HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 


The second oldest and perhaps most famous record company of all-time, RCA-Victor did more popularize records for the home consumer than any other brand and their technological advances through the years shaped the way music was heard, but their legacy in rock is almost entirely centered on just one performer.

Begun in 1901 as the Victor Talking Machine Company they were beaten off the line by longtime rival Columbia Records but it was Victor which perfected the early recording process with discs rather than cylinders and it was Victor which knew that to promote their company and get consumers to buy the costly players to begin with they’d have to use their records as promotional tools for the mere concept of record players. To that end they signed the most well-known and prestigious musicians of the day, from opera star Enrico Caruso to classical pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, making them the first recording stars whose popularity was greatly increased by their exposure and which spurred sales of the machines in order to hear their work. Their elegant designs of their Victrola players made them by far the most popular brand of phonographs to the point where the name Victrola itself became synonymous with the machine, regardless of maker. Once the machines were in the home the company knew that future sales of records were assured and with its rise musicians would seek to be recorded for the benefit it provided for their performing careers.

In their quest to sell to as broad a market as possible the Victor company recorded the first blues song in 1914, the first jazz record in 1917 and the initial country music excursions in 1927 and their creation of cheaper subsidiary labels, most notably Bluebird Records, provided an outlet for smaller niche genres. The bulk of the main Victor line however was reserved primarily for classical artists and pop singers who represented more established styles with perceived high-class taste. Their biggest stars of the 1920’s were Billy Murray and Paul Whiteman but over time they featured a more diverse roster including Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Rodgers, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Vaughn Monroe, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Woody Guthrie, King Oliver, The Three Suns, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Shore, Erskine Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddy Arnold, Lena Horne and Xavier Cugat.

In 1929 the company was acquired the Radio Corporation Of America (RCA) which has become the most commonly referred to label even though it was still known exclusively as Victor through the mid-1940’s and RCA-Victor until the late 1960’s.

The company had introduced the 33 1/3rd RPM long playing record in the early 1930’s but in the midst of the Great Depression the costs to buy the machines capable of playing these LPs were far too expensive for the average listener and so the line was abandoned within two years, only to see rival Columbia re-introduce it to great success 15 years later in 1948. RCA responded by bringing out the smaller 45 RPM vinyl single and heavily promoting it as a cheaper, more durable and easier to store option than the bulky and fragile 78 RPM singles. They began by color coding the records themselves for the genre of music – black for pop, red for classical, green for country and predominantly black musical styles on orange – but soon issued everything on black discs for uniformity and to cut costs. RCA was able to successfully market record players and ad-on units able to covert older players to handle this speed and backed by a massive advertising campaign and the booming post-war economy that made new products seem a sign of progress the new format gradually pushed aside the 78 RPM and became the dominant release for singles.

That was their largest initial contribution to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, as the smaller and cheaper records were in tune with the growing audience of that generation. As for their forays into the rock field with artists it was far more limited. Like all of the major labels they looked down on rock from the very beginning, even with their success in older black styles they assiduously avoided rock ‘n’ roll for years with only artists who were on the far reaches of the style, such as The Four Tunes, a black pop vocal group occasionally experimented with more rock deliveries, singer/saxophonist Big John Greer and finally in 1952 with their signing of The Du Droppers they had more legitimate rock act although even they were a group that had their origins in 1940’s gospel. They did find some rock acts with potential as they were the first label to sign Little Richard but he hadn’t fully developed his style yet and was soon gone as well as Otis Blackwell whose own records would soon be overshadowed by the songs he wrote for other artists.

For the most part they were content with their pop stars ranging from Perry Como, Eddie Fisher and Kay Starr to Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte whose calypso albums became massive sellers in the late 1950’s. Their country roster featured Hank Snow and Chet Atkins while they had consistent sellers with Latin artists Perez Prado, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente.

Their credibility in rock ‘n’ roll changed overnight in 1955 when they outbid other companies for the contract of southern rockabilly sensation Elvis Presley. It may not be surprising that they, like most of the majors, waited until rock had begun crossing into the pop charts and like the others sought a white act to give them better mainstream access. Regardless of the reasons though Presley’s unparalleled success allowed them to concentrate on him to keep them relevant as rock took over the broader music landscape while otherwise disregarding it almost entirely.

They picked up Jesse Belvin in the late 1950’s with the hopes of crossing him into pop and when he was killed in early 1960 at the age of 26 they signed Sam Cooke who became, after Presley, their most notable rock star. For the most part they seemed content to let one or two big names handle their entire rock output with Jefferson Airplane/Starship in the late 60’s and 70’s, David Bowie, Main Ingredient, Lou Reed, New Birth and Evelyn “Champagne” King as the core of their 1970’s rock roster. Hall & Oates, The Eurythmics, Diana Ross and Mr. Mister representing the best of their 1980’s output and SWV and Dave Matthews Band being among the only notable signees in the 90’s. By that point they’d acquired subsidiary labels such as Arista and Jive which housed more rock artists, though in the 21st Century the primary label added The Strokes, Kings Of Leon, Avril Lavigne and Velvet Revolver to their ranks, but like most of the old school major companies RCA’s reputation as a label inhospitable to rock was hard to dispute.

That their greatest success, and their most enduring output historically, remains Elvis Presley is almost cruelly ironic for a company that largely eschewed rock, but even during his heyday RCA was reaping as big – or bigger – profits off the likes of soundtracks like The Sound Of Music and South Pacific, and by the time the marketplace for traditional pop genres they preferred had become secondary it was too late to reverse course. RCA, like fellow dinosaur Columbia, was bought by the Sony Corporation making them more historical artifacts than creative labels.
 
 
RCA RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy):
 

EDDIE “SUGARMAN” PENIGAR (ft. LAVERN BAKER): I Wonder Baby (3) (RCA 22-0016; March, 1949)
BIG JOHN GREER: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee (4) (RCA 22-023/RCA 50-0007; MAY, 1949)
BIG JOHN GREER: Long Tall Gal (2) (RCA 22-023/RCA 50-0007; MAY, 1949)
THE FOUR TUNES: Careless Love (7) (RCA 22-0024/RCA 50-0008; May, 1949)
EDDIE “SUGARMAN” PENIGAR (ft. LAVERN BAKER): Easy Baby (3) (RCA 22-0036/RCA 50-0020; May, 1949)