA, an imprint of Motown; the bluish purple of Motown, with its field of stars; the orange and black of Warner; the funky orange/yellow yin-yang design of Capitol Records; the little trumpet logo on A&M Records.
Seeing those colorful labels gave us a sense of security and comfort. Once we got to know what artists were on which labels, we knew we could trust the new music our favorites put out. We’d be disappointed sometimes, of course, and even the big artists on a label could release a bomb every now and then. Since there were two sides to every 45, of course, the other thrill was to listen to the A-side and the B-side to hear which song we liked most.
I still have stacks of 45s that I play on my turntable, though the days of buying stacks of 45s every week and looking for those labels is long past. Now, thanks to BMG Books’ RPM Series, we can listen to the stories behind many of these labels that put out some of our favorite music. According to the publisher’s description, the series “examines the histories of important record labels from various eras and musical genres. Each volume is seven inches by seven inches to mirror the dimensions of a 45 rpm record.” Books in the series include Gillian G. Gaar’s World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story, Randy Fox’s Shake Your Hips: The Excelo Records Story, and Ben Merlis’ Goin’ Off: The Story of Juice Crew & Cold Chillin’ Records, and forthcoming titles will examine the histories of Chrysalis, Slash, and Arista Records.
The newest volume in the RPM series is Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story, by Billy Vera. As Vera puts it in his introduction, “that Specialty label popped out at you from the other side of the room. In a pile of records on a table at a party, it was the one your eyes gravitated to. It was every bit as bold and exciting as was the music in its grooves.” Vera recalls that “over the years my search would uncover — in filthy, dusty record store basements and attics, fellow enthusiasts’ collections, and the six-for-a-dollar used record bins at Woolworth’s — many of the greatest Specialty artists in the fields of rock and roll, R&B, and gospel music of the era. In addition to the label’s headliners like Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, and Larry Williams, I discovered earlier artists, like Roy Milton, Joe Liggins and his brother Jimmy, Camille Howard, and Guitar Slim.”
Rip It Up is part memoir, part biography of Specialty founder Art Rupe, and part mesmerizing music history. Vera, who’s also written liner notes and helped put together box sets of Specialty Records reissues, traces the story of the label, which became one of the most important independent labels for African American music in the 20th century, from Rupe’s starting the label to its expansion and eventual identity as a reissue house packaging some of the most important soul and gospel music of the era.
One of the highlights of the book is Vera’s focus on the great Percy Mayfield, a writer and singer now too often forgotten. “Rupe may not have previously aware of Percy Mayfield when he walked in off the street that day, but as a song man who loved a good lyric, there is no chance he could not have been impressed when he heard the first verse of Percy’s song, ‘Please Send Me Someone to Love.’ In that moment it was clear to the record man that here was a songwriter, a poet of the blues like no other. And this was no fluke, either. In song after song, the poetry of Percy’s words of pain, loss, hopelessness, suffering, despair, and madness struck home to anyone with ears to listen and a heart to hear.”
Rupe may have done more for gospel music than any other label head. He signed up Brother Joe May, Sallie Martin, and Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes, as well as the Soul Stirrers, which featured Sam Cooke. Coates and her group “blossomed under Art’s direction,” scoring hit after hit with songs such as ‘No Hiding Place,’ ‘You Can’t Hurry God (He’s Right on Time),’ and ‘That’s Enough.’”
Vera regales us with story after story of Specialty’s heyday, as well as of Rupe’s canny business sense and his ability to hear the music and know how to get it before the right audiences. In 2007 Rupe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Today, at 102, he runs the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, whose motto is “Creative Solutions for Societal Issues.”
Rip It Up provides a lively reminder that once upon a time the thrill of seeing a certain record label was enough to make us want to search out the artists and music the label put out, and that labels could shape and define an artist’s career in ways that seem a bit foreign to us today.