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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.

"Freddy Mendelsohn would discover a new choir like this Southwest Community Choir that was big at the time or Professor Charles Ford. Freddy would start an album with Charles Ford and then he'd have James introduce the group and sing maybe one song on the album, which helped James, helped us, and helped the star, helped everybody. It was a tremendous innovation by Fred Mendelsohn..."

While Savoy thrived in Jazz sales, they completely dominated Gospel sales. Since acts like Cleveland were bringing home the bacon, Lubinsky could afford to try new types of music. Still releasing jazz throughout the 50's and 60's, Savoy was actually fairly early to the free jazz movement.

In 1959 the label released a record by Sun Ra, one of his first on a label beside his own Saturn Records. Paul Bley was another avant-garde icon who cut a record for Savoy, with 1962's Footloose!. Although Lubinsky didn't stick around in the free jazz scene for too long, the projects that did see the light of day were critically well received.

Unlike Reig, who left Savoy after a successful few years, Mendelsohn stayed on board with the label for the long haul. However, he was an anomaly in that regard.

Savoy employed many successful and talented A&R men like Ozzie Cadena, Tom Wilson, Buck Ram and Lee Magid, but retained few. Magid succinctly pointed out why Lubinsky ran through so many good employees.

Magid said "I used to collect monies from the distributors to pay for the sessions, Lubinsky sent me down there to collect the money he was owed, and I became very tight with everybody. They all liked me, so they gave me money; nobody liked Lubinsky."

Lubinsky was known as a cheap but innovative businessman, but he also had another reputation that often preceded him in the industry; he often dismissed musicians who weren't making him money but was harsh if they started seeing success at a different label.The biggest claim against him was that he had no passion for the music that built his fortune.

Many of his peers and employees have...less than glowing stories about his character.

Al Henderson, lead singer of the Dictators (one of the first acts on the label), didn't mince his words about Lubinsky.

"There ain't nobody who has ever had a kind word to say about him. The S.O.B. was the worst thief in the world. He made millions on us [black musicians] and he wouldn't pay you nothin."

Randy Salke, jazz musician and writer claimed that Lubinsky "earned a dismal reputation by paying musicians as little as possible."

Tiny Price, a journalist who covered the nightclub scene for Newark paper The Herald News tried to reconcile Lubinsky's reputation with his impact on the music scene.

"There is no doubt everybody hated Herman Lubinsky... At the same time, some of those people—many of Newark's top singers and musicians—would never have been exposed to records if he didn't do what he did...The man may have been hated, but he saved a lot of our history—for us and for future generations." Atlantic recording executive Joel Dorn wasn't as kind.

Dorn called Lubinsky "a hemorrhoid of a human... whom even the worst record business golems of the era shunned."

Numerous stories of Lubinsky's harsh policies and merciless treatment towards artists have floated around, and they explain why he earned his notoriety. The most popular of the testimonials against Lubinsky is the tale of Little Jimmy Scott.

Scott had a genetic disorder called Kallman's Syndrome that left him with a prepubescent body and a heavenly soprano. Scott performed in and around New York for many years and eventually caught the attention of songwriter Doc Pomus in 1945. The two began to form a kinship, becoming friends, and Pomus was a huge fan.

After unsuccessful years as a Savoy artist, Scott moved back home to Cleveland to start a family. For twenty years Scott and Pomus didn't correspond, but that changed when Pomus decided to look for his old friend. According to Pomus biographer Alex Halberstadt, Scott's life had taken a turn for the worse.

"Jimmy had lived the life of a musical Job since they'd parted. In 1962 it looked like his days of obscurity were over when Ray Charles, a devoted fan, recorded him with an orchestra for his Tangerine label. The sublime "Falling in Love is Beautiful" was certain to finally get Jimmy noticed, but it never made it to the stores [because] Lubinsky claimed he had Scott under contract for years to come and threatened to sue, and Charles pulled the record. Scott came out of retirement in 1969, and again in 1972 when Joel Dorn coaxed him into a studio to record a pair of albums for Atlantic." But Lubinsky squashed them, too, and Doc's favorite singer returned to sorting mail at the Sheraton."

Pomus was quite familiar with Lubinsky, having written for Savoy in the past, and the two were far from friends. According to Halberstadt, "At least twice he pulled out a borrowed gun and threatened to kill Lubinsky along with his A&R man Teddy Reig."

Pomus tried reviving Scott's career, but he no longer had the spirit to keep up. The story has a morbid yet happy ending, when in 1991 Scott's performance at Pomus' funeral got him a record deal at Sire Records.

The story of Wilbert Harrison mirrors Little Jimmy Scott's story in many ways. Harrison, a Mendelsohn recruit to the label signed an exclusive deal to Savoy. While he had early success on the label, his luck soon ended and he went through a dry spell releasing dud after dud.

The story takes divergent paths as some claim that Lubinsky formally released Harrison, and Bobby Robinson (owner of Fury Records) claimed that Lubinsky simply told him to leave and that he could "Record for anybody, just don't come here no more."

Harrison met Robinson after moving to Florida and decided to cut a few tracks for Fury Records. Any luck that was missing at Savoy came in droves at Fury. One of the first tracks Harrison cut, a cover of 1952 track "K.C. Lovin'" called "Kansas City," and went #1 on the Pop & R&B charts selling over 3 million copies.

Savoy, seeing the success, sued Fury Records for recording an artist that was under contract with them. While Lubinsky had Fury Records in court, Robinson started a new label that was fairly successful, but chose not to record Harrison to avoid another suit.

Harrison couldn't release music for over a year after hitting #1, a hindrance which his career never recovered from. "Kansas City" received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001 and was named as one of the "500 Tracks That Shaped Rock and Roll" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The inner workings of the decisions Lubinsky made in these situations were almost entirely based on the contracts artists had signed, but it's been argued time and time again that Lubinsky lacked a certain level of empathy. Many artists had to turn down great opportunities to languish on Savoy's roster unattended to.

Professors Robert Cherry and Jennifer Griffith explain how his lack of passion for the artistic quality of the music he sold worsened his reputation.

"The vilification of Herman Lubinsky is understandable and predictable. He was a profit-driven, by-and-large indifferent, white entrepreneur in a business where black artists could be treated badly. While others in the record industry may have used the same business practices, they were often judged less harshly because of their sympathies for the music performed."

For all of Lubinsky's unpopular habits, his eye for effective A&R employees and bravery to invest in untapped markets cannot be argued. Starting with his pioneering radio station, then venturing into bebop and gospel showed he had always been a trendsetter. Mendelsohn, his longest high profile employee said,

"Herman was a very tough, hard individual, difficult to work for and often an intolerable man. But he was honest. None of the musicians really were robbed. They all signed contracts and got five percent royalties."

Mendelsohn was head A&R at Savoy and eventually ended up as president of the label, and by the early 70's was basically informally running the label. Nappy Brown, an R&B artist Mendelsohn recruited emphasized how crucial Mendelsohn was to Savoy's success.

"Fred should have been at the Savoy, because if it hadn't been for him, Lubinsky wouldn't have any artists. Freddie was the one that kept the thing together."

However, Lubinsky was still top dog, but things changed drastically. In 1973 when he was diagnosed with cancer. Dick Lubinsky recalled his final days.

"They gave him two weeks to live and he lasted nine more months. My father would be so bonged out on morphine and other drugs they give terminal cancer patients, he'd be making deals right out of his hospital bed that I would have to countermand. His signature wouldn't even come out horizontal."

On March 16, 1974, at age 77, Herman Lubinsky Sr. died. Afterwards, the National Estate Bank determined that the company should be sold, and after a short competition Clive Davis of Arista Records bought the label's library and assets in 1975 for $1.8 million. Mendelsohn was kept on as president after the acquisition, but things were never the same.

By the '80s Mendelsohn was announcing cutbacks across the label, in 1983 he was scaling back his beloved Gospel division, as announced in Billboard.

In the same year, Joe Fields of Muse Records purchased the Savoy catalog from Arista. Fields then made a few crucial moves. In 1986 he sold the gospel division to Malaco Records, which revived the sagging sales. In 1994 Billboard reported that Malaco/Savoy had "the largest black gospel catalog in the world,." In 1989 Malaco released "Mississippi Mass Choir" which was the number one gospel album for a calendar year, continuing the legacy of success Mendelsohn had started.

In 1990, Fields sold the rest of Savoy to Denon Records, but after a few unsuccessful years, the catalog was sitting around unutilized.

In 2001, Nippon Columbia, the oldest Japanese record label, and Denon's parent label launched Savoy Label Group. SLG was introduced as "a new U.S.-based jazz and classical division featuring the catalogs of Savoy and Denon." in Billboard.

Steve Vining, President of Windham Hill Group was tapped to be president of SLG, and he rose to the challenge. In his first fiscal year he rose sales by 600 percent and revitalized SLG through setting up subsidiary labels. Including the catalog reissues on Savoy Jazz and the classical reissues of Denon, Vining also launched 429 Records a more pop-oriented brand, even though it ended up releasing music from all over the musical landscape.

429 has released albums from a wide array of artists, ranging from the New York Dolls to LL Cool J. Artists like Beninese singer/songwriter Angelique Kidjo has even won the label Grammys.

Savoy Jazz is still a name that holds weight in the world of jazz, as exemplified in a story Vining told FMQB.

"Milton Nascimento came to us and we handled his last record. He wanted to be on Savoy. Now my election would have been to put him on 429, because we felt as a World artist, he was more of a 429/Triple A artist. Milton knew the Savoy legacy. He revered it, and discussed with us how the early Savoy recordings had an impact on him. We had a long talk about it, and he was adamant he wanted to be on Savoy, so we allowed it."

Nascimento isn't the only artist who recognizes and respects the Savoy name.

Up and coming trumpeter Bruce Harris, who lists Charlie Parker and Prince as his main influences said "The Savoy period of Bird is my favorite period, so those recordings? I was all over that."

Organist, pianist, and Rutgers Newark jazz professor Radam Schwartz remembers back to the Savoy Dictators.

"Clem Moorman who just died, he died at 102 years old. He was one of the arrangers, and so was one of the most important arrangers in jazz history Bobby Plater, who's from Newark."

Although calling him "a crook" Schwartz knows why Lubinsky and Savoy saw such success.

"One of the main things is he recorded bebop, he recorded gospel, he recorded R&B. Despite the fact that he ripped people off, well we think as musicians he ripped people off, a lot of the stuff wouldn't be out there you know? I mean Stan Getz's whole career started at Savoy Records. Charlie Parker, when he couldn't get anybody else to record him, got recorded on Savoy Records."

Regardless of how people feel about Lubinsky, the man was a self-starter, who started a label who's legacy has lived on to this day.

Savoy's most recent sale was in 2017 when SLG was bought by Concord Music Group. Concord Music's Chief Operating Officer Glen Barros explained why Savoy is still a worthy investment in 2017.

"Savoy is a great combination of both legendary masters and incredible recent recordings by a number of wonderful contemporary artists. It also adds numerous classic recordings and another legendary brand to our great group of labels."

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.

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