Small labels and new sounds

silhouette of man playing a trumpet
© Griffin

The charge has often been made against large record companies that they are uninterested in experimenting with new developments and only want to secure their profits on the basis of something that is tried and tested. Whatever the truth of this, it is certainly a fact that at a number of points in the 20th century some perceptive individuals set up small companies in order to exploit the gaps left by the coverage of the major labels and to sell the current new sounds to the public.

The mid-1940s is a prime example. At the end of World War I the major labels of the day in the US (including Columbia and RCA-Victor) proposed to raise levels of record production by returning to their established styles and artists, which mainly meant dance bands and big bands, with their vocalists. But the early 1940s had been a period of stylistic change and development in several areas, including African-American vocal music and jazz. No major label was greatly interested in recording these new sounds, and so into the gap stepped a new generation of small, independent companies - labels such as Atlantic, Blue Note, Chess, Dial and Savoy to name just a few. It was through such activity - and that of the new radio stations that were also set up at the time - that the new jazz sound of bebop came out of the clubs, and that the music later known as rhythm and blues became more widely heard beyond the black community.

There are many other such stories, each with a slightly different emphasis. Island Records, for instance, founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica in 1959, came into its own in the early 1970s when Blackwell signed Bob Marley and the Wailers, an event that turned Marley's music from a local to an international phenomenon.

In Britain in the 1950s the record industry was dominated by a handful of record companies (Decca, EMI, Pye, and Phillips). Taken together with the BBC's monopoly of public broadcasting, this meant that unusual sounds often went unheard by the vast majority of people. The major recording companies handled most of the distribution, ensuring that independent record companies such as Topic (folk), Tempo, and Esquire (jazz) had to find their own ways of reaching the public. These small companies usually resorted to running their own record clubs and mail order services to furnish their customers, advertising at gigs and on the back pages of the music 'inkies' such as 'Melody Maker'.

jazz band playing in a small room with bare brick walls and a low arched ceiling

Merseysippi jazz band at the Cavern.
Courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

Some record labels were very small operations, and their records were constantly hard to obtain. Between 1954 and 1958 Liverpool's Merseysippi Jazz Band recorded for Carlo Krahmer's tiny London-based Esquire label. Liverpool jazz fan Arthur Critchley recalls:

"I ordered a copy of a Merseysippi's EP in the mid 1950s from Rushworth and Dreapers - about 1955, I think, but could I get it? I went to the shop every Saturday for a month to see if it had arrived but nothing doing. Eventually I got an address for the label, wrote direct and sent them a postal order and it arrived within a week."

Prior to the Esquire deal, the Merseysippis even resorted to organising their own recording session. It was quite evident to the band that making a record had to be a private affair. Band member John Lawrence stated to Spencer Leigh, "We just wanted the kick out of making a record and we weren't expecting to sell them". The very first Merseysippi Jazz Band record available was a limited edition 78rpm of 'Moose March' and 'Friendless Blues' - recorded by Johnny Roadhouse at his Decibel Studios in Manchester in 1952. In those days purchase tax had to be added to any record run of over 100 so only 99 were pressed. Eight went to the band and the rest were sold here and there. This was probably the first commercially available record by a Liverpool jazz band.

The MJB did record for a major label, when they appeared on a Decca album called 'Traditional jazz scene 1955'. They were not considered a big enough name to have a record to themselves, however: this was a live recording of a Royal Festival Hall concert featuring Chris Barber, one of the leading lights in British traditional jazz.