Art Rupe, Pioneering Record Executive Who Helped Launch Little Richard’s Career, Dies at 104
Music executive Art Rupe, who’s Specialty Records was a leading label in the early years of rock & roll and helped launch the careers Little Richard Sam Cooke , and many other musicians, has passed away. He was 104.
Rupe, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died Friday (April 15) at his home in Santa Barbara, California, according to the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation. The cause of his death was not released by the foundation.
The Greensburg, Pennsylvania, native was a contemporary of Jerry Wexler, Leonard Chess and other white businessmen-producers who helped bring Black music to a general audience. He founded Specialty in Los Angeles in 1946 and gave early breaks to such artists as Cooke and his gospel group the Soul Stirrers, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, John Lee Hooker and Clifton Chenier.
“Specialty Records’ growth paralleled, and perhaps defined, the evolution of Black popular music, from the ‘race’ music of the 1940s to the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s,” music historian Billy Vera wrote in the liner notes to The Specialty Story, a five-CD set that came out in 1994.
Rupe’s most important and significant signing was Little Richard. A rhythm and blues and gospel singer since his teens, Little Richard had struggled to make it big commercially. Rupe explained in a 2011 interview that Little Richard, the professional name for Richard Penniman, had heard of Specialty through Price. He sent a demo and called for months to see if anyone had listened. Rupe finally agreed to speak with him, and he pulled his tape from the discard pile.
” “There was something about Little Richard’s voice that I liked,” Rupe stated. “I don’t know what it was — it was so exaggerated and so emotional. I said, “Let’s give him a chance and maybe he can sing like B.B. King.'”
Initial recording sessions were uninspiring, but during a lunch break at a nearby inn Little Richard sat down at a piano and pounded out a song he had performed during club dates: “Tutti Frutti,” with its immortal opening shout, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”
Released in September 1955 and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first major hits, “Tutti Frutti” was a manic, but cleaner version of the raunchy original, which featured such rhymes as “Tutti Frutti/good booty.” Rupe noted that Little Richard’s performance was transformed when he accompanied himself on piano.
” “The neck bone connected to the knee bone or something; his voice and his playing sort of gave it a lift,” Rupe stated. “The neck bone connects to the knee bone or some other; his voice and his playing kind of gave it .”
Critic Langdon Winner would compare Little Richard’s Specialty recordings with Elvis Presley’s Sun Records sessions to describe “models for singing and musicianship that have inspired many rock musicians since .”
Little Richard’s other hits with Specialty included such rock classics as “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rip it Up” before he abruptly (and temporarily) retired in 1957. Specialty was also home to Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ (with Fats Domino on the piano); Don and Deweys ‘Farmer John’; Larry Williams ‘Dizzy Miss Lilizzy’, which the Beatles later covered; as well as music by leading gospel acts such as Dorothy Love Coates and the Swan Silvertones.
Rupe is well-known for the low wages he paid his artists. He also engaged in an exploitative practice that was common among early rock label owners: signing contracts with performers, leaving him with a lot or all the royalties and publishing right. Little Richard would sue him in 1959 for back royalties and settled out of court for $11,000.
Around the same time, Rupe grew increasingly frustrated with the “payola” system of bribing broadcasters to get records played and distanced himself from the music business. In the early 1990s, he sold Specialty To Fantasy Records but continued to make money from oil and gas investments. He was the founder of the Art N. Rupe Foundation in recent years. This foundation supported education and research to shine “the truth on critical and controversial topics
Rupe is survived by his daughter Beverly Rupe Schwarz and his granddaughter Madeline Kahan.
He was the son of a Jewish factory worker and his passion for Black music started when he heard the singing at a nearby Baptist Church. After briefly considering a career as a movie director, he decided to pursue music instead. He began his studies at the University of California in Los Angeles and then bought “race records” to learn how to listen with a stopwatch and metronome. He co-founded Juke Box Records in the mid-1940s, but soon left to start Specialty. He also changed his name to Rupe, his family’s ancestral name.
Rupe was a successful artist, but his discerning taste cost him at least one hit. In the mid-1950s, Cooke was anxious to expand his appeal beyond gospel and recorded some pop songs at Specialty, including a ballad that became a standard, “You Send Me.” Rupe found the song bland and was appalled by its white backup singers. Cooke let Blackwell, Cooke’s manager and purchase the copyright to “You Send Me” via RCA.
” I didn’t think ‘You Send Me!’ was that great. Because Sam was so good, I knew it would have an intrinsic value. It was a dream come true. Sam was a good guy.
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