Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The first major U.S. record label to be located on the West Coast, formed in April 1942 in Hollywood by record retailer Glenn Wallichs (whose Music City at Sunset and Vine was the first music superstore) and songwriters Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva (DeSylva had become a successful film producer and came up with the bankroll). Two weeks after they began to record the federal government cut record companies' supplies of shellac by 70 per cent because of WWII; they bought old records from dealers at six cents a pound to grind them up and recycle them, and signed a not-very-good young bandleader because his father owned a warehouse full of shellac. In August the musicians' union ban on recording began (see James Petrillo), but Decca and Capitol were the first to sign with the union after a year (RCA and Columbia held out another year).

Meanwhile, of Capitol's first six releases on 1 July 1942, the second was 'Cow Cow Boogie', by the Freddie Slack band with Ella Mae Morse, a surprise million-seller. Mercer was disenchanted when he realized that they would have to have a regular release schedule; the object was to have fun making music. Mercer soon hired music director Paul Weston, who in later years loved to talk about the early days. In the beginning the company had a tiny office above Wallichs's record shop; the others would be listening to test pressings and Wallichs would be on the phone saying, 'Would you guys turn that down? I'm trying to talk to a distributor in Pittsburgh.' Mercer would say, 'Aw, forget about that, come and listen to this!' Capitol's innovations kept it growing: first to give away records to disc jockeys, later first to record masters on tape and to issue records in all three speeds; they began recording Stan Kenton in 1943, had hits with Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Jo Stafford and Weston's orchestral records; Nat Cole, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher and others in black pop; recorded the famous Coleman Hawkins sessions '45, seminal Miles Davis 'Birth Of The Cool' recordings '47-9, Art Tatum '49. Superb recent compilations have been the limited edition Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions '97 on Mosaic, twelve CDs or 19 LPs, 252 tracks '42-53 by 34 artists from dixieland to the edge of bebop; and Capitol sets Kansas City Blues, Cocktail Combos and Jumpin' Like Mad: Cool Cats And Hip Chicks, the last two celebrating the West Coast R&B scene of the '40s-50s.

Capitol hired West Coast country disc jockey Cliffie Stone to shape the country list and had hits with Jimmy Wakeley, Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky, Hank Thompson, Sonny James, later Buck Owens, many more. Tex Williams's novelty 'Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette' was no. 1 for six weeks '47, the Wakeley/Margaret Whiting duet on Floyd Tillman's 'Slippin' Around' for three weeks '49. Capitol signed Frank Sinatra, who seemed to be washed up (no other label wanted him) and the classic period of that great career began in April '53, while the technical quality of the records set a standard for the industry. Capitol signed the big bands of Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington after the Big Band Era was supposed to be over and produced albums of remade vintage hits by Ellington, Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma band, Fred Waring etc in new recordings (e.g. B.G. in Hi-Fi '55), using the pool of excellent Swing Era veterans then in L.A. studio work. The label also had Dean Martin, Les Paul and Mary Ford, satirist Stan Freberg; arrangers/bandleaders Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter, Gordon Jenkins, producers Dave Dexter and Dave Cavanaugh on staff (May albums were the only big-band albums to chart in the '50s). Capitol continued active in jazz, recording Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett '55. A small but select classical output included violinist Nathan Milstein, the Pittsburgh SO with William Steinberg, and the Hollywood String Quartet: Felix Slatkin and Paul Shure (violins), Paul Robyn on viola, Slatkin's wife Eleanor Aller on cello; they all played in Hollywood studios and began making legendary quartet recordings '50 (reissued on Testament in the UK '90s).

The label was sold to EMI '55, a move that Mercer always regretted; and moved to the new Capitol Records Tower on Vine Street '56; there was success in the late '50s with Gene Vincent, the Beach Boys and the Kingston Trio, but Sinatra left to start his own label '62. Capitol had to be forced by EMI to issue records by UK acts including the Beatles, who then carried the label for a decade. Capitol invested in a rack-jobbing firm and a mail-order record club that never broke even; the label lost $8m '71. Capitol had the Band, Helen Reddy, Grand Funk, Pink Floyd (from EMI) and always a good country roster, but the once-innovative label had become a clumsy giant. Dave Dexter was kicked out on short notice after decades of service c.'73 (d 19 April 1990); Capitol was once the most honest as well as the most innovative label ('We ran the place like a Boy Scouts camp,' said Weston; nobody was going to bribe Mercer to record a song he didn't like), but when Morse's records were reissued in the '80s, the label said she owed them money. 

EMI's classical label in the USA was Angel, which initially imported British pressings, but when Capitol began manufacturing Angel records, knowledgable music lovers sought out the British editions (HMV, UK Columbia, German Electrola) because they sounded better: Capitol simply had poor judgement and were careless of details, as though they were treating all music like bubblegum pop. When Capitol released recordings on reel-to-reel tape, they issued then at 3 3/4 ips instead of 7.5 ips, which was not only poorer in high frequency response, but also made head alignment in playback decks twice as critical, while most consumer decks were substantially poorer in flutter at the slower speed. In 1985 Angel had issued a digital transfer of Jascha Horenstein's recording of Mahler's 4th symphony on vinyl and on cassette; when EMI in London asked for copy of the digital master in 1989, what Capitol sent them was a copy so bad it could not be released. EMI complained privately to this writer that when they asked Capitol for something they never got what they asked for: instead of a copy of a master tape it would be a tape with Capitol's post-production all over it. Nobody could figure out why the venerable parent company did not exercise more control over Capitol, which was evidently being run by a bunch of wise guys.

The Capitol Tower, which had become a Hollywood landmark, was sold to developers in 2006.