The long-playing saga of Columbia Records


Bob Dylan (left) and clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman (center) listen to legendary record producer John Hammond, who is credited with discovering both, in Chicago in 1975. (Frank Driggs Collection/GETTY IMAGES)

With all the books and CDs that used to live on our shelves ascending into the cloud, we still need something to put on our coffee tables, right?

That’s one way to explain “360 Sound,” a large, lovely, photo-crammed book celebrating a storied American record label’s 125 years in a business that’s recently turned perilous. Commissioned by Columbia, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has undertaken the tricky task of sprinting across 13 decades of music, technology and commerce, sharing precious page space with 300 gorgeous archival photos of Columbia signees who helped shape the arc of American song.

It’s a story that starts with Thomas Edison and ends with Adele. Along the way, the oldest record label in the world became one of the most powerful, propelling the careers of Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey and Beyonce. With so much turf to cover, Wilentz does his best to resist textbook dryness. Instead, “360 Sound” ends up reading more like a moisturized Wikipedia page, recounting how Columbia adapted to changes in format — the radio, the jukebox, the LP, the CD — only to crash on the rocks of digital file-sharing.

It’s a trajectory that was impossible to imagine in the 1880s, when the Columbia Phonograph Co. opened for business in Washington at 627 E Street NW, taking its name from the District. In the 1890s, the company relocated to Manhattan, where it scored some of its first commercial successes with recorded marches by John Philip Sousa. One guy who wasn’t pleased about it: John Philip Sousa, who warned against “the menace of mechanical music,” predicting that performing musicians would lose income to these inanimate new recordings. Artists and labels have squabbled ever since.

In 1948, Columbia introduced the 12-inch, 33-rpm album, a sleek black platter that could hold up to 22 1 / 2 minutes of sound on each side. Responsible for some of the book’s many sidebars, music critic Dave Marsh parachutes in to point out that the format shift benefited Broadway before the Beatles. “These cast albums can be seen as the first ‘concept albums,’ 10 years before ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ 25 before ‘Thriller,’ ” he writes.


"360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story" by Sean Wilentz (Chronicle)

The book’s star power is in the photos. There is an image of Bob Dylan jamming with Johnny Cash, portraits of Beyonce looking Beyoncelicious, and snapshots of Miles Davis wolfing cigarettes in the iconic Columbia studios — photos so intimate that you might cough.

Also impressive are the vintage advertisements sprinkled throughout. In one, a bearded guy in a chambray shirt stares us down beneath a prophetic tag­line: “This man puts more thoughts, more ideas and images into one song than most people put into an album.” It’s an ad for Springsteen’s debut disc, “Greetings from Asbury Park.”

With the pictures doing a lot of the the talking for the talent, Wilentz’s text offers a slightly more thorough examination of Columbia’s executives, including Clive Davis before he founded his Arista Records empire and Tommy Mottola, who oversaw some of Columbia’s fattest days. The most interesting in the lot is John Hammond, a jazz and blues advocate who considered his support of black artists in the 1930s to be an act of “social protest.” (Decades later, he signed Dylan, who initially flopped and was nicknamed “Hammond’s Folly.”)

Wilentz renders these men efficiently, but he never really captures the identity of the label itself. He writes of its “mystique of tradition, sophistication and elevated taste,” but in the end, Columbia feels more like a business that tried to touch any corner of popular music that might generate dollars.

Between 2002 and 2003, the label took a historic dive, losing $132 million. Wilentz soberly closes things out with a prescription worthy of an annual report: “Fulfilling its commitments to musical excellence as well as financial success will require unprecedented acuity and innovation in the digital era.”

But on the adjacent page, there’s an antidote to the anticlimax — a handsome photograph of Springsteen as he explores the aisles of an empty arena in Somewhereville, U.S.A. What’s he looking for? Perhaps a spot on your coffee table.

Richards is a music critic for The Washington Post.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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