Record Labels of the Mid-20th century

By the time genres like Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, and Soul became prominent, there were record labels that grew alongside the popularity and widespread consumption of these genres. By putting music in the hands and homes of consumers, these labels helped to establish the cultural landscape associate with genres and the cities in which they thrived.

Jazz Record Labels: Decca, Columbia, and Victor Records

Founded in London, New York, and New Jersey respectively, these jazz-dominated record companies started shifting towards the Bebop trends after the “Petrillo ban” was lifted in 1944. Columbia is especially significant, as it was the second record label to ever exist. Formed in 1887, it still contributes to the musical landscape with artists like Beyonce and BTS.

Capitol Records (1942)

Formed by Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva, Capitol Records featured some of the most prominent artists of the time. Its location in Hollywood allowed it to bring talents like Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and even the Beatles to the public. At the time, Capitol Records was the first major west coast label in the industry to compete with other labels who were mostly in the Southeast. Even today, Capitol Records continues to define popular music with artists like Halsey, Katy Perry, and Sam Smith.

Vee-Jay Records (1953-1966)

Founded by Vivian Bracken and James C. Bracken in 1953, Vee-Jay Records was a Black-owned label that helped form the Rhythm and Blues scene in Chicago. They signed major artists like Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, The Four Seasons, and Betty Everett. They were also the first American label to sign the Beatles before the company eventually shut down due to bankruptcy. While their doors were open, however, Vee-Jay records competed well with other studios with consecutive hits throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Chess Records (1950)

Chess Records was founded by two Polish Jewish brothers, Lejzor (Leonard) and Fiszel (Phil) Czyz, in Chicago. At the time, Black musicians were heavily discriminated against by major record companies, and so the brothers wanted to capitalize on their untapped talent. In 1948, Leonard recorded “I Can’t be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, and the Southern blues sound proved to be an instant hit with the Black residents of Chicago, most of whom had moved there from the South in the great migration. Alongside Muddy Waters, other Chess artists included Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Etta James.

Stax Records (1957)

Originally based in Memphis, Tennessee, Stax Records was founded by Jim Stewart in 1957 as Satellite Records. Its reputation is synonymous with Southern soul music and the blues scene in Memphis. Some of the studio’s most accomplished artists include Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Isaac Hayes. Stax Records is one of the most popular soul music record labels of all time, competing directly with Motown Records.

Motown (1959)

In 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Motown records in Detroit, Michigan. The label’s first successful act was The Miracles, and the studio enjoyed success for the next decade with artists like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations. Motown’s soul had a signature sound (mostly thanks to the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team) that appealed not only to Black audiences, but White audiences as well. Motown was so influential that its name is now used as a nickname for Detroit itself even after its headquarters have been moved to Los Angeles.

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