Specialty Records Profiles Ride a Rocking Horse

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Theirs was, for better or worse, in many ways a simpler time. A time, for example, when you could begin a song with the line, "I got a girl named Bony Maronie/ She's as skinny as a stick of macaroni," and watch that song climb up the charts.

In 1946, Art Rupe founded a company whose name described its product: Rupe's Juke Box Records made exactly that, records to be played in juke boxes. Rupe soon realized that lots of companies were making records for juke boxes and to distinguish his output changed his company's name the very next year. Since he specialized in particular types of music—black gospel and rhythm and blues—he rechristened his company Specialty Records.

Specialty Records dominated its field for the next decade. Gospel groups such as the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers, from whose ranks emerged young Sam Cooke, became known throughout the country through their Specialty records, as did Guitar Slim, drummer Roy Milton and other artists in rhythm and blues.

In 1955, Rupe signed "Little Richard Penniman. Little Richard released an incendiary string of influential and popular hits—"Good Golly, Miss Molly, "Long Tall Sally and more - that kept Specialty on the top of the pops, at least until Richard abruptly retired to pursue his religious convictions in 1957. By then, the entire world seemed on flame with the "new sound of rock 'n' roll; in retrospect, it seems easy to see that Specialty was making rock 'n' roll records before the term "rock 'n' roll existed.

Some things, even in retrospect, seem more difficult to understand. Consider Milton's toe-tapping "Milton's Boogie, rippling with barrelhouse piano and energized by horn charts that punch back against Milton's vocal in spirited call and response. Even if one concedes the assumed difference between the instrumental dexterity of their respective soloists, is "Milton's Boogie really that much different from, say, Count Basie's enduring "One O'Clock Jump? Yet you'll most likely find people speak of Count Basie as a popular jazz musician and of Roy Milton as some obscure blues drummer, if they know to speak of Milton at all.

Ah, well. One more thing to straighten out when I'm king of the world some day...

Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers
Specialty Profiles

History has proven that musical entrepreneur Rupe was not wrong about many things, but he WAS wrong about Sam Cooke.

Rupe owned the recording contract for the popular gospel group The Pilgrim Travelers, and upon their recommendation signed The Soul Stirrers in 1950. Soon thereafter, Stirrers' lead singer Rebert Harris announced his retirement and that young Sam Cook (the "e was later appended) would assume lead vocals. The Stirrers recorded secular and religious titles for Specialty with Cooke upfront until 1956, nearly half of Cooke's meteoric thirteen-year recording career.

Cooke's Specialty output demonstrates his writing and arranging talents in addition to his incredibly dexterous voice. Instrumentally led by legendary blues drummer Earl Palmer, Cooke's early sessions include a triumphant "Peace in the Valley that nudges this familiar country hymn down backwoods roads and "Jesus Gave Me Water, burning with the thirst of Pentecostal fire. In a secular tone, the sheer sound of Cooke's voice in "I'll Come Running Back to You remains amazingly translucent and floats to light for only the briefest of moments upon skeletal harmony vocals and backup instrumentation.

Cooke's composition "Touch the Hem of His Garment has become established as a classic of the gospel genre. His arrangement of the traditional "The Last Mile of the Way should be a classic too, as the backing choir rocks the church to its foundation and Paul Foster's lead vocal leaps out of the mix like the spirit of conviction was trying to catapult clean out of his body. It is a true spiritual of the type that almost never leaves the listener unmoved.

In 1956, Cooke requested Rupe's permission to release secular music under another name for another label if he would continue to record gospel with the Stirrers using his own name for Specialty. Rupe sent him into the studio with one of southern soul's legendary producers, Robert "Bumps Blackwell, reviewed the results and was less than impressed. He released Cooke and Blackwell from their contractual obligations in exchange for unpaid bonus payments, and sent the pair and their master tapes packing. "You Send Me was the last song Cooke recorded on those masters.

John Lee Hooker
Specialty Profiles

John Lee Hooker migrated from the Mississippi delta north to Detroit, where he first recorded his unique, rough-hewn blues in the late 1940s. He recorded about 30 tracks for Specialty under a one-year contract he signed with Rupe in 1954. These tracks plus some previously recorded sessions that Rupe made part of their agreement form the basis of this new compilation.

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