The story of Specialty Records, the most influential label of all time: “Songs never die”

As it celebrates its 75th anniversary with a new compilation, Jordan Bassett explores the imprint that gave us Little Richard – and therefore The Beatles, Prince, David Bowie and so much more

Main image: Little Richard onstage in 1972. Credit: David Redfern / Getty

If it wasn’t for Specialty Records, you wouldn’t be reading this article – and not just because it’s an article about Specialty Records. The label that first discovered epochal rock’n’roll wildman Little Richard in the mid-1950s was so influential that without its existence, there would almost certainly have been no Beatlemania and no gender-bending from David Bowie and Prince.

In this unimaginable parallel universe, the needle is lifted and the entire pop cultural landscape – in all its diversity and gleeful dismantling of the status quo – becomes a barren tundra, leaving NME with no modern pop music to rhapsodize.

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“The label was in business for a short amount of time,” explains Beverley Hills-based soul singer and all-round Specialty world expert Billy Vera, “but it was the cornerstone of rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll and gospel.”

Founded in Los Angeles in 1945 by enigmatic impresario Art Rupe, Specialty only operated for a decade-and-a-half, but in that time managed to completely explode the music scene – and we’re still sifting through the shrapnel in the here-and-now. That’s because Rupe took a chance on Little Richard, then a penniless 23-year-old dishwasher from Macon, Georgia, and in 1955 had him cut the seismic rock’n’roll banger ‘Tutti Frutti’, less a rock song than a Year Zero moment that laid the groundwork for the entirety of pop music in the subsequent six decades.

When the ‘Rip It Up’ singer died last year, aged 87, every iconoclast from Sir Paul McCartney and Debbie Harry to Questlove and Iggy Pop lined up to pay him loving tribute. Macca acknowledged Little Richard’s direct influence on The Beatles when he tweeted: “I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. He would say, ‘I taught Paul everything he knows.’ I had to admit he was right.”

Yet there was more to Specialty than Richard, whose hypersexualized persona and detonation of gender norms predated David Bowie’s androgynous 1972 appearance on Top of the Pops by nearly two decades and Prince’s mega-raunchy ‘80s pomp by three. It was also a Mecca for million-selling musicians such as Sam Cooke and Lloyd Price, as well as the lesser-known but similarly brilliant Percy Mayfield, widely dubbed ‘the Poet of the Blues’. And the story continues in 2021, as the label is celebrating its 75th anniversary (the numbers are a little off, but you can blame the pandemic for the delay) with ‘Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records’, a new compilation from the catalogue’s current owner, Craft Recordings.

Billy Vera, who scored a US Number One with 1987’s ‘At This Moment’, before becoming a Grammy-winning music historian and the author of 2019’s Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story, says his friend Art Rupe “is 103 years old and sharper than you and me put together,” but “hates interviews – he really loathes doing them,” leaving Vera to become the face of the new release. The historian is evangelical about Mayfield, best known for writing the R&B classic ‘Hit The Road Jack’, which was later made famous by Ray Charles, and describes him as “the greatest songwriter in the history of the blues”.

And Vera’s not alone: in the 1980s he found himself at a starry Hollywood party, chatting to none other than Bob Dylan: “[We had] a two-and-a-half-hour conversation on Percy Mayfield and the brilliance of Percy’s lyrics… Meanwhile all these big A-list celebrities were coming over and wanting to kiss the ring of the great Bob Dylan. Madonna – you name it, they were all there. And he was blowing them off – rudely! He did not care who Madonna was; he just wanted to talk about Percy Mayfield.”

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For all its Earth-shaking brilliance, Specialty Records was effectively a black music label owned by a white man. Author Charles White’s jaw-dropping 1984 biography The Life & Times of Little Richard saw its subject – who renounced rock’n’roll at the peak of his stardom in 1957, and vowed to dedicate himself to God – claim that Art Rupe had exploited him with a bad deal. “It didn’t matter how many records you sold if you were black,” Little Richard said. “The publishing rights were sold to the record label before the record was even released.”

“I think it’s very unfair,” Vera says, noting that Richard was “18 months into a three-year contract” during his religious awakening, meaning he was also legally obliged to renounce all future royalties. “Of course, the fiscal considerations came later and he went back to rock’n’roll. So, 20 years later, Richard had a different story. That story was: the Jew ripped me off. You know, there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in the world.”

Vera adds: “[Art] was a white man who grew up listening to black church music. He lived in a mixed-race neighbourhood in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Every Sunday he would go to sit on the kerb in front of the local black church just to listen to the music all day. And he fell in love with that music. In those days, among Jewish people who had been persecuted in every country they’ve ever been in, they felt a connection to black people who were persecuted in a lot of countries as well.”

The historian insists that Rupe – who maintained a lifelong friendship with the mercurial Richard, regardless of their disagreement – is a scrupulously ethical businessman who refused to charge his artists the standard 10 per cent booking fee for shows: “Lloyd [Price] said to me, ‘As long as Art Rupe owned Specialty Records, I got a statement and cheque every six months like clockwork.’”

“Specialty was in business for a short period but it was the cornerstone of R&B, rock’n’roll and gospel” – music historian Billy Vera

Despite his business nous, the label boss made a few boo-boos. One was the decision to let go of Sam Cooke, who was depicted in the 2020 Amazon movie One Night In Miami, on the cusp of the soul singer’s megastardom. Another, says Vera, was selling his publishing company, Venice Music, in 1990: “Artists die; songs never die. I think [that was his] biggest mistake… Songs don’t give you any shit! And artists always are a pain in the ass!”

Rupe could also, he reveals, “have had The Beatles”, but declined when Richard implored him to sign them in the early ‘60s. Incidentally, Vera points out how the Fab Four became so big that they overshadowed the originator who inspired them: “After The Beatles and The Stones and all those became popular, you almost had to be a guitar player to be taken seriously. And Richard played piano.”

Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in 2020’s ‘One Night In Miami’. Credit: Alamy

Art Rupe shut up shop in 1959, disillusioned at the music business, disgusted by the practice of payola (whereby labels paid DJs to spin their artists) and, having let Sam Cooke slip, without the second breakout star necessary to attain real longevity. The mogul turned his talents to a new outlet, his friend explains: “He said, ‘I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard and saw a sign that said, “Get rich with oil.” And so I walked in… I learned the oil business in the same manner that I learned the record business.’ He just became very wealthy in oil. And, he said, with a lot less trouble!”

In just a short period, though, Art Rupe helped Little Richard to define rock’n’roll, bottling the transgressive spirit that led to punk, hip-hop and every rebellious sound you read about on NME today. Rip it up and start again? Specialty Records did it first.

‘Rip It Up: The Best of Specialty Records’ is out on August 13 via Craft Recordings

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