Friday, February 17, 2012

Watch the Radio

In the little sparetime I recently had I was, once again, reading here and there in John Broven's marvelous Record Makers and Breakers. This is a book always worth your while. I came across the pages where Boven speaks about Shelby Singleton's SSS Int'l Records (p. 293 ff.).
Shelby Singleton (c.) in a Mercury studio, spring 1963
Now, Singleton has always, for as much as I know about him, struck me as the entrepreneur in the independent record business during the later '60s; Broven calls him »a real record man«. He had been ten years with Mercury (see left) before setting up, in Nashville, his own SSS Int'l Records in early 1967. He immed- iately spent a lot of money on ads and promotion and soon after became a darling with Billboard where every move of his was announced with some fanfare. First he concentrated on Southern Soul, but in 1968 he set up Plantation for C&W and hit it big with Jeannie Riley's memorable »Harper Valley P.T.A.«; 7 million singles sold of that one. He bought Red Bird and Sun with that money, and other labels besides. In 1970, he dealt with 18 labels, 15 of which he owned. Before that, in 1968, he had set up a movie and TV production company.

Singleton (r.) with friends, Aug. 1970
His chief secret in the beginning was monitor- ing the radio stations of the South: Whenever a song started getting airplay, he would try to get it for distribution or, better still, he would buy the master. One of the earliest cases he did just that was Big John Hamilton's »The Train«, out on Minaret # 124 in spring 1967 (the often found notice that the 45 was released as early as 1964 is not correct). Minaret was the label of Finley Duncan in Valparaiso, Florida, and Singleton purchased the master of # 124 in May. By September, he had become the »exclusive distributor« of Minaret and actually owned the label. To Billboard, Singleton explained his strategy: The truth is that Southern radio stations are more likely to pick up on a good r&b record faster than stations in the North or the East and West Coasts (issue of Oct. 7, 1967, p. 6). His aim was »cracking the Mason-Dixon Line«, the radio programming barrier which, according to Singleton, prevented new r&b records of getting much airplay outside the South. He finally cracked this barrier first with Mickey Murray's cover of »Shout Bamalama«. Big John Hamilton never charted.

But in the end, he made more money with Jeannie Riley than any of his black artists, and after purchasing Sun in 1969, Singleton lost interest in the black market. And the late 1960's were the time when »concept albums« and LPs in general got an ever larger share of the market. But the black records during those years sold absolutely no LPs, Singleton said to Broven. So he gave up on it. Before doing so, however, SSS Int'l released an anthology of (more or less) r&b flavored songs called Soul Gold (LP # 3). It has featured on this blog before (see here), so I don't need to present it again. This LP features two songs by Big John Hamilton, the before-mentioned »The Train« and »I Have No One« (orig. released in autumn 1967 on Minaret # 129). I am happy that the first of these songs enhances the bluesy side of this blog ... dig it here:

Big John Hamilton: »The Train« / »I Have No One« from the SSS Int'l LP # 3 (1969; recorded in 1967):

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P.S.As we are into Big John Hamilton tonight, you might also like to hear one of his fine & funky early 70's duets with Doris Allen. You can do so over at the Groovy Rotations blogspot: BJH & Doris Allen with their version of  »Them Changes«!

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