HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

A label with an impressive lineage in black musical styles in its many iterations over the years began in 1918 and two years later made headlines by selling the first commercially available blues record – Trixie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”. That same year it also recorded The New Orleans Jazz Band giving the company their two primary genres for the rest of the first half of the century.

It was arguably the most important jazz label of the twenties in historical terms, cutting the seminal sides by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, along with King Oliver and Bennie Moten as well as bluesman Lonnie Johnson.

In the midst of this historic run the company was purchased by major label Columbia in 1926 and continued to produce classic records in both fields, but the onset of the Great Depression forced drastic cutbacks and as with most companies the black artists were the first to go and OKeh shuttered its doors in 1935.

In the early 1940’s it re-launched as jazz’s popularity was now the dominant mainstream music in America but the label suffered greatly from the musician’s union recording ban that marred that entire era for the record industry and in 1946 they again ceased production.

With rock ‘n’ roll’s rise the next year Columbia Records, like most majors, were largely dismissive of it but two years later made overtures towards the style when it proved too popular to continue ignoring. The company’s lack of musical credibility hurt these efforts in who they signed, then hampered their output in the studio as well as in the marketplace as the prime audience for that music had low opinions of the stuffiest of pop labels while the distributors in those communities had no history of dealing with them.

As a result Columbia decided to haul OKeh Records out of mothballs again in 1951, transferring their few black artists to that label under the aegis of 26 year old Danny Kessler who was chosen to head up production. With a few talented newcomers, most notably Chuck Willis and Big Maybelle, and some good fortune in acquiring artists from the recently terminated Regal Records label, Paul Gayten, Larry Darnell and Annie Laurie among them, the company found its footing after a few early missteps.

Their most notable artist initially was white singer Johnnie Ray who’d been tutored by LaVern Baker and Maurice King at The Flame Show Bar in Detroit, the pairing who’d ironically had the company’s first release in this go-round. Ray’s overly dramatic style fooled audiences into thinking he was black and possibly female before the company realized they could sell more by transferring him to the parent label and promoting him as a new sensation.

For the next few years, Willis’s and Maybelle’s records excepted, OKeh’s output was largely looking slightly backwards as even their rock acquisitions were slightly past their peak, or in the case of The Treniers, one of their best selling groups, in a category of their own. By the middle of the decade they’d signed a few interesting acts in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Andre Williams and a young Billy Stewart but by now rock ‘n’ roll had crossed into white America and so Columbia began another label, Epic, to house them without the “stigma” of having them on what was primarily a black label.

In the early 1960’s however the company once again saw the value in promoting the black side of rock ‘n’ roll to black audiences and enlisted producer Carl Davis who oversaw their most successful run by focusing on the Chicago soul style of rock with such stars as Major Lance, Billy Butler and other Curtis Mayfield proteges, usually with songs written by Mayfield.

When both Davis and Mayfield broke off their association with the company their success came grinding to a halt and OKeh was once again folded in 1970.

It’s made two posthumous appearances, first in the 1990’s as a blues revival label which lasted from 1993-2000, and then in 2013 it was brought out of retirement again as a jazz oriented label. But it was their 1920’s heyday and two brief flurries of activity with rock in the 1950’s and 1960’s which it will be remembered for.
 
 
OKEH RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy)

MAURICE KING & HIS WOLVERINES (ft. BEA BAKER): I Want A Lavender Cadillac (4) (OKeh 6800; June, 1951)
THE TRENIERS: Go! Go! Go! (6) (OKeh 6804; June, 1951)
CHUCK WILLIS: I Rule My House (6) (OKeh 6810; August, 1951)
CHUCK WILLIS: I Tried (5) (OKeh 6810; August, 1951)
THE RAVENS: I Get All My Lovin’ On A Saturday Night (5) (OKeh, 6825; August, 1951)
MAURICE KING & HIS WOLVERINES (ft. BEA BAKER): Make It Good (4) (OKeh 6817; September, 1951)
CHRIS POWELL & THE FIVE BLUE FLAMES: Talkin’ (6) (OKeh 6818; September, 1951)
MR. GOOGLE EYES: Rough And Rocky Road (8) (OKeh 6820; September, 1951)
MR. GOOGLE EYES: No Wine, No Women (7) (OKeh 6820; September, 1951)
THE TRENIERS: Hey Little Girl (5) (OKeh 6826; September, 1951)
THE TRENIERS: Old Women Blues (3) (OKeh 6826; September, 1951)
THE ROYALS: If You Love Me (3) (OKeh 6832; October, 1951)
THE ROYALS: Dreams Of You (2) (OKeh 6832; October, 1951)
CHUCK WILLIS: Let’s Jump Tonight (8) (OKeh 6841; November, 1951)
CHUCK WILLIS: It’s Too Late Baby (7) (OKeh 6841; November, 1951)
THE RAVENS: Everything But You (3) (OKeh 6843; November, 1951)
TITUS TURNER: Don’t Take Everybody To Be Your Friend (7) (OKeh 6844; December, 1951)
TITUS TURNER: Same Old Feeling (4) (OKeh 6844; December, 1951)
PAUL GAYTEN: Lonesome For My Baby (3) (OKeh 6847; December, 1951)
PAUL GAYTEN: All Alone And Lonely (3) (OKeh 6847; December, 1951)
LARRY DARNELL: Work Baby Work (4) (OKeh 6848; December, 1951)
LARRY DARNELL: Left My Baby (6) (OKeh 6848; December, 1951)
CHRIS POWELL & THE FIVE BLUE FLAMES: That’s Right (7) (OKeh 6850; December, 1951)