A company that began in Memphis and featured homegrown stars but was quickly taken over by Don Robey of Houston and folded into his Peacock Records empire, not so much as a subsidiary but an equal label, though it remained most notable for the original Memphis artist it began with.

Despite being a well-spring of musical creativity, Memphis, Tennessee was without a viable record label through the first five years of rock ‘n’ roll even as the local radio station WDIA became the first in the South to feature a roster of black on-air talent aimed at that fan base around the clock.

The station’s white program director David James Mattis decided to fill what he saw as an obvious need by starting his own label, Duke Records, and signing local talent which included rock’s first budding supergroup The Beale Streeters which had once featured B.B. King as their anchor before his recording career, but still had in its ranks Johnny Ace, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Earl Forest and Billy Duncan, while young veteran recording star Roscoe Gordon also joined Duke’s roster.

It was Ace, who’d been the unassuming pianist of the group, who scored the hit that both made Duke Records a national powerhouse and cost Mattis control of the label as his first hit, “My Song”, which Mattis wrote upon hearing Ace singing off to the side before their initial session, became such a big seller than he couldn’t afford to print and ship the requisite number of copies. A local distributor working with Peacock’s Don Robey facilitated a deal between the two which initially would cover just distribution, but when Ace’s record topped the charts for more than two months, Robey – through threats of violence for which he was well-known – pushed Mattis out the door, getting him to sell his share for a pittance.

Robey at least didn’t skimp on production or promotion and with his partner Evelyn Johnson handling the business side, including the technically unaffiliated Buffalo Booking Company, the Duke label became one of the more prominent on the scene with every single release of Ace’s being a hit, not to mention getting a hit with Forest as well.

Eventually it was Bland who’d be the backbone of the label, scoring nearly fifty hits over twenty years including three #1’s, ironically tying him with Ace who accomplished the latter in just two and a half years.

Robey however wasn’t able to really add significantly to the roster, but together with Peacock, and later Backbeat Records, still was a major player in rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel until selling his interests to ABC Dunhill in the 1970’s.

DUKE RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

ROSCO GORDON: Hey, Fat Girl (6) (Duke 101; May, 1952)
ROSCO GORDON: Tell Daddy (3) (Duke 101; May, 1952)
JOHNNY ACE: My Song ★ 10 ★ (Duke 102; June, 1952)
JOHNNY ACE: Follow The Rule (6) (Duke 102; June, 1952)
EARL FOREST: Rock The Bottle (5) (Duke 103; June, 1952)
EARL FOREST: Baby, Baby (5) (Duke 103; June, 1952)
EARL FOREST: Whoopin’ And Hollerin’ (3) (Duke 108; November, 1952)
EARL FOREST: Pretty Bessie (5) (Duke 108; November, 1952)
ROSCO GORDON: Too Many Women (8) (Duke 109; November, 1952)
ROSCO GORDON: Wise To You Baby (5) (Duke 109; November, 1952)
JOHNNY ACE: Cross My Heart (8) (Duke 107; December, 1952)
JOHNNY ACE: Angel (5) (Duke 107; December, 1952)