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Savoy Records: From Newark To The World

Jordan Levy By

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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."

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