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A Good Ear for Business

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A Good Ear for Business

Remembering Art Rupe of Specialty Records April 18, 2022
Arts and Culture
Economy, finance, and budgets

Art Rupe, serial entrepreneur and rock and roll recording pioneer, has died at 104 in Santa Barbara, California.

As Rupe would later tell the staff at his foundation (which has provided support for the Manhattan Institute), he might never have found his way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had he not become interested in the market for shellac, the bug resin from which records used to be made. The federal government had classified the substance as a strategic material, resulting in few records being pressed during the war. As a Los Angeles shipyard worker during World War II, Rupe knew how to get his hands on the stuff and anticipated the postwar demand for recorded music. Those circumstances led to his starting Specialty Records, a label that would dramatically change American popular music through its recordings of Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and other “race artists” overlooked by major labels.

Rupe demonstrated that the entrepreneurial impulse can make great art possible. Born Arthur Goldberg, the son of a working-class Jewish family from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Rupe clearly understood that the American economic system had fueled both his own success and that of the musicians he recorded. He was one of a group of independent record-label founders—Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records in Chicago; Syd Nathan of King Records in Cincinnati; Stan Lewis of Jewel Records in Shreveport, Louisiana; Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis—who transformed American culture by bringing black music, which Rupe had admired even as a teenager, into the national mainstream.

Rupe would go not only to build a significant fortune but also to promote what the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation unabashedly calls the “free market,” providing support for “freedom-oriented organizations” and those who “defend core constitutional principles.” He sought to support “education at all levels” and to “advance civil and reasoned public debate at the high school, university, and civic level.”

Rupe was a serial entrepreneur. Before music, he had considered a career in film, investing in small-town movie screenings and hoping that his interest in dialogue and stories would lead him into Hollywood once he moved to Los Angeles. Instead, he cornered the market on shellac and started Specialty. After moving on from the record business, he turned to oil and gas drilling in Marietta, Ohio (where fracking remains a dynamic business today). His goal, as one of his foundation staff puts it, was “to make it in America” and, later, to defend the principles that enabled sons of immigrants like himself to do just that. Some of our greatest recorded popular music was a collateral benefit.

One cannot overstate the contributions of Specialty Records. Though Cooke became better known for his pop music, his gospel-quartet singing with the Soul Stirrers on Specialty ranks among the most powerful recordings ever. Listen to his live rendition of “Nearer to Thee” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, or his gospel hits “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” “Peace in the Valley,” or “That’s Heaven to Me.” Rupe was alert to the talents of black producers and arrangers, too, bringing together Richard Penniman (a.k.a. Little Richard) and New Orleans studio band leader Dave Bartholomew. The collaborations yielded electrifying records, from “Tutti Frutti” to “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” (See the Beatles’ Little Richard-inspired version of “Kansas City.”)

Art Rupe didn’t need a federal grant to identify and record great music. All he needed was a keen ear and the personal drive to turn a profit—along with some shellac. He belonged to a great generation of music-industry “junk men,” finding the value that others had ignored. He leaves an invaluable legacy.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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