Savoy Records: From Newark To The World

Jordan Levy By

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From a radio store out of Newark to music all across the globe, Savoy’s success is a testament to the resilience, luck, and hard work it takes to 'make it' in the world of music.
On June 26, 1942, James Petrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians, the nations union for working musicians did the unthinkable and announced a recording ban on all major labels. The ban was set in place due to perceived uneven compensation for musicians. The AFM ban on recording occurred at a critical time, as it was right in the middle of radio's Golden Age.

Independent labels rose to the challenge of accommodating the now-stranded artists and fought tooth and nail to find success in the changing landscape of the music industry. In the midst of the free for all that embodied this era, infamous label head Herman Lubinsky found a very specific style of success, by bucking trends at each turn.

Lubinsky started as an electrical conductor to a U.S. Navy radio operator. Lubinsky, a born innovator then founded and managed the first New Jersey radio station WRAZ (later renamed WNJ) in 1923, and started broadcasting out of his attic. With more success came a studio built in Newark in 1925. However, in 1932 the Federal Radio Commision chose not to renew the station's license, since Lubinsky refused to confine the station's frequency to the federal limits. After losing a legal battle, Lubinsky's station was shut down in 1933.

Never complacent, Lubinsky started United Radio Company, a store in Newark where he sold radios, radio parts and records, along with providing repair services. In 1939, Lubinsky figured he could make records as well as sell them, and recorded a Newark-based orchestra called The Dictators. He also traded jazz master recordings with fellow music businessman and mentor Eli Oberstein. When the Petrillo Ban went into effect, Lubinsky saw an opening in the market and made his move. He launched what would become one of the most important record labels in black music history, Savoy Records, on November 7, 1942.

To get around the recording ban, the first records released on Savoy were those he had acquired that were recorded before the ban started, as well as his 1939 recordings (with the group now rebranded as The Savoy Dictators). Lubinsky also began to record artists and groups under pseudonyms to avoid being noticed by the AFM. Lubinsky's ruthless methods of making music under the recording ban granted him his first hit, early in Savoy's life.

The pianist from the now-defunct Savoy Dictators, Clement Moorman, stayed in touch with Lubinsky while he formed a new R&B group called The Piccadilly Pipers. The Piccadilly Pipers were a quartet with Moorman's piano, Ernie Ransome's guitar, Henry Padgette's bass and Melba Smith's vocals. The name came from a jazz spot called The Piccadilly in Newark, where the group gigged.

Newark had always been a city for the arts, and jazz thrived in Moorman's heydey. Jazz bassist and photographer William May detailed the Newark he grew up in and documented.

"Newark is a town that has always been an arts town and the New Jersey Symphony was founded there. Newark had theatres all over the city and not just on the main street, Broad Street, but they were all in the neighborhoods..this is all like a little zone and they had the little clubs, speakeasies. People from Harlem would come to Newark to enjoy the music."

The Pipers started drawing crowds with a tune called "Don't Stop Now," and the buzz was significant enough for Lubinsky to make his way down to the club. Seeing the reception, Lubinsky knew he had enough interest for at least a local hit. Since Moorman and Lubinsky had prior history in the studio, the decision to record together was a no-brainer.

When it was time to record it was clear that it wouldn't be worth it to risk their union cards by recording under their own names. Unfazed, Lubinsky thought up the name "Bunny Banks Trio" and also renamed Melba Smith, dubbing her Bonnie Davis.

At their first session for Savoy in 1942, the Bunny Banks Trio cut the track that had the city excited, along with three other tracks. "Don't Stop Now" was released in January 1943, and hit #1 on the R&B Charts by March 6th, retaining the spot for five weeks. The hit was only Savoy's third release, and such early success helped stabilize the young indie label. Although the Bunny Banks Trio/Piccadilly Pipers released on Savoy until 1946, they never matched their initial success, and by then Lubinsky's attention had ventured elsewhere.

In early 1945, Lubinsky made one of many crucial hires, recruiting New York-based record producer and A&R Teddy Reig. David Ritz, jazz historian, described Reig as "a three-hundred-pound-plus, six-foot Jewish promoter born in Harlem in 1918 and raised among the thieves and geniuses of the jazz world, Reig was an impassioned fan who mastered the art of networking at an early age." Reig was a true standout for more than just his size, he was widely accepted in circles of black artists as more than just a paycheck, but a friend. Fully immersed in the culture, Reig was even married to a black woman.

Reig frequented the bars and clubs that were known for jazz, including Minton's Playhouse, where musicians were starting to move past the phenomenon of swing music. The house band at the Playhouse included talents like Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke who were pushing jazz forward with a style called bebop. When trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker started to experiment with this new style they quickly became innovators and experts in their own right.

Due to the Petrillo Ban, this innovation was poorly documented when it truly began. Some of the prime years of bebop could only stay at Minton's and other clubs, not travel to the studio. Luckily for Savoy, Reig was a constant inhabitant of the clubs where bebop was developed. When the Petrillo Ban was lifted in 1945, Reig made his move.

On November 26, 1945, Reig got Charlie Parker into the studio to record for Savoy, with Lubinsky in attendance. The group Parker brought with him was full of stars-to-be. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, who played trumpet and piano, the group included a 19-year-old Miles Davis and Max Roach, with Curly Russell on bass. Controversy around this session has existed for years due to another player Sadik Hakim (f.k.a Argonne Thornton) being present and supposedly playing on a few tracks. His credits have been jumbled and changed over and over again in the many reissues over the years.

At this session, Parker cut some of his most well-known tracks, like "Now's The Time" and perennial music school audition tune "Billie's Bounce." However, what really cements this session in Savoy's history and music history is the tune "Ko Ko" a solo-driven bebop recording played over the chords of the standard "Cherokee." The genius of "Ko Ko" stems from the invention of the musicians on the record, but a creative constraint played a role in its radical sound.
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