HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 


Short lived but influential label from New York begun in 1945 by Albert Green which achieved some very notable success with The Ravens (among others) but their more lasting impact came with a litany of future movers and shakers who got their start working for them in a variety of roles.

Al Green was a union official for paint contractors in Chicago and had no working knowledge of music. Yet both he and his son Irving, who founded Mercury Records at the same time, somehow got into the music business all the same by starting up pressing plants because the existing ones controlled by the majors were not accepting jobs from independent labels since there were restrictions on the amount of shellac that was available for the records during World War Two. With little competition for freelance work – and by getting the material needed through perhaps less than genteel ways – they both cleaned up in this field. When the war was coming to an end and the pressing plants of the majors were starting to accept outside work again thereby cutting into their business both father and son – independently of one another (they never worked together in any capacity) – shifted their focus to making the music that went ON those records they were pressing.

That was what set National apart when it began, their ability to churn out records in whatever quantity they needed with no delay, even shelving orders they’d taken for other labels to instead put out their own stuff (of the same budding hit they were holding back in many cases!). But to have records worth pressing meant they needed people who knew music or were driven in their desire to learn the industry. To that end National built one of the more impressive rosters of behind the scenes talent ever assembled.

Herb Abramson was a jazz fan turned record producer who brought in both The Ravens and a new kind of pop-jazz hybrid singer Billy Eckstine who became National’s two biggest acts. Lee Magid was a hustling record promoter who impressed Green by selling their black stars, like Eckstine, to white radio which was a rarity in the 1940’s, was hired to handle the publishing company and later moved into A&R and production. Bobby Shad, who’d already made his name as a producer for a variety of labels, came on board when Abramson left to start his own label (Jubilee) and continued the high quality work. Tom Dowd, the best record engineer ever, got his start with National establishing their high quality sound before moving to Atlantic where he further revolutionized the business of cutting records.

Their success came fast and furious: Dusty Fletcher’s legendary comedy routine set to music, “Open The Door, Richard” that was the most ubiquitous hit song of 1947, Eckstine’s string of crossover smashes like “Cottage For Sale”, The Ravens groundbreaking rock vocal discs starting with “Ol’ Man River” and “Write Me A Letter”, Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson’s pre-rock hit “S.K. Blues”, Dick Thomas’s #1 country smash “Sioux City Sue”, the influential blues of Gatemouth Moore (B.B. King called him “one of the greatest blues singers ever” ), classy sides by Albennie Jones, the first cuts by future star LaVern Baker, Charlie Ventura’s classic jazz recordings, even idiotic pop mega-hit “If I’d Known You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked A Cake” by Eileen Barton. They scored in almost every conceivable field of music and at a time when most indies struggled to get even one big seller, they had dozens.

Over the last half of the 1940’s they were arguably more successful than any of their rivals, but then, whether because their power structure started to crumble with defections, or because Al Green’s drinking and rough manner caused rifts too wide to mend, the label came grinding to a halt, ceasing operations altogether in 1951. Those who worked for them went on to long fruitful careers with other companies, speaking fondly of their time with National which gave them their starts, yet the records they made that had helped to define the 1940’s independent record boom as much as any had lay dormant and all but forgotten until the masters were bought by Savoy in 1957 who awkwardly enveloped them into their own unconnected history, but in the process at least getting them recognized AS history a little bit more.

Though National’s rock output was somewhat limited, mostly confined to The Ravens, but since those were among the most influential records in rock’s history the label’s role in rock’s ascent can’t be undersold. But National Records left an even greater legacy by showing how good an independent label could be with the right personnel, something the best of those to follow learned well by following their example.
 
 

NATIONAL RECORDS REVIEWED ON SPONTANEOUS LUNACY:
 

THE RAVENS: Write Me A Letter (8) (National 9038; October, 1947)
THE RAVENS: Summertime (5) (National 9038; October, 1947)
THE RAVENS: Searching For Love (2) (National 9039; December 1947)
THE RAVENS: Be I Bumblebee Or Not (8) (National 9040; January, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Together (3) (National 9042; February, 1948)
BIG JOE TURNER: That’s What Really Hurts (4) (National 4017; April, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Send For Me If You Need Me (5) (National 9045; June, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Until The Real Thing Comes Along (6) (National 9045; June, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Once In Awhile (4) (National 9053; July, 1948)
THE RAVENS: It’s Too Soon To Know (3) (National 9056; September, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Be On Your Merry Way (7) (National 9056; September, 1948)
THE RAVENS: White Christmas (7) (National 9062; November, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Silent Night (8) (National 9062; November, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Always (5) (National 9064; December, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Rooster (5) (National 9064; December, 1948)
THE RAVENS: Leave My Gal Alone (6) (National 9065; February, 1949)
T. J. FOWLER: Red Hot Blues (8) (National 9072; April, 1949)
T. J. FOWLER: Harmony Grits (5) (National 9072; April, 1949)
THE RAVENS: Ricky’s Blues (6) (National 9073; May, 1949)
T. J. FOWLER: T.J. Boogie (3) (National 9075; May, 1949)
THE RAVENS: Careless Love (6) (National 9085; July, 1949)
THE RAVENS: Someday (4) (National 9089; September, 1949)
THE RAVENS: If You Didn’t Mean It (6) (National 9089; September, 1949)