Just learned of another legend gone: Specialty Records’ Art Rupe, who passed away April 15 at the age of 104. It’s really hard to put into words the impact this guy had on our lives. He started one of the great American record labels, Specialty Records, in 1946. Did he rip off artists back in the day? Mmm, probably, but he was also known as the one white guy who would actually pay African American artists royalties (as opposed to the many labels who never paid a dime). And what records his label gave us! Little Richard, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Don and Dewey, Guitar Slim, Larry Williams, Willie Joe Duncan and his Unitar, Lloyd Price, Wynonna Carr—the list of fantastic records he released is almost endless. During World War II, before he started Specialty, he ran a couple of small independent labels in Los Angeles, including Atlas, a label that released early recordings by Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine, and Merle Travis before they were big-name stars.
A few years ago, I was doing research on Willie Joe Duncan and his Unitar (for an article that will be published soon), and I sent an email to someone I thought was Art Rupe’s assistant, wondering If they had any information or memories of Willie Joe. Imagine my shock when I got an email from 100-year old Art Rupe, personally responding to my query! Incredible.
Sadly, Art’s obit will disappear quickly. People don’t know his name like other famous music business executives. But there isn’t a day that goes by I don’t listen to a record that Art Rupe was directly responsible for, some of the greatest music in American music history. RIP, Mr. Rupe, and I hope that Little Richard won’t worry about all those royalties he says he never got, up there in the heavens.