Born Arthur Goldberg, 5 September 1917, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Label owner / producer.
Art Rupe was the founder of Specialty Records, the most innovative and influential independent West Coast record company of the R&B era. For over a decade, Specialty was at the cutting edge of black music, producing quality releases in the blues, boogie, gospel and rock 'n' roll fields. Like other successful independent label founders after him (Ahmet Ertegun, Leonard Chess, Sam Phillips), Rupe had no musical background. In 1944 he joined Bob Sherman's Atlas Records as a partner. "Atlas was a very, very bad deal", Rupe told author Arnold Shaw. "I lost my money. But what I gained was an entree into the recording business." When he started on his own, Rupe concentrated entirely on black artists, feeling that was the only area (neglected by the majors) where he could succeed. He had no idea at the time that it would ever appeal to many white people. Before he began recording, Rupe made a meticulous survey of the market, trying to find out what records were selling and why. He visited all the shops that sold black disks, spending almost $200 on records and an all-important stopwatch. Then he spent hours playing the records over and over and timing sequences - the length of intros, of choruses, of instrumental solos. He tried to discover correlations in the records that sold and in those that didn't sell.
Rupe's first record was an instrumental called "Boogie No. 1" by the Sepia Tones (August 1944), on his new Jukebox label. It sold well enough to bring an influx of capital to the label. Several people with money came knocking on his door and soon he had a number of partners. By the time Roy Milton's "R.M. Blues" was climbing the R&B charts, Rupe felt that control of the company was slipping away from him and he established a new label without partners, Specialty Records, on August 10, 1946. In 1947 he moved the Specialty headquarters to Venice Boulevard in L.A., and formed Venice Music for his BMI published songs. Roy Milton renewed his association with Art Rupe and made a string of successful records for the label. Specialty had other hits with Joe Lutcher, Jimmy Liggins and Camille Howard and in 1950 its first R&B # 1 hits, "Pink Champagne" by Joe Liggins and "Please Send Me Someone To Love" by Percy Mayfield. A short-lived country and western series was started in 1951. Lloyd Price was signed on a scouting trip to New Orleans and his "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" gave Specialty another # 1 R&B hit (1952), as did "The Things I Used To Do" by Guitar Slim in 1954.
Specialty also had an impressive roster of gospel groups. The most important group was The Soul Stirrers, whose lead singer Sam Cooke was already a superstar on the gospel circuit when he decided to switch to secular music in 1956. However, it wasn't Rupe who would reap the benefits from Cooke's success in the popular music field.
In 1955 Specialty signed what would prove to be the wildest rock and roller of his generation : Little Richard. He had an immediate hit with "Tutti Frutti" (# 2 R&B, # 17 pop) and an even bigger hit with the follow-up, "Long Tall Sally" (# 1 R&B, # 6 pop). Rock n roll had now really hit the music business and many R&R gems came out on Specialty, but apart from Little Richard's records, few other Specialty releases achieved the success they deserved. Larry Williams was another important signing in 1957, scoring big hits with "Short Fat Fannie" and "Bony Moronie". In October 1957, Little Richard left Specialty before the end of his contract, abandoning R&R for religion, but there was enough material in the can to keep him on the charts until 1959. Come 1958, Art consolidated his business interests in other fields (mainly oil and real estate) and passed much of the responsibility for day-to-day decision- making to Sonny Bono and Harold Battiste. Perhaps because of Art's hatred of payola there were few hits. By this time some white artists recorded for Specialty, with moderate success, for instance Jerry Byrne with his frantic rockers "Lights Out" and "Carry On".
By 1959, Rupe became increasingly disenchanted with the music business and Specialty was wound down in 1960. Until 1964 the label was dormant, then Little Richard recorded again for Specialty, along with Don and Dewey. While chart action was minimal, Venice copyrights were recorded by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other UK groups and Venice Music was a hugely successful publishing company in its own right.
The label went back to inactivity during 1965-1969. A few more recordings came out in 1970, followed by a period of selective re-issues. In 1990, the Specialty catalogue was sold to Fantasy Records, who embarked upon an extensive CD reissue programme.
In March 2011, at the age of 93, Rupe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer.
Art Rupe guided Specialty Records into making the transition from niche R&B and gospel music to international rock 'n' roll. Among the many independent record men of the 1950s, he was one of the smartest and most decent. Like Sam Phillips, he was totally committed to rock n roll. When they were no longer successful in producing hit records in that genre, both men got out of the business rather than compromise the music. In Rupe's case this decision was strengthened by his disgust of the corruption in the music industry.
More info :
Specialty singles discography :
Further reading : Arnold Shaw, Honkers and Shouters : The Golden Years Of Rhythm and Blues. New York : Macmillan, 1978, page 179-194.
Acknowledgements : Arnold Shaw, Billy Vera, Kevin Howlett, John Broven.
YouTube, 2011 interview with Rupe :
My favourite three Specialty tracks :
Dik, September 2013
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