One of the longer lasting and more successful independent labels, the Los Angeles based Imperial were major players in the 1950’s rock scene, specifically with their focus on New Orleans artists.

Founded by Lew Chudd in 1946, a Canadian who relocated to New York and worked with NBC radio before starting Crown Records. When he sold that in 1945 he headed west to California and started another record company. Like many independent labels of the 1940’s he focused on reaching a demographic that was traditionally neglected by the major labels, in this case the area’s sizable Mexican migrant population, naming his label Imperial after the heavily Hispanic Imperial Valley in California. The records he initially made were primarily Spanish language versions of pop hits but in 1949 when he was in Houston seeking to expand the market for these records outside of Southern California he stumbled upon the artist who would transform his company when he saw Dave Bartholomew performing at The Bronze Peacock Club.

Bartholomew, who was currently enjoying a national hit with “Country Boy” on DeLuxe Records, was an experienced bandleader and songwriter who was well-schooled musically as an arranger and already had some early production credits for sides cut with Chubby Newsom the previous spring. Chudd saw in Bartholomew somebody who could handle all of the aspects of record making that Chudd could not, writing, production as well as recruiting and shaping talent, and told him he’d be in New Orleans soon and hoped they could work together. Bartholomew, whose contract with DeLuxe was up, was agreeable but didn’t expect anything to come of it until Chudd showed up weeks later ready to get started.

Imperial’s success from this point forward is due almost entirely to Bartholomew, who not only shifted the label’s focus to rock ‘n’ roll, but also signed the majority of its artists out of New Orleans, Tommy Ridgley, Jewel King, Archibald, Smiley Lewis, The Spiders, Bobby Mitchell and a host of others, all of whom sold well locally and many of whom got at least one national hit. The biggest star Bartholomew brought in was Fats Domino who sold more records than any rocker of the 1950’s outside of Elvis Presley.

With Bartholomew’s many productions and Domino’s countless hits rolling off the presses, plus the reliable output of country star Slim Whitman, Imperial Records was among the most consistently strong indie labels of the decade. Aside from their virtually cornering the market on New Orleans acts their roster in the early 1950’s also included a number of Texas artists whose strongest appeal was also in the Gulf Coast region, among them blues guitarists T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Lil Son Jackson and rockers Goree Carter and Joe Houston. In spite of Imperial being in Los Angeles it had very few California based artists with Big Jay McNeely and Ernie Freeman being the only notable names until 1957 when Chudd signed TV star turned rocker Ricky Nelson on the basis of one hit on the small Verve label that had been cut to show his viability as an authentic musician.

With the arrival of Nelson, the label’s first white star in the field, Imperial Records had two of the five most popular rock acts of the late 1950’s, as Domino’s hits continued unabated, but they hadn’t sought to develop many new artists since the mid-1950’s, preferring instead to try reviving the careers of those who’d been stars a few years earlier, and to that end Bartholomew coaxed belated hits out of Roy Brown and Faye Adams but it was hardly a formula for remaining relevant as time went on. The few younger artists they managed to sign were either between hits, like singer/songwriters Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, or weren’t able to sustain their early popularity achieved on another label, as with Phil Spector’s first group The Teddy Bears, or simply weren’t given enough time to develop as was the case with The Mighty Hannibal (Jimmy Shaw) or Chris Kenner, one of the few New Orleans-based acts they signed after that initial seven year flurry of activity in the city, thus leaving it to other labels, Ace, Ric, Ron and Minit, to cultivate the next fertile generation of New Orleans rockers.

By the early 1960’s Imperial’s stature was falling as both Domino and Nelson’s commercial peaks were on the downside and they had no potential stars on the roster to replace them. When Fats then took a sizable offer to move to ABC-Paramount in late 1963 the face of their label for more than a decade was gone and now facing a changing industry with more corporate investment in rival companies giving him less chance to re-build a viable roster Chudd decided to shut down the label and sell Imperial’s catalog to Liberty Records in 1964, ending one of the more storied independent record companies of all-time.

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

CHARLIE “BOOGIE WOOGIE” DAVIS: San Quentin Bait (6) (Imperial 5011; December, 1947)
TOMMY RIDGLEY: Shrewsbury Blues (6) (Imperial 5054; December, 1949)
TOMMY RIDGLEY: Early Dawn Boogie (6) (Imperial 5054; December, 1949)