HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY


A long-lasting and historically important label as it was one of the few successful independent companies focused on the African-American market that was actually owned by a black man.

Don Robey was born in Houston in 1903 and it would be the Houston market that he would come to have so much control over decades later first by owning and operating the Bronze Peacock nightlcub, one of the most successful clubs on the Southern chitlin’ circuit, and then by virtue of his record label empire which kicked off with the Peacock label begun in late 1949.

Robey has always been portrayed as a borderline gangster, someone who used threats – often backed by a loaded gun he kept on his desk – to get his way in any contractual dispute, be it with an artist, a distributor or anyone else who crossed his path. His background as a gambler may have contributed to this image, but there was also quite obviously a racial element to it as well as other white independent record label owners were engaged in the same practices and yet they believed they were somehow above the fray because of how they perceived themselves as businessmen, not criminals. The truth is they were all businessmen who skirted the edge of criminality when it came to self-serving contracts, payola and intimidation, though perhaps the latter was done more discreetly than Robey.

But Robey was as good of a businessman as any of his competitors as shown when he owned a taxi business in the early 1940’s and was the first to install radios in his cabs which allowed him to almost monopolize for a time. He began his nightclub in 1945 which gave him an opening into entertainment and at the same time he began his label he started another enterprise which would be just as vital to spreading the music as his record company.

The Buffalo Booking Agency run by Evelyn Johnson, one of the few black women in a position of true power in the record industry in mid-century America, and reputedly his common law wife, was one of the premier artist representation agencies of the era. Johnson, who was as widely liked as Robey was despised or feared, ran a tight ship and kept immaculate records as artists like B. B. King operated with them for decades on his way to becoming one of the most popular live attractions in the field.

Robey also initially was focused on artist representation which came about through his work at the club and Peacock Records was started primarily as a way to get Robey’s artist, Gatemouth Brown, a platform for his music after he was dropped by Aladdin Records and couldn’t find any other takers for him. So with customary bravado he decided to start his own label, knowing nothing about it, instructing Johnson to do the necessary research and get the plans in order.

The two were a dynamic team, the cocky gambler with impeccable instincts and grand vision and the tireless, smart and talented Johnson taking care of all of the details.Where other Houston labels – Eddie’s Records, Freedom, Macy’s – came and went quickly, Peacock survived and thrived because of their insistence on quality recordings and classy personal appearance, as the Buffalo Booking Agency pioneered the grooming and stage presence techniques later used by Berry Gordy’s Motown empire.

Peacock Records was by no means dominated by rock artists, in fact gospel groups such as The Five Blind Boys and Dixie Hummingbirds were their most consistent long-term sellers, but they had a wide array of artists covering multiple musical styles, specializing in early blues-rockers like Brown, Floyd Dixon and Big Mama Thornton, but also including for a time Johnny Otis, Little Richard, Marie Adams and keyboard wizard James Booker.

Robey’s growing presence on the record scene enabled him to expand his business when in 1952 Duke Records in Memphis needed a distributor and turned to Robey for assistance. Once he had got his hooks in the label he soon, quite forcefully, took that over and ran it himself as it quickly became the equal of Peacock Records in terms of national prominence thanks to Johnny Ace and Bobby “Blue” Bland who’d signed with Duke when it was run by David Mattis.

But by the mid-1950’s with an increasingly integrated audience for rock ‘n’ roll and somewhat tamed down musical sensibilities required for crossover airplay, Peacock chose not to reinvent themselves and stuck to what they’d made their name on, never replenishing their initial artist roster with new blood which caused them to recede from the national consciousness. Along the way he added other subsidiary labels such as Back Beat and Sure Shot which enabled him to stay relevant in changing times with their more diverse rosters, but the parent label, Peacock, was largely relying on gospel to stay afloat throughout the 1960’s.

Robey, who continued his sideline gambling enterprises – a widespread rumor is he was heavily involved in the numbers racket – and who, like so many record label owners, stole more than his share of songwriting credits (under the name Deadric Malone) was worth millions even before he sold the label and their masters to ABC Paramount in 1973. Two years later Robey died at the age of 71, going down in history as not quite the very first black record label owner but one of the most successful and influential.

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

GATEMOUTH BROWN: Didn’t Reach My Goal (5) (Peacock 1500; December, 1949)
GATEMOUTH BROWN: Atomic Energy (4) (Peacock 1500; December, 1949)
GATEMOUTH BROWN: Mercy On Me (4) (Peacock 1500; December, 1949)
BEA JOHNSON (ft. BIG JIM WYNN): Glad You Let Me Go (5) (Peacock 1502; December, 1949)
BEA JOHNSON (ft. BIG JIM WYNN): No Letter Blues (5) (Peacock 1502; December, 1949)