In the celebration of cultural history, the business side of things is often swept under the proverbial rug, and, in a way, rightly so; celebrating the labels and not the artists would be like overlooking Ayrton Senna and focussing solely on his race car. However, in both cases, you clearly couldn’t have one without the other. The story of Capitol Records is the perfect example of this.
Art and business are often so incompatible that in many cases a musician, no matter how talented, trying to spring their gilded creation upon the masses is like a fly trying to find a window. Labels are the hands that waft artists in the right direction and there is no greater perpetrator of that essential guiding push than Capitol Records.
In their 75+ year history, they nurtured Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and The Beatles into the world’s spotlight. Thousands of other names have followed in the wake of these trailblazing cultural numen’s and continue to do so. In short, as far as corporations go, they have been the benevolent business minds behind our modern cultural narrative.
Back in 1942, Capitol Records was founded when the great American songwriter’s Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva, teamed up with record store owner Glenn E. Wallichs to set up the first West Coast-based record label of note in the United States. DeSylva was also a film producer at Paramount Picture and when Mercer and Wallichs first had their grand idea for a Los Angeles stationed music empire while golfing, it was the trusted DeSylva they turned to in search for investment.
On April 6th, 1942, Mercer supervised Capitol Records’ first-ever recording session with Martha Tilton on the song ‘Moon Dreams’ and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. Capitol, with its combination of financial might, business know-how and musical craftsmanship, achieved their first gold single that same year with the Ella Mae Morse 45 ‘Cow Cow Boogie’, and whilst it might not stand up as a classic today, it was the necessary first scalp to seed the sonic wave of success that would follow.
Part of their key to musical domination was that they knew that in order to usurp the current status quo of music, they had to remain on the cutting edge. This meant that rather than turgidly sticking to their guns, they pursued great modern music no matter where it came from. This led the label down a creative path that saw a wellspring of seminal creative crops spouting on either side, from Miles Davis’ Birth of Cool to the hugely influential outputs of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like the greased-back Gene Vincent who became John Lennon’s hero. While that backlash of interference may have crept into the ethos in later years, famously prompting The Beatles to take creative control over their work in 1967, the company, for the most part, marched to the beat of artistic integrity.
Creative freedom was king at the label, as Tony Bennett once said: “Johnny Mercer started Capitol Record, and he brought in Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole. He just let them sing whatever they wanted, and it became the best record company in America.” Whether it be pop, rock, country, classical, soul or jazz, this pushing of the creative envelope continued thereafter and led to an amassing plethora of greats at the label’s disposal.
If it is true what the beat writer William S Burrough once said, that artists “are the real architects of change and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact,” then it can be said that much of modern society, at least in a cultural sense, has been shaped in the renowned gramophone-stack of the Capitol Tower, famously nicknamed “The House that Nat built.”
These unique images published in Taschen’s Capitol Records collection, document the history, present and future of the iconic label. They offer a unique insight into the happenings of a musical edifice that has had a defining impact on the industry and, as a result, society at large. From The Band and The Beatles to the Beastie Boys and Butthole Surfers, the rich tapestry of music’s history has often been woven by Capitols hand and this collection shows their workings in a fascinating expose.
You can find out more about the book Capitol Records, available on Taschen, by clicking here.