The Music Goes Round
The record company that gave us the sound of a century.

By Reviewed Richard Harrington
Sunday, April 29, 2007

THE LABEL

The Story of Columbia Records

By Gary Marmorstein

Thunder's Mouth. 602 pp. $29.95

Now that they may all be history, we're accumulating notable record-label histories, including those of Atlantic, Chess, Elektra and the Warner Music Group. The latest addition, Gary Marmorstein's The Label, is about Columbia, the grandest label of them all, the oldest brand name in recorded sound, the first to promote recording as an entertainment medium.

Lineal ancestor of Sony BMG, the label dates back to 1889, its name derived from the District of, where the Columbia Phonograph Company initially sold and distributed Edison phonographs and cylinders. Columbia began its march to glory with such wax cylinder stars as Eddie Giguere, a yodeler and an officer in the Washington Police Patrol, and John Y. Atlee, a whistler who by day clerked at the Treasury Department. Monologist Len Spencer became America's first recording star; the U.S. Marine Band under John Philip Sousa was the country's most prolific and most celebrated band, even after Columbia moved its operations to New York in 1897.

On the far horizon: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson and hundreds more, constituting an essential, unmatched musical legacy.

Marmorstein chronicles Columbia's influence from wax cylinders to 78s to the LP (introduced by the label in 1948), from tapes and CDs to the emerging digital world. But he seems most interested in the inner machinations of corporate Columbia and its myriad subsidiaries. The Label becomes an exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of mergers, acquisitions, restructurings, staff shake-ups and shakeouts. It's fun to chart the poaching of talent, the clash of egos and the sometimes nefarious deal-making that made Columbia the industry giant, but Marmorstein seems to have started out to write a biography of Goddard Lieberson, the two-time president of Columbia (1956-71 and 1973-75), who, as the first true musician/executive, certainly deserves his prominence in The Label. Educated, erudite and adept as critic, composer and producer, Lieberson turned Columbia Masterworks into the premier American classical label and was responsible for Columbia's development and domination of original cast Broadway recordings. Lieberson was succeeded by Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff -- both lawyers, the one venal, the other vulgar -- and less interesting than their illustrious predecessor.

Marmorstein is at his best in an expansive telling of the stealth creation and marketing of the "33 1/3-rpm long-playing microgroove record." Under the stewardship of Hungarian-born engineer Peter Goldmark, Columbia developed the LP before there were machines to play it, for a public not especially clamoring for it, then saw it become the industry's gold-and-platinum standard for the next half-century. When CBS president Frank Stanton unveiled it at a corporate powwow with chief rival RCA, RCA'S president, David Sarnoff, turned to his stunned engineers and said, "You sonsabitches got caught with your pants down again!" RCA, a year late in manufacturing LPs, carried on the battle of brands by pioneering color television and the 45-rpm single.

The author, who seems most comfortable dealing with label history from the 1940s through the '60s, is strong at recounting Columbia's pioneering of album cover art, its technological advances and assorted trademark, copyright and patent wars. But for many, there will simply be too much about Masterworks and Broadway, as well as overly expansive coverage of pop centrists Ray Conniff, Andre Kostelanetz and Mitch Miller, who embodied Columbia's long-time antipathy to rock and roll, or the "three-chord pestilence."

Acclaimed producers such as John Hammond and George Avakian get their due, along with the artists they worked with. While there is a decent level of discussion of Columbia's remarkable jazz legacy, Marmorstein, like Miller, seems disdainful of or uninterested in rock, which Columbia was late to embrace before becoming a dominant force in the field. Marmorstein recounts some pop and rock history, from young Frank Sinatra in the '40s to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in the early '80s, but he shows little interest in the label's achievement in country or black music.

Columbia's fascinating early history shows that the hardships faced by today's music industry -- dramatically declining sales, format wars, accelerated technological obsolescence -- are nothing new. Even the dilemma of digital downloads, at once the industry's salvation and curse, recalls the doom-saying in the 1920s and '30s, when the record industry seemed convinced it would not withstand the rise of radio and its free music.

Even as the business models crumble, Columbia's legacy remains unassailable, whether it's found in the grooves or as digital bytes. But The Label lacks the passion of the late Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records photo-rich memoir, What'd I Say, and the insights of Nadine Cohodas's Chess history Spinning Blues Into Gold, much less the hilarious yet profound mix of business, social and musical threads that make Stan Cornyn's Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group the very best corporate music chronicle. The Label expands the field without particularly enriching it. *

Richard Harrington writes about popular music for The Washington Post.

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