As the era of rock’n’roll took shape in the late 1940s, emerging from a raucous new mix of blues and jazz played for dancers in black American nightclubs, leaders of the major record labels turned their noses up first. It was left to figures such as Art Rupe to exploit the opportunity and provide the means to spread the music to a wider audience via jukeboxes and radio stations.
Rupe, who died at the age of 104, was a record holder, as the founders of independent companies such as Atlantic, Chess, Savoy, King and Modern were known. His own label, Specialty Records, became the vehicle for Little Richard’s early hits – including Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally and Rip It Up – and the recordings with which Sam Cooke won over gospel music audiences as a young singer. main with the Agitators of Souls.
Other successful Specialty artists over a decade of success included singers Lloyd Price, Larry Williams and Percy Mayfield and gospel groups such as the Pilgrim Travelers and the Swan Silvertones. Discerning music lovers of the time came to regard the yellow, black, and white label on a Specialty 78 or 45 rpm record as a virtual guarantee of quality.
Born Arthur Goldberg in Greensburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to David Goldberg, a used furniture salesman, and his wife, Anna, Art was educated at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. In 1939, at the age of 22, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began studying business at UCLA with the intention of entering the film industry. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he worked in a shipyard, repairing the Liberty ships which transported troops and equipment.
Failing to break into the film industry, he tried his hand at the music business, changing his last name to a version of Ropp, the name of his German immigrant ancestors. He helped found Juke Box Records, which had national success with Roy Milton’s RM Blues and his Solid Senders before Rupe left his business partners to found Specialty in 1946.
He became a student of all aspects of business, including music. Carefully analyzing current hits, he pays scrupulous attention to the quality of his own records. He believed in using studios with the best atmosphere and equipment, selecting the most accomplished musicians and treating them well in the studio in order to get their best performances.
“Above all, technique means nothing if the song is not sung and the music is not played WITH FEELING,” he wrote in an instruction to his employees. Such sentiment was a hallmark of Specialty’s early hits on the renowned rhythm and blues chart, including Joe Liggins’ Pink Champagne, Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone to Love and Guitar Slim’s The Things That I Used to Do.
On a trip to New Orleans in 1952, he recorded the teenage Lloyd Price singing Lawdy Miss Clawdy, which was named R&B Record of the Year. New Orleans became a fruitful source of material, and three years later he sent producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell to the city to record Richard Penniman, a singer from Macon, Georgia, whose voice he had heard on a demonstration tape. In the final 15 minutes of the three-hour session, they recorded a stripped-down version of a salacious song called Tutti Frutti, with which, as Little Richard, Penniman would finally match the sound of rock’n’roll to the worst of the older generation. fears.
Like most of its competitors, Rupe paid extremely low royalties, telling its artists that the records would boost their income through live performances. But at least he usually paid off, unlike some, although in 1959 Little Richard sued him and was awarded $11,000 in royalties. Rupe was unusual in his hatred of the widespread corruption of disc jockeys. Known as payola, the system was at its height in 1957 when it responded to a particularly scandalous request by canceling the appearance of one of its performers on the American television show Bandstand.
That same year, Little Richard told the world that he was giving up show business to enter the church. Almost simultaneously, Sam Cooke was heading in the opposite direction. Rupe, who loved the way gospel-trained singers brought raw emotion to pop music, was not thrilled when Cooke recorded a series of ballads in a soft style he considered bland. His reaction was to release the singer from his contract and allow him to take the rejected recordings elsewhere. One of the songs, You Send Me, quickly reached the top of the national charts on another label and laid the foundation for Cooke’s huge success as a solo artist. It was a costly decision for Rupe, but based on a refusal to compromise his musical standards.
He stepped back in the late 1950s to pursue business interests in oil and dirt, and in 1990 he sold Specialty and its rich catalog to Fantasy Records. Returning to UCLA to complete his studies, he established the Arthur N Rupe Foundation, which supported projects under the heading “creative solutions for societal problems”. In 2011 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rupe has been married three times. His third wife, Dorothy, predeceased him. He is survived by a daughter, Beverly, from his second marriage to Lee Apostoleris, which ended in divorce, and a granddaughter, Madeline.