12 Post-War Boom, Independent Labels, and Rock and Roll

After WWII, the record industry enjoyed the same post-war optimism and economic vitality felt in the rest of the American economy. Record sales increased from 275 million to 400 million within just the first two years after the war (1946-47). Capitol records, founded during the war, and based Los Angeles, the city that would eventually become the new center of gravity of the record industry, saw its sales increase dramatically for such a young company (42 million records sold by 1946).

Several technological inventions, some the direct result of the war effort, would also transform the music industry. One such innovation, the long-playing (LP) record (the “album”) would have a drastic effect in the way music was marketed and packaged to consumers, resulting in sharply increased profits for record companies. Columbia records introduced the 12-inch, 33 ⅓ rpm LP (album) in 1948. The 10”, 78rpm, “single” record that had been the standard format since the 1920s allowed for only about 3 ½ minutes of playing time per side (thus the standard pop song length, still seen today, of about 3 minutes). The LP was capable of slightly over 20 minutes per side, or at least 10 standard-length pop songs per album. Whereas each record sold in the single format would result in the sale of two songs, the sale of each album would typically contain five times more music. The album would be priced higher accordingly, and many consumers would purchase an album when they were really only interested in hearing one or two songs from the radio. Artists could also now experiment with longer songs, which they frequently did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shortly thereafter, RCA introduced another new format, the 7-inch, 45 RPM single that allowed for somewhat longer sides (4 minutes each) and greater fidelity. It was the album, however, that would most alter the way music was marketed.

The optimistic spirit and sense of abundance after the war inspired the creation of many new record companies, small so-called “independent” labels that would have an historical effect on the creation of the newest musical genres — rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll. Just as small, independent labels helped create the market for blues and jazz in the 1920s when the “majors” were not able to tolerate the risk of entering those markets, the independent labels of the late 1940’s and 1950’s similarly developed connections with local bands ignored by the majors, providing an avenue for these new musical styles to gain traction with the public. 

A few of the independent labels started in this era include Sun, Chess, Bluebird, Modern, Imperial, Apollo, Atlantic, and King. Of these, three stand out as worthy of special mention: Chess, Sun, and Atlantic. Chess Records, founded by the Chess brothers (Leonard and Phil) in Chicago in 1947, specialized in recording black blues singers of the “Chicago blues” style. Most of those singers, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi, which gave Chicago blues its gritty, southern flavor. Chess’ specialization in black urban blues gave them an advantageous position to record one of the most prominent early rock ’n’ roll artists, blues vocalist and guitarist Chuck Berry. Berry’s Chess recordings from 1955 and ’56 (such as “Maybellene” and “Johny B. Goode”) stand as icons of early rock ’n’ roll. Chess recordings of Chicago blues icons Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf also proved hugely influential to British blues revivalists in the early 1960s such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Sun Records, founded by legendary producer Sam Phillips in Memphis in 1950, became the studio that introduced the southern “rock-a-billy” sound to the world, with the first recordings by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash (1954-1956). As with Chess Records, Sun began by recording Mississippi bluesmen, such as B.B. King, a position that gave producer Sam Phillips a sense of the excitement and emotional directness of the blues. Phillips was a visionary for seeing the potential a white singer could have who could manage to tap into and convey the emotional energy of the blues for a white audience in an age when the record industry’s color barriers were beginning to weaken. Elvis Presley was Sam Phillips’ first experiment with that idea, and quite a successful experiment it was!

Atlantic Records was one of the few of these new, small independent labels that managed to survive the initial stages of high growth and survive into the high-profit era of the 1960s and ‘70s. Founded by the son of a wealthy Turkish diplomat, Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic focused early on rhythm and blues, but ultimately had its greatest impact with a new genre that emerged in the 1950s: soul. Ertegun wisely hired a producer, Jerry Wexler, who, although a white, Jewish New Yorker, was very familiar with the southern black styles of blues and jazz and who knew how to let artists express themselves musically without stifling them through too much external control. Atlantic’s biggest success from its early years was Ray Charles, who practically invented the gospel-based sound of soul music. Atlantic translated that success into becoming the dominant soul music label in the 1960s, with such artists as Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”), Otis Redding (“Dock of the Bay”), and Aretha Franklin (“Respect”). Much of the success of Atlantic’s southern soul sound came from their use of a studio in Memphis (Stax) that employed a racially-integrated house band (Booker T. and the MGs), giving their recordings an infectiously punchy and danceable groove.

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