Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, Bob Dylan - all the greats ultimately owe their fame to the faceless ‘record men’

A review of Cowboys and Indies by Gareth Murphy pays tribute to the men behind the scenes in the music industry

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry Gareth Murphy

Serpent’s Tail, pp.382, £14.99, ISBN: 9781781254523

The crucial thing to remember about the music business is that it’s a business. If you happen to be creating great art as well, that’s a bonus, but it has never been compulsory. Only in the music business could someone who hates music as much as Simon Cowell clearly does become so rich and powerful. And for a group like Westlife to have enjoyed a 15-year career of uninterrupted chart success without recording a single song anyone can remember, or even name, is something we have to admire. It was only ever about the money. To be fair to them, they have never pretended otherwise.

At the same time, though, where would we be without the ‘record men’, the entrepreneurs and executives who live and breathe music, eat and drink it? Such men —and they are almost always men — look for the next big thing not just to make money out of it, but for the sheer joy of finding and developing it. They have been the midwives of every significant musical advance of the past century. Potential stars will always need to be discovered, and for that to happen, someone needs to be out there searching for them.

Cowboys and Indies is a history of popular music told through the work of these record men. Artists come and go in these pages, but the people who signed them and nurtured them linger on. We’re talking about John Hammond, who discovered Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen; about Sam Phillips of Sun Records; about George Martin, the fifth Beatle; Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic; Berry Gordy at Motown, Jac Holzman at Elektra, Chris Blackwell at Island and several others. There’s a great Australian phrase for people who are obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of all else: cricket tragics. These then were the original music tragics, and Gareth Murphy’s book will appeal to music tragics of a younger generation, people like me who scour the credits on CD inserts and wonder idly how many records they own on which Steve Gadd plays the drums.

Hammond was the daddy. He tried to book Robert Johnson for a show, only to discover that he had been murdered several months previously. He heard the 17-year-old Billie Holliday perform in Harlem and arranged for her to record with Benny Goodman. Forty years later, he sat in his office at Columbia while 22-year-old Bruce Springsteen sang songs at him for two hours with an acoustic guitar. He knew he was going to sign him before the end of the first song.

Sam Phillips, dreaming of owning his own recording studio, leased a corner shop in Memphis and installed a couple of tape machines and a mixing desk. His eyes, said one associate, were like ‘swirling pools of insanity’. A spotty kid kept hanging around, with a mop of greasy blond hair. ‘Here’s ol’ Elvis, coming to see what kind of star we can make of him today!’ But when Phillips put him together with guitarist Scotty Moore, and encouraged him to sing the fast rocky stuff instead of gloopy ballads, everything changed.

Rumour has it that when Ahmet Ertegun heard that Cream were splitting up, he begged them, ‘Oh no, man, you have to do one more for me. Jerry Wexler has cancer, and he’s dyin’ and he wants to hear one more from you.’ So they made one more album, whereupon Ertegun announced the good news that Jerry really was much better now, indeed might even make a full recovery. In the end, he lived only another 40 years.

If a professional critic had written this book, it would have been far more knowing and cynical. Gareth Murphy is a music biz insider and his tone is unrepentantly celebratory. Not that that’s a bad thing: his passion for the game is undimmed, and these men are clearly his heroes. He retells a familiar tale in an unfamiliar way: you know the melody, here’s the harmony. As John Hammond wrote:

With every great musician I have discovered, there was never a moment’s doubt. I could hear the singularity of the sound. Always this quality seems obvious. Lights flash. Rockets go off. Where is everybody? Why don’t they hear it? This has always amazed me.

We could do with more people like Hammond in the music business these days. Actually, even one would do.

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  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    Great article. Incidentally, with all we are hearing now about the opposition to vaccines, and the recent measles outbreak, perhaps we should remember Elvis Presley’s greatest contribution, one as distant from art as it was devoid of any business acumen on his part, neither in fact compulsory as far as what he felt was the thing to do. He was 21 years old and by then already the most famous man in America, probably even in the music business, worldwide, when, on October 28, 1956 he was innoculated with what was probably the fourth version of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. And he did so on national television, that single event being responsible for raising immunization levels in the US from 0.6% to over 80% in just 6 months. By April of 1957, polio was all but erradicated. In fact, no other individual has had that kind of impact on health care in the US. It would be nice, to say the least, if someone right now could take his place…

  • Um, if anyone “discovered” Aretha, it was her father, the Reverend CL Franklin, his congregation at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and Joe Von Battle, the man who recorded Aretha’s debut album at age 14 on his JVB record label in 1956. Yes, John Hammond was an important part of her career, but not until 1960.

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