Art Rupe, an early rock ‘n’ roll music mogul and founder of influential Specialty Records, died April 15 at his home in Santa Barbara, California. He was 104 years old.
The specialty championed indelible artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, Roy Milton and Percy Mayfield after it launched in Los Angeles in 1946. Rupe was also an oil and gas entrepreneur. He spent his last decades devoted to the work of his Arthur N. Rupe Foundation in Santa Barbara.
Rupe was born Arthur Goldberg to a working-class Jewish family in Pennsylvania. He grew up outside the Pittsburgh area. He developed some interesting blues, gospel, and R&B music that he heard growing up in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
According to the foundation, Rupe “attended college at Virginia Tech and Miami University in Ohio, and in 1939 he left for Los Angeles to make his way in the world.” He changed his surname to Rupe after moving out West, after learning from his grandfather that was the surname before Goldberg was adopted at Ellis Island.
During World War II, Rupe worked on the Terminal Island test ships. But he also mixed his interest in music with an entrepreneurial spirit. In 1944, with his partner Ben Siegert, he formed Juke Box Records and achieved regional success with the release “Boogie No. 1” by the Sepia Tones. But Rupe went his own way with the launch of Specialty in 1946.
As the foundation described, “Over the next 15 years, Specialty grew into one of the largest independent record labels, with worldwide distribution. Rupe’s work at Specialty played a key role in the emergence of the new musical genre that is rock ‘n’ roll.
Little Richard was Specialty’s biggest hitmaker, beginning with the enduring “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. Little Richard’s other hits for Specialty include “Long Tall Sally”, “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rip it Up – all R&B classics and rock cannon.
Specialty masters were acquired by Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Records in 1990. Today they are owned and distributed by indie music giant Concord.
At the same time that he was paving the way for pop music, Rupe was also harnessing another kind of energy. It began investing in oil and gas production in the 1950s. It had operations in Texas and later in West Virginia and Ohio.
Rupe’s philanthropic goal with his foundation was to make grants designed to “achieve positive social change by bringing truth to light on critical and controversial issues,” according to the foundation’s website. “It pursues this mission by supporting scholarly study, education, research and public debate, and disseminating the results through a variety of media to all segments of the public.
The foundation sponsors high school, college and civic debate activities. It also offers a caregiver training program for people dealing with loved ones with dementia.
Rupe’s survivors include a daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz; one son-in-law, Leo Schwarz; and a granddaughter, Madeline Kahan.