Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


FANTASY label group

A record label, long an independent, then a conglomerate with one of the most valuable vaults in the world. It was formed in 1949 in San Francisco by Max and Sol Weiss, who owned a pressing plant. Fantasy became famous with Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader and others, and took on the distribution of the Charles Mingus /Max Roach Debut label. Saul Zaentz joined the company as a salesman '55, formed a group of investors to take it over '67 and soon hit the jackpot with Creedence Clearwater Revival, the most successful four-piece rock band in the USA, with a great many hit singles that have never stopped selling.

The new owners used the profits to buy priceless stuff, starting with Prestige in the early '70s (formed '49 in New Jersey) from Bob Weinstock, and Riverside (formed in NYC '53 by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer) from ABC. Keepnews had worked as an editor for Simon and Schuster, began writing for Grauer's magazine The Record Changer, wrote one of the first articles about Thelonious Monk; later Riverside took on Monk when Prestige had dropped him, and made some of his best LPs. Grauer died '63 of a heart attack; Riverside was sold '64; Keepnews formed Milestone (with Dick Katz) late '60s and with his reputation for square dealing signed Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner and others; he came to Fantasy with Milestone and as Fantasy's VP/director of jazz A&R, then left to form the Landmark label, also distributed by Fantasy. (Keepnews also published a collection of his journalism as The View From Within '88.) Prestige/ Riverside had both recorded Monk extensively; Prestige had Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Ron Carter, much more; Riverside recorded Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, Mongo Santamaría etc; Sonny Rollins recorded for Prestige, Riverside, Milestone and Lester Koenig's Contemporary label. Contemporary also recorded Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Curtis Counce, Shelly Manne, Ornette Coleman, many more, and was acquired by Fantasy '84 along with Koenig's Good Time Jazz label (Kid Ory, Don Ewell, Lu Watters, Bob Scobey, Jesse Fuller, Luckey Roberts etc). Fantasy acquired Norman Granz's Pablo label early '87. The Galaxy label was formed for new LPs (Return Of The Griffin, Johnny Griffin's first LP on return to USA, with drummer Keith Copeland; also Tommy Flanagan, etc). The gospel and R&B label Specialty (Little Richard) was snapped up '91, roots labels Takoma and Kicking Mule '95 (including the likes of guitarist John Fahey). In 2004 Fantasy itself was sold to a consortium led by film and TV exec Norman Lear, who merged it with Concord (which see) to make an even larger vault of priceless American music.

Meanwhile Fantasy had long since started the first well-designed reissue programs in jazz, two-LP sets of Prestige, Riverside and Milestone dates included complete sessions for the first time; later OJC and OBC series (Original Jazz/Blues Classics), with the albums in their original formats, covers, notes and all. The rigid policy of reissuing original albums had its drawbacks: extra tracks and alternates were few, and e.g. the Hampton Hawes three-LP All Night Session '56 should have been put on two CDs, but one must not be churlish; for completists, there are now sumptuous boxes of complete Monk, Evans, Dolphy, Davis etc. The vaults also include blues and folk from Prestige, soul from Stax: the Staple Singers, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon etc; Creedence LPs were almost the only classic rock'n'roll continuously available in the original editions. By the end of the 20th century, with reissues from Mosaic, better and better sets from Bluebird (RCA/BMG), Blue Note (EMI), Verve and Keynote (Polygram) and Commodore (acquired by MCA), good reissues at last of classic MCA property (American Decca and Brunswick; reissue producers including Steven Lasker and Keepnews, executive producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen of GRP) and Bob Thiele's classic Signature sessions distributed by Sony, jazz fans had never had it so good. Fantasy blazed the trail.