Art Rupe, a record mogul whose independent Specialty label became a force in early rock, soul and gospel music and who helped discover Little Richard and Sam Cooke, died April 15 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 104.
Mr. Rupe, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, grew up in a working-class, mixed-race community near Pittsburgh. He ascribed his lifelong interest in Black music to childhood, when he heard the sounds of a gospel choir from a nearby church wafting through the windows of his house.
He lit out for Los Angeles in 1939 to make his fortune in the movie industry. When that fizzled, he tried music. His first effort, making pop records, was a bust because of his inability to compete with the promotional and distribution machinery of the major labels. He then decided to focus on “race music,” then the term for rhythm-and-blues and gospel. It was a market largely overlooked by the major labels — in his words, “the crumbs off the table of the recording industry.”
He studied the competition intensely, scoured jazz and blues clubs for talent and was determined to find the formula that would succeed. In 1944, with two business partners, he started Jukebox records. The first Jukebox release, “Boogie No. 1” performed by the Sepia Tones, reportedly sold 70,000 copies. (His market research told him that many popular rhythm-and-blues songs had “boogie” in the title.)
After disagreements with his partners, Mr. Rupe sold his stake in Jukebox and started Specialty in 1946. Within a few years, Specialty accumulated a powerhouse array of R&B entertainers who gave birth to such memorable — and frequently covered — songs as Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Joe Liggins’s “Pink Champagne.”
Specialty’s greatest success involved a singer, pianist and former drag performer from Macon, Ga. — Little Richard — whose screaming, manic style pushed the outer boundaries of the era’s music. Little Richard alone had 14 Top-10 hits for the label, including “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.”
After Richard temporarily quit performing in 1957, citing a religious experience, Mr. Rupe continued the hard-rocking style with singers including Larry Williams (“Bonie Maronie”) and Don and Dewey (“Justine”).
The Beatles later covered several of Williams’s teen-oriented anthems of the 1950s, including “Slow Down” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” “She Said Yeah,” co-written by Williams and Sonny Bono — then a songwriter for Specialty — was revived by the Rolling Stones.
Mr. Rupe’s label did not restrict itself to the teen market. Blues balladeer Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” (1950), written as a prayer for peace after a nuclear bomb test, became an enduring standard with versions by B.B. King, Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington. Sade reprised it on the soundtrack of the 1993 movie “Philadelphia.”
Though based on the West Coast, Specialty frequently recorded at a studio in New Orleans run by the noted recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Those releases included Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (1952), with Fats Domino’s insistent piano trills and triplets, and Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used To Do” (1953) with an arrangement by a young Ray Charles. Slim’s over-amped guitar work influenced a generation of guitarists including Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.
Mr. Rupe developed a formidable roster of gospel talent at Specialty: Prof. Alex Bradford (an influence on Charles), the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Swan Silvertones, Dorothy Love Coates, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers.
“Gospel was my favorite type of music,” he told rhythm-and-blues historian Peter Guralnick, “not for religious reasons but because of the feeling and the soul and the honesty of it. To me, it was pure, it wasn’t adulterated and, that’s why I reacted to it.”
The Soul Stirrers’ lead vocalist, Cooke, would later define the burgeoning soul ballad style. However, Mr. Rupe was late to recognize Cooke’s potential as a pop singer.
Cooke, already a matinee idol on the church circuit, had designs on a pop career. Mr. Rupe, known for an autocratic manner, greenlighted one secular session for Cooke but did not want to alienate the singer’s gospel fans.
When Mr. Rupe later discovered the singer recording “Summertime” with a string section, he exploded and ended the session. He released Cooke and Bumps Blackwell, who had supervised the recording session, from their contracts. They took their business to another Los Angeles label, Keen, where Cooke recorded “You Send Me” (1957), which became No. 1 on the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts.
Mr. Rupe cited payola — bribery of disc jockeys — as a reason that he gradually lost interest in the music business.
Payola, he told music historian John Broven, “distorted the free competitive marketplace and resulted in the playing field not being equal. In other words, Some inferior records or records not necessarily very popular were pushed to the exclusion of really meritorious product.”
Arthur Newton Goldberg was born Sept. 5, 1917, in Greensburg, Pa., and grew up in McKeesport, Pa., where his father was a factory worker and furniture salesman. .
He attended Virginia Tech and Miami University in Ohio then, during World War II, he worked on an engineering crew with a California shipbuilding company, testing the seaworthiness of Liberty ships. In 1944, he became a partner in a short-lived record company, Atlas, before focusing on race records.
He founded Artex Oil, a Texas drilling company in the early 1950s, now based in Ohio. In the 1960s, Mr. Rupe let others run Specialty and focused on his investments. Having dropped out of college in his youth, he completed an undergraduate degree in business from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1968.
Specialty was reactivated as a reissue label in 1970 and, 20 years later, was sold to Fantasy Records. Concord Music currently owns the catalogue. Mr. Rupe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
He also launched the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, which supported public policy research, education and healthcare.
Mr. Rupe was married three times. Survivors include a daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz, and a granddaughter.
For all his business savvy, Mr. Rupe’s radar as a talent scout was not always operating at full strength. As with Cooke, he failed to see the opportunity when Little Richard — who had re-entered music after his religious sabbatical — phoned him excitedly from a tour in England in 1963.
He called to see if Mr. Rupe wanted to sign four little-known British musicians performing on the same bill who, Richard said, “could imitate anybody.”
Mr. Rupe recalled to Richard biographer Charles White: “He wanted to know if I would be interested, and I said, ‘Richard, I am not interested in anybody but you.’ ”
The four British musicians were the Beatles.
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