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Savoy Records: From Newark To The World

Jordan Levy By

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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."

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