Music director Art Rupe, of whom Specialty Records was a prominent label during the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll and helped launch the careers of Little Richard, Sam Cooke and many others, has died. He was 104 years old.
Rupe, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died Friday at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., according to the Arthur N Rupe Foundation. The foundation did not disclose the cause of his death.
The Greensburg, Pennsylvania native was a contemporary of Jerry Wexler, Leonard Chess, and other white businessmen-producers who helped bring black music to the mainstream. He founded Specialty in Los Angeles in 1946 and gave early breaks to artists such as Cooke and his gospel group the Soul Stirrers, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, John Lee Hooker and Clifton Chenier.
“The growth of Specialty Records followed, and perhaps defined, the evolution of black popular music from 1940s ‘racial’ music to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote the historian of the Billy Vera music in the liner notes of The Specialty Story, a five-CD set released in 1994.
Rupe’s most lucrative and memorable signing was Little Richard, a performer of rhythm ‘n’ blues and gospel since his teenage years who had struggled to break through commercially.
In a 2011 interview for the Hall of Fame Archives, Rupe explained that Little Richard (professional name of the late Macon, Georgia, native of Richard Penniman) heard about Specialty from Price, sent in a demo, and called for months trying to find out if anyone had been listening. He finally asked to speak to Rupe, who pulled his tape out of the discard pile.
“There was something about Little Richard’s voice that I loved,” Rupe said. “I don’t know – it was so over the top, so overly emotional. And I said, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance and maybe we can get him to sing like BB King.'”
The first recording sessions were uninspiring, but during a lunch break at a nearby inn, Little Richard sat down at the piano and hammered out a song he had performed on club outings: Tutti Frutti, featuring its immortal opening cry: “Awopbopaloomopawopbamboum!”
Released in September 1955 and one of rock’n’roll’s first big hits, Tutti Frutti was a manic but cleaner version of the raunchy original, which featured rhymes such as “Tutti Frutti/good booty”. Rupe noted that Little Richard’s performance was transformed when he accompanied himself on the piano.
“Until then, Bumps (producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell) was asking Little Richard to just be a singer,” Rupe said. “The neck bone connected to the knee bone or something; her voice and acting kind of gave her a boost.
Critic Langdon Winner would compare Little Richard’s specialty recordings to Elvis Presley’s Sun Records sessions as “models of song and musicianship that have inspired rock musicians ever since.”
Little Richard’s other hits with Specialty included rock classics such as Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Rip it Up before he abruptly (and temporarily) retired in 1957. Specialty was also home to Lawdy Miss Clawdy from Price (with Fats Domino on piano); Farmer John of Don and Dewey; Dizzy Miss Lizzy by Larry Williams, which the Beatles later covered; and the music of great gospel groups such as Dorothy Love Coates, the Swan Silvertones and the Pilgrim Travellers.
Rupe was notorious for paying his artists little, and engaged in an exploitative practice common among label owners in the early rock era: getting performers to sign contracts leaving him a big chunk or all royalties and publishing rights. Little Richard will sue him in 1959 for arrears in royalties and will settle $11,000 out of court.
Around the same time, Rupe became increasingly frustrated with the “payola” system of bribing broadcasters to play records and walked away from the music industry. He sold Specialty to Fantasy Records in the early 1990s, but continued to make money from oil and gas investments. In recent years, he led the Art N Rupe Foundation, which supported education and research to shine “the light of truth on critical and controversial issues”.
Rupe’s survivors include his daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz, and granddaughter Madeline Kahan.
He was born Arthur Goldberg, the son of a Jewish worker whose passion for black music began when he heard the singers at a nearby Baptist church. He studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, briefly considered a career in film, and opted for music instead, educating himself by buying “race records” and listening with a metronome and stopwatch. He co-founded Juke Box Records in the mid-1940s, but soon left to launch Specialty. He also changed his surname to Rupe, the ancestral family name.
Rupe’s shrewd taste made him a hit, but cost him at least one major hit. In the mid-1950s Cooke was keen to expand his appeal beyond gospel and recorded a few pop songs at Specialty, including a ballad that became a standard, You Send Me. Rupe found the song bland and was dismayed by its white singers. He let Cooke and Blackwell, who had become Cooke’s manager, buy the copyrights and release them through RCA.
“I didn’t think You Send Me was so great. I knew it would have some intrinsic value because Sam was good. I never imagined it would be a multi-millionaire salesman,” said Rupe, who added, “A wonderful stroke of genius on my part.”