Whereas the 1940s and ‘50s featured small, independent record labels taking risks to create the new sounds of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, the 1960s was a decade of phenomenal expansion and growth as the baby boomers reached maturity, ushering in the era of what we now just call “rock.” Ironically, the path to rock travelled first through the unlikely genre of American folk music, and particularly through the music of Bob Dylan. To deepen that irony, Bob Dylan signed his first recording contract with the unlikely Columbia Records in 1962, when Dylan was 20 years old. This pairing was unlikely because Columbia at that time was a somewhat stodgy and conservative company known primarily for classical, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley crooners (such as Frank Sinatra). But, in an effort to reinvigorate their popular music offerings and reach a younger audience, Columbia had recently re-engaged the help of producer John Hammond, who had been instrumental in the big band movement of the 1930s.
One of Hammond’s first finds in his new stint with Columbia was the leader of the American folk revival, Pete Seeger. Seeger, in turn, became enamored with Bob Dylan when he emerged in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene out of nowhere. What Dylan didn’t want Seeger or others to know was that he was actually Robert Zimmerman, a recent transplant from rural Minnesota, not a vagabond from the southwest as he often told people. Though most other producers at Columbia were highly skeptical of Hammond’s new interest in folk music as a commercial genre, Dylan proved them wrong with a steady increase in influence and, eventually, record sales.
Bob Dylan’s influence can best be seen in the effect he had on the British Invasion bands of the early 1960s. The success of the Beatles in England in 1963, translated to America in 1964, was astutely orchestrated by manager, Brian Epstein, record company EMI, and producer George Martin. EMI had acquired Capitol Records in 1955, which gave it an American label through which to launch the invasion. Meanwhile, the other British major, Decca Records, had developed their own counter to the Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Through their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (who had earlier worked for Epstein in managing the Beatles), the Stones pursued a blues-oriented strategy, presenting themselves as the anti-Beatles — scruffy, smirking, and sexual versus the Beatles’ perpetually-smiling cuteness.
By 1965, having grown tired of battling the screams of adolescent girls, the Beatles set out to change their sound and audience, incorporating the acoustic instruments and more meaningful, poetic lyrics of their new hero, Bob Dylan. Dylan, in turn, altered his own sound to reflect his love of early rock ’n’ roll by incorporating Beatles-esque rhythms and melodies into his increasingly complex lyrics. The result, from both the Beatles (primarily on their Rubber Soul album of 1965) and Dylan (beginning with his 1964 record, The Other Side of Bob Dylan) was to become known as “folk rock”.
The folk-rock formula was copied immediately by other folk artists eager to expand their audience, particularly a new Los Angeles-based group, The Byrds. With their 1965 album, Tambourine Man, the Byrds cashed in on a formulaic pairing of folk-inspired lyrics (including Dylan covers such as “Tambourine Man”) with Beatles electric instrumental backing. Byrds founder and guitarist Roger McGuinn perfected this formula by using the very same model of electric guitar (the Rickenbacker electric 12-string) that George Harrison had used to give many Beatles tunes their jangly sound. The Byrds were composed primarily of former folk singers, including McGuinn, and they initiated a trend of folk singers migrating from New York to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging folk-rock scene there. The Byrds recorded with Columbia Records, who thanks to their association with Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys were now finally on the cutting edge of popular music trends. The Byrds’ producer, Terry Melcher, together with another LA-based producer, Lou Adler, helped to define the sound of commercial pop music in the late 1960s through the folk-rock formula. Other LA-based folk rock bands included Buffalo Springfield (with former folk singers Stephen Stills and Neil Young) and perhaps the most successful of all, The Mamas and the Papas.
One of the ironic and often overlooked aspects of the folk rock sound resulted from its having been nurtured in Los Angeles, the emerging capitol of professional and industrial popular culture production. Although folk music is known for its “authentic” and rustic sound, Los Angeles folk-rock was actually crafted from cutting-edge music production techniques, including the liberal use of anonymous studio musicians. Most of the Los Angeles folk-rock recordings from the mid-1960s, including those by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and The Mamas and the Papas used a loose collective of studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew” to create their light-rock soundtrack. While Roger McGuinn of The Byrds played the jangly Rickenbacker 12-string parts, the bass, drums, and other guitar parts were all provided by studio musicians rather than fellow band members. The Wrecking Crew included such legendary, though largely anonymous, musicians such as guitarists Glenn Campbell and Tommy Tedesco, bassist Carol Kaye, and drummer Hal Blaine.
One of the few new record companies of the 1960s that had an immediate and significant influence on the sound of the decade was Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan. Motown was founded by black musician and entrepreneur Barry Gordy. Motown’s formula was based on total control over their artists and product in order to assure success with the widest possible audience, particularly white teens. Nothing was left to chance, from the artists’ wardrobes to their hair styles, their practiced choreography, and all aspects of their musical performance — Berry Gordy and his employees controlled it all. Motown songs were written by an in-house team of black songwriters, primarily brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and a group of black studio musicians who came to be known as the “Funk Brothers.” The formulaic “Motown sound” was honed for immediate success: light, nonsexual romantic lyrics, performers groomed and dressed so as to diminish any sense of ethnic difference, and songs that were easily danceable yet not overly aggressive or challenging musically. Early Motown artists such as The Temptations (“My Girl”, 1964) and The Supremes (“Baby Love”, 1964) recorded a string of top hits that contributed to the company’s phenomenal success in battling the British Invasion.
Another record company that rose to prominence in the 1960s cannot reasonably be called an independent as it was affiliated with one of the largest film companies in Los Angeles, Warner Brothers. Warner Bros. records was founded in 1958 and controlled by its parent film company. Through a series of convoluted ownership changes through the next 50 years, Warner Bros. records has emerged to become one of the “big three” record labels of the 21st century. In the 1960s, Warner Brothers struggled initially to gain commercial success, relying on a bland mix of soundtracks, comedy, and watered-down adult musical fare. One bright spot from the early 1960s was Warner’s release of comedian Bob Newhart’s debut album (yes, comedians used to release albums), which went to No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart and won a Grammy for Album of the Year (1960).
It wasn’t until 1963 that Warner Bros. had its first musical hit after signing Peter, Paul & Mary, a folk act that had great success bridging the gap between folk and commercial pop. Warner Bros. gave the folk trio complete control over their artistic decisions, a landmark concession in 1963 that would later become expected by high-profile artists. Warner’s faith in the group was rewarded when their 1962 debut album spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Through the rest of the 1960s, Warner built on that success mostly by buying up smaller record labels (Reprise, Valiant, Pye, etc.) and their artists, building up a rock and pop roster with considerable success. Perhaps their riskiest bet of the era was signing San Francisco acid-rock pioneers The Grateful Dead to their first record contract in 1967, an unlikely pairing of Los Angeles movie-studio culture with San Francisco Haight-Ashbury acid culture. The company continued their successful venture into emerging rock and folk acts by signing Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Jethro Tull. But their biggest move was their acquisition of Atlantic Records in 1968, creating a powerful combination that put the company on its path to becoming a major global conglomerate.