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.

Although Parker had been playing a version of "Ko Ko" for years, he had no intention of recording it on that day. The original plan was to record a special version of "Cherokee," the tune where "Ko Ko" gets its harmony from. Parker wanted to include an introduction, play the tune and solo, then end with the introduction again. However on the first take, when the group launches into the "Cherokee" main melody Teddy Reig can be heard stopping the band (in the featured video). Lubinsky, an eternal cheapskate, had said that the original theme shouldn't be played to avoid having to shell out royalties to the original composer. Little did he know, Lubinsky's frugality helped shape one of the most important songs of all time.

On the second take "Ko Ko" as the world knows it was recorded, with Parker playing right through the introduction and going on a legendary tear of a solo, brazenly announcing the arrival of bebop to the rest of the world. "Ko Ko" has become a seminal jazz recording, considered among the most influential the genre has ever seen. In 2002, The Library of Congress added the original Savoy recording of "Ko Ko" to the National Recording Registry.

Once Savoy took off in jazz it did wonders for the city, according to May.

"Newark has been a center and it has not been just a place where the musicians would pass through. They stop there. One of the reasons they stop there was because Savoy Records was there and Savoy, late '40s, early '50s was the label where so many jazz greats, Charlie Parker, Ms. Rapsody, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, all of them, they recorded on Savoy...So, that was a place where musicians came and when they came to Newark, to record, they just didn't record, they went to the local clubs and played."

Newark became a jazz landmark, in part due to Lubinsky's vision. While the first Parker session was by far the most important thing Reig did for Savoy, it was still early in his history with the label. Reig also recorded legends like Lester Young, Erroll Garner and Miles Davis (in his first session as leader). Still never satisfied, Lubinsky cast his net even wider, starting to tap into other black art forms.

In Savoy's early days, Lubinsky launched King Solomon Records as a gospel subsidiary label trying to gauge the black church market. By the late '50s, Lubinsky had grown tired of the payola schemes necessary for R&B records to sell, and decided to truly invest in gospel music. Once again, Lubinsky's dedication to his bottom line was transformative to a genre.

Savoy started to steadily release gospel music, with growing success. Lubinsky didn't do it alone, like with Reig and jazz, he found another A&R to elevate the label's status.

Fred Mendelsohn had been working at tiny New Jersey label Regent in 1948 when Lubinsky bought a part interest in the company. They started working together, but Mendelsohn attempted to start his own company, Merit. Mendelsohn worked with Savoy at an arm's length for five years, but the financial pressures of the independent label business wore him down, and in December 1953 he officially joined the team at Savoy. While Mendelsohn had initial success in R&B with artists like Nappy Brown and Big Maybelle, but his most lasting work with Savoy was revolutionizing and amplifying their gospel output.

"He [Mendelsohn] was the greatest black gospel producer there ever was," said Lubinsky's son Dick Lubinsky, "All the artists loved him."

Mendelsohn was everywhere on the gospel scene, whether it was finding new artists or finding choirs to support the stars already on the roster. By far, the biggest star Savoy had was famed singer Reverend James Cleveland.

In November 1968, Ebony Magazine wrote a feature on Cleveland, calling him the highest paid male gospel singer and Savoy's highest-paid recording star. According to the article, he charged $2,000 for an appearance and was booking a year in advance. Cleveland avoided Lubinsky's patented tightfisted business tactics by signing a special type of deal with Savoy.

Instead of a regular recording contract with advances and relying on sales to recoup the balance, Cleveland had an annual salary which required at least four albums a year from him. He received a guaranteed check quarterly, something incredibly rare in the music industry, a testament to his popularity. Mendelsohn played a crucial role in Cleveland's success, detailed by Dick Lubinsky.
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