HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the independent record labels born in the 1940s – along with Capitol – who quickly positioned itself as a mainstream challenger to the major labels (Columbia, RCA and Decca) by focusing on pop and jazz to establish their respectability right out of the gate.

Their early success with such pop artists as Frankie Laine, Errol Gardner, Vic Damone and especially Patti Page meant they were never resigned to “slumming” in the niche styles other independents were cultivating to try and carve out a smaller piece of the more neglected markets the majors assiduously avoided. To that end Mercury largely confined their pursuit of the black marketplace to more sophisticated artists such as Dinah Washington, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Sarah Vaughan, all with legitimate jazz backgrounds, rather than the cruder forms of rock or blues.

As a result they had very limited, almost incidental, involvement in rock during its first 6 or 7 years with only a few stray sides coming out by The Treniers, Professor Longhair, Johnny Otis, Red Prysock and The Ravens and the company’s view of rock seemed to be more as a novelty than a serious music, something to be exploited rather than pursued in earnest, as evidenced by their bland pop versions of rock hits by The Crew Cuts and Georgia Gibbs, two of the most notorious cover artists in the mid-50’s. By this time they were widely considered to be the “5th major” label and as such kept their hands largely clean of rock ‘n’ roll to cultivate that prestigious image they craved.

Ironically they DID score big with a rock act, though it wasn’t the one they expected, as wanting to sign the then hot Penguins of “Earth Angel” fame in an attempt to break into the rock market on a limited basis, they’d been forced to sign The Platters as a package deal, a group that had failed to make any notable impact with Federal Records. The Penguins never scored another hit, but The Platters became the biggest selling rock vocal group of the 50’s as well as the most polished musically, something that fit perfectly with Mercury’s overall ambitions.

Their run of hits with The Platters as well as the one “legitimate” white cover act to come along, The Diamonds, who had a more authentic and accepted sound among rock fans, gave them at least a passing interest in rock ‘n’ roll, but they rarely tried to broaden their reach into the field beyond that until the 1960’s when they confined themselves mainly to more “acceptable” pop-leaning rock artists like Lesley Gore, or with well established 50’s rockers seeking to stay relevant such as Carl Perkins, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, none of whom were able to maintain their popularity as Mercury still had no real knowledge of the market.

Only upon singing Jerry Butler in the late 60’s and finding sustained popularity with him did Mercury became more open to accepting rock and in the 1970’s they signed such heavyweights as The Ohio Players, Rush, The Bar-Kays and Bachman-Turner Overdrive to off-set the declining commercial appeal of the more respectable styles they preferred. They continued welcoming a handful of bigger rock artists in the 80’s with Con Funk Shun, Def Leppard, Kurtis Blow, Bon Jovi, Cinderella and John Mellencamp allowing them to remain at least moderately relevant, although many of these artists they acquired only after they’d established themselves elsewhere and thus were seen as safer bets.

As typical of the major labels, Mercury, who started out as a smaller independent with big dreams, seemed to look down on rock well past the point where it was commercially sensible to do so and as a result their legacy in the genre is relatively lacking.

 
 
MERCURY RECORDS REVIEWED TO DATE ON SPONTANEOUS LUNACY:
 
 
THE TRENIER TWINS: Hey Sister Lucy (3) (Mercury 8058; October, 1947)
THE TRENIER TWINS: Ooh, Look-A There Ain’t She Pretty (2) (Mercury 8071; January, 1948)
THE TRENIER TWINS: Convertible Cadillac (2) (Mercury 8089; July, 1948)