Duke/Peacock Records: The Success Story

WITH THE emergence of interest in blues recordings after the war, with its resultant popularity, it was only natural that there should be a multitude of companies formed to make provision for this interest.

The blues has for the main part been ignored by the major record companies, and it has been left to the enterprise of the small, often one-man operators to issue recordings which appeal to only a certain segment of the record-buying public. In a way, this is for the good. Competition is harsh and survival is only for those with original and good material. Thus a company issuing poor recordings cannot hope to remain in business for any length of time. But the operational costs are immense, especially taking into account payment of artists fees and royalties, studio time, pressing, advertising and distribution. Thus the strong will survive; the intelligent record producer who makes recordings that sell; and continue to sell. It is not surprising to note that the turnover in companies specialising in the blues and R&B recordings has been somewhat large. This was especially true in the ‘fifties when such fine companies as Cobra, Parrot and Modern departed within a few years. This thinning-out has continued during the first years of the sixties, but at an even more alarming rate. Veteran companies are falling rapidly by the wayside, but where are their replacements?

This year (1964) we’ve seen the promising USA label, which augers well for the future, but precious little else. In fact, it is simpler to enumerate those still operating than to relate those which have ceased operations. We have the seemingly impregnable Chess/Checker group, Vee Jay (rapidly going ‘pop’), Excello and Duke. Labels with blues origins, such as Atlantic, Savoy or Imperial are no longer in the market. And there’s the really small independents like C.J., Ivory, Bea & Baby or Bluestown, still struggling along gamely – but what else? Does this in fact signify a dangerous period for blues releases? The majors, as I’ve mentioned, have no interest, which judging by their stereotyped current catalogues is perhaps a good thing. Quality has been shoved overboard, but one cannot help but recall what Victor did for the blues via their Bluebird label in the late thirties and early forties. With such resources and the operation placed as it so seldom is, in the right hands, the entrance of the major labels into the field could undoubtedly be successful; however, this seems unlikely on current form and the task of continuing the blues tradition rests firmly in the hands of the Independent labels. Is this task in good hands? Let us take a look at the operations of one of the largest R&B labels at present; the Duke/Peacock combine of Houston, Texas.

Today this combine is one of the most vital outlets for R&B and Gospel recordings. Don Robey has certainly engineered h is companies into a major force in the U.S. record industry. Looking at his present set-up, it is difficult to realise that this “brainchild’ has arisen from the humblest of beginnings.

In the late forties, Robey owned two large Negro night-clubs in Houston called the ‘Bronze-Peacock’ and the ‘Matinee’ and ran a small record shop on Lyons Avenue. Reputed to have both Jewish and Negro blood in his veins, he was a successful man, even in those days and all the big ‘race’ artists would be booked for his clubs. It was one of these, T-Bone Walker, who after a long and well-received engagement, suggested that a certain Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, then playing at San Antonio, should replace him. Brown’s appearances at the ‘Bronze-Peacock’ were so impressive, that Robey became his manager and got him a recording contract with Aladdin in November 1947. Amos Milburn was so big then, that Aladdin neglected Brown and in desperation, Robey told him not to renew his contract and decided to record him himself.

Just after Christmas, 1948, Brown cut his first sides with Jack McVea’s big band at a crude, little studio on Houston’s Hamilton Street and by early 1949 his ‘Mary Is Fine’ was selling well all over the South.

‘Gatemouth’ Brown, a gifted guitarist, was born at Vinton, Louisiana, in 1914 and raised in Orange, Texas. He first learned violin and then learned guitar and harmonica. Inspired basically by T-Bone Walker, his style became very popular and much copied in Texas. The immediate success of his recordings helped to establish Peacock Records and Robey was able to undertake further sessions with other artists, usually those who appeared at his clubs and were not bound by contracts.

At first, Peacock operated from the record shop at Lyons Avenue, run by Robey and Evelyn Johnson, but eventually moved into the ‘Bronze-Peacock’ building when it was obvious that the record label had become a better financial proposition than the club. The establishment of the label was a pioneer operation, not only in Texas, but the whole South. Robey was the first Negro to operate a record business and survive. It was the challenge that appealed to him and time has proved that he was more than well equipped to meet it. At the time the market was not flooded with new releases and there was not then the competition as there is now, but it was still considered a big risk to enter the record business, being generally accepted that the major cities on the East and West Coasts were the only fertile areas for a record label to grow, and Houston could hardly be further from either.

Besides the problem of location there were other difficulties to encounter and overcome. Not only did a roster of artists need to be acquired, who had the talent to sell records; there were other steps to be considered. First, artists require suitable material to record. This is the A& R department. At the beginning Robey handled this himself, but now the duty is under Joe Scott, with Eddie Silvers and Gilbert Caple immediately under his control. The final decision as to what is recorded still lies with Don Robey in collaboration with Scott. Then follows the long period involved writing the music for the session and the rehearsals by artists and musicians for the final take. Although the main studio is naturally in Houston, Robey now uses studios in all parts of the U.S.A. to accommodate his artists who may be on tour. This applies especially to singers such as Bobby Bland and Junior Parker who are constantly on the road filling personal engagements.

The next step is to obtain masters for the product. At first this was done by A.C.A. in Houston, but now Universal of Chicago carry out most of the work as Robey considers them to be faultless. After mastering, pressing, where the sound is transferred from one metal part to another whence it is then pressed to the actual record, of either plastic or vinyl material. The final stage is the actual phonograph record, manufactured at six different cities throughout the States, thus ensuring that time is saved getting the record to the 37 distributors throughout the country, in the shortest time possible. Then the discs are sent out to retailers and jukebox operators, eventually coming to the attention of the buying public.

In the early days, Robey used the local A.C.A. studios for sessions and records were often pressed by Gold Star. Among the early artists to record, apart from Gatemouth Brown, were Memphis Slim, a group from New Orleans called The Gondoliers, Elmore Nixon and Carl Campbell with the local Henry Hayes combo, Bea Johnson with Jim Wynn’s Band, Floyd Dixon, R.B. Thibadeaux, Iona Wade with Jay McShann, Walter Brown, Doc Jones and Willie Holiday. Several had regional hits but distribution was difficult outside the South and how Robey overcame the problem will never be known, but he did. In 1951, hit first Gospel group. The Original Five Blind Boys were at the top spot on all National R&B charts with ‘Our Father’. This record continued to sell steadily over the years and really turned Peacock into a competitor on a large scale.

The next important step was the acquisition of Duke in 1952. Started by James Mattis, a well known Memphis DJ., Duke started by issuing records by the then popular local group The Beal Streeters. Led by Rosco Gordon, other members included Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland and Earl Forest. Robey had once listened to Johnny Ace while making an abortive attempt to record B.B. King, but had not liked him. However, he met Mattis while on a promotion trip to Memphis and heard Ace’s ‘My Song’. Mattis did not have the finances to make much out of the record, but Robey felt it could be big and taking it to New York, played it at a convention. It was well liked and he arranged with Mattis to distribute it nationally. The result was a colossal hit.

Ace was born John Alexander Jr., at Memphis on June 9, 1929 and turned to music in the late forties when he came out of the services. He played piano and was adept at singing ballads of the sentimental type that Cecil Gant had once built a career on. After a stint as B.B. King’s pianist, he started as a feature artist with the Beale Streeters. By 1954, he was one of the best loved of all Negro artists and has been called ‘the coloured James Dean’. Following ‘My Song’, he began to tour nationally with the Johnny Otis Show and further records invariably sold in huge numbers. ‘The Clock’ and ‘Cross My Heart’ hit the charts in 1953 and before his stupid and tragic death on Christmas Eve, 1954, caused by ‘Russian-roulette’, he saw ‘Please Forgive Me’ and ‘Saving My Love For You’ up there too. His death produced a national hysteria among teenage Negro girls and several people got rich by singing songs about it. Sales of his records hit an all time high in 1955, with ‘Anymore’ and the classic ‘Pledging My Love’ and all of them sold steadily for years after.

Robey had not neglected Peacock. Thanks to exposure with Johnny Otis, Marie Adams hit the charts in 1952 with ‘I’m Gonna Play The Honky Tonks’ and the following year Willie Mae Thornton (dubbed ‘Big Mama’ by Otis) did it with ‘Hound Dog’. Six feet tall and weighing 300 pounds, Big Mama was born at Montgomery, Alabama in 1926. She joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review when she was 15 and after a long spell on the road, settled in Houston. She was booked by Johnny Otis in 1952 to star alongside Little Esther, but stole the show wherever she went. She later led the show with Johnny Ace and Junior Ryder, before vanishing into obscurity for a period.

In the latter part of 1953, Robey bought Mattis’s share in Duke and formed Black Beat Records. During this period the Lion Publishing Co. was also formed (later Don Music) and the Peacock/Duke set-up was definitely settled. Expansion continued at a steady rate through the following years, though the period following Ace’s death also seemed to shock Robey, for his records did not again have a national success until 1957 when two Duke veterans, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Junior Parker set things really jumping again with ‘Farther Up The Road’ and ‘Next Time You See Me’. This duo were to practically keep the Robey fortunes on the up on their own, right up to the present.

Robert Calvin ‘Bobby’ Bland was born on January 27, 1930, at Rosemark, Tennessee and raised in Memphis, where he met Rosco Gordon who encouraged him with his ideas of a career as a singer. It was Rosco and The Beale Streeters who really helped him in the early days, though Billy ‘Red’ Love gave him a lot of advice about stage presentation. It was B.B. King who introduced him to the Bihari brothers and Sam Phillips and before Bobby was called into the Army in 1951, he had recorded for Modern and Chess. He stayed in the Army until 1955, but continued to record, this time for Duke, while on leave. His records sold fairly well in spite of the lack of personal appearances, but it was not until his discharge that his career got under way. His first hit was ‘It’s My Life Baby’ and this led to greater triumphs from 1957 onwards when he came to be a recognised force in R&B, both on record and stage. National hits became frequent and among them were ‘Farther Up The Road’, ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’, ‘Cry,Cry’, ‘Lead Me On’, ‘I Pity The Fool’, ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’, ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘That’s The Way Love Is’. Bobby Bland has, through the years, played the whole blues field from straight blues to soul and has managed to satisfy both the staunch R&B coterie as well as the fickle public at large. The best anthology of his earlier, bluesier work is featured on Duke LP 72, which he shares with Junior Parker under the title Blues Consolidated after the description of their once powerful and tremendously popular travelling show.

Junior Parker was born across the river from Memphis in West Memphis, Arkansas, on March 3, 1927. Christened Herman Parker, he took to blues early in life and during the late forties was playing with Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy influenced him greatly and also taught him how to play blues harmonica. Later, he started his own band, The Blue Flames, and became extremely popular in the Delta via broadcasts from West Memphis and Memphis. He recorded for Modern in early 1952 and then for Sun in 1953 His ‘Feelin’ Good’ was a smash hit for Sun and Junior was launched. While on tour, he met Don Robey in Houston and their subsequent talk led to a Duke contract. His early material for Robey was rather poor, often a rehash of his Sun successes, but from 1957 he was never far from the public’s eye. He made it again with ‘Next Time You See Me’ and followed with ‘Driving Wheel’, ‘In The Dark’ and ‘Annie Get Your Yo Yo’ plus some fine down-home blues sides among which the best were ‘Mother-In-Law Blues’, ‘That’s Alright’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Man Or Mouse’. Today, Junior has slipped a little in the standard of his recordings which are now heavily watered down for public consumption. He has stated that he prefers recording the blues to rock’n’roll and ‘pop’, but unfortunately he is very much at the mercies of the A&R men. Still, it must be remembered that the primary object of making records is to sell as many as possible regardless of any aesthetic or artistic values. Parker’s best can also be found on Duke LP 72.

Thus in the fifties and up to today, it has been Duke that has been the strong label and it is on this label too that most of the best down-home blues recordings can be found. Odd items by St Louis Jimmy, Earl Forrest, Little Sonny, Long Tall Lester, James Davis and Otis Rush are all worth obtaining as are a set of recordings made by Fention Robinson and Larry Davis.

In comparison, Peacock has been rather unsuccessful, following its excellent beginnings. Though the Spiritual catalogue grew and thrived, as material by the Gospelaires, The Spirit Of Memphis, Sensational Nightingales and The Mighty Clouds Of Joy was added to set an all time standard for Gospel music, the R&B catalogue began to peter out. Gatemouth Brown went out of fashion and was eventually dropped, as were Marie Adams and Willie Mae Thornton in spite of a once profitable collaboration between Robey and Johnny Otis that even got Little Richard a Peacock contract. Popular for short periods were Jimmy McCracklin and Big Walter, whose ‘Shirley Jean’ was pretty big for a time. Perhaps the biggest record for Peacock was ‘Gonzo’ by James Booker that hit in 1960. James had come from New Orleans, where he was once known as Little Booker. Probably it is because of this that other labels like Sure Shot and Song Bird have been added to the roster in an attempt to present a fresh image if not fresh music. Like Back Beat, Sure Shot is a ‘pop’ label while Song Bird is an extension of the fabulous Peacock Gospel one.

The Robey companies employ an average of 14 at the main offices. The white building is also used as a vault for tapes and masters and serves as a shipping department. There are currently over 100 artists and groups contracted to the labels, with 300 more in various groups. The nine U.S. representatives cover areas varying according to the size of local markets and population. Thus one man may cover over six States while another is fully occupied with just one. Evidence of the vast scale of the industry may be judged by the fact that Don Robey may, in one year, use the services of 500 different studio musicians. The picture grows greater still when the artists begin to make personal appearances, necessitating employment of more musicians, valets, drivers, road managers and the rest. These abstract figures are turned to fact when one considers that Bobby Bland has to employ a regular entourage of 20; Junior Parker only a little less at 15!

This then brings us up-to-date with the Duke/Peacock success story. Carefully run through the years, the combine is one of the most successful independents in the United States today. Mr Robey seems to have struck a happy medium between ‘pop’ and R&B material, though as a far more impartial observer, I would add that he appears to have more success in the R&B field. With Chess, Vee Jay and Excello, Duke is a major source of blues, even if the product lacks a little in comparison to these others.

From Blues Unlimited compendium, Nothing but the Blues, ed. Mike Leadbitter (Hanover Books, London, 1971). Edited version of article, first published Blues Unlimited 12, June 1964. The primary source was an article in the Forward Times of Houston, June 15, 1963 quoted with permission of Duke-Peacock record man Don Robey.

© John BrovenBlues Unlimited, 12 June 1964

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