Famous Record Labels: Capitol Records

Potentially the most iconic record label in the world and certainly one of the most famous record labels in the world, Capitol Records was founded in Los Angeles, in 1942 by Johnny Mercer as Liberty Records. Within weeks, the label’s name was changed to Capitol.

Capital Records Mural
HollywoodJazz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mercer was a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, songwriter, singer, and four-time Oscar winner in the Best Original Song category. At the time of Capitol’s founding, he was working also as a record company executive. He was joined in his endeavours by music industry businessmen Buddy DeSylva and Glenn E. Wallichs.

The Rise of Capitol Records: A Music Industry Pillar

Capitol Records has a pivotal role in the evolution of modern music. With its innovative approach to the industry, its unparalleled roster of iconic artists, and its early adoption of new technology such as Columbia Records microgroove system of 12-inch 33⅓ rpm LP records on the new material, vinyl.

Capitol assisted greatly in the British Invasion by releasing the Beatles’ records in the USA. Then their commitment to diverse genres, from jazz with artists like Nat King Cole to the groundbreaking rock of the Beach Boys, showcased its versatility and influence across musical landscapes.

The circular Capitol Tower, an architectural landmark, was and remains a symbol of the entertainment industry, whilst the acoustic innovations of Capitol Studios, located in that iconic building contributed to the creation of timeless recordings.

Capitol Records’ Iconic Artists and Releases

The new label’s first recording session, in April 1942, yielded Moon Dreams by Martha Tilton. Then in May, Bobby Sherwood and his orchestra recorded two tracks. This session was closely followed by a session by Freddie Slack and his orchestra, which included the track Cow Cow Boogie by Ella Mae Morse. This became Capitol’s second single release and the first to sell a million copies.

Capitol’s first album was Capitol Presents… Songs by Johnny Mercer by various artists. This was presented as a 4-disc set of shellac 78 rpms.

During the 1940s, the fledgling label released a range of musical genres. A range of classical recordings, including Symphony No. 3 by Russian composer Reinhold Moritzovich Glière, and César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, were released. Initially, these were on 78rpm, but almost as soon as Columbia’s new microgroove 33⅓rpm LP was released, they were re-released in that format.

During the forties, Capitol built up its jazz catalogue, with artists like Nat King Cole, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Les Paul and the Capitol Jazzmen recording and releasing material on the label. Miles Davis’s jazz classic Birth of the Cool, which although released in 1957 was recorded in late 1949 and early 1950.

Also in the forties, Capitol released material for children, with work by artists as diverse as Mel Blanc, who reprised his voice roles as Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters. Don Wilson narrated Disney stories and material was recorded that was specially written for Capitol, for example, Sparky’s Magic Piano.

Capitol was the first West Coast label to compete with the East Coast labels of RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca (US). In 1955, British record label EMI bought Capitol for a sum in the region of $9M.

Almost at a stroke, the US record industry was rearranged as EMI’s mutual distribution arrangement with RCA Victor ended at around the same time. Also at this time, Decca (US) broke its agreement with independent Cuban label Panart, which was then free to agree on a mutual distribution deal with EMI/Capitol.

Capitol Records Finds its Feet: 1950s

As the 1940s merged into the 1950s, Capitol began to record Rock ‘n Roll acts such as Gene Vincent and the Jodimars – including former members of Bill Haley’s Comets. Signed to Capitol in the decade were the Andrews Sisters, who had previously recorded for Decca. Judy Garland too signed for Capitol having been with Decca.

Jackie Gleason had a second career as a musician, producing many albums for Capitol. His style was said to be mood music fused with jazz. Although unable to read music, he was a consummate musician. Dean Martin’s early work was for Capitol before he signed to Sinatra’s Reprise Records label. Sinatra himself released many albums on Capitol in the 1950s and 60s between being a Columbia artist and launching Reprise. In all, he released sixteen albums on Capitol, with perhaps his most famous album being 1958’s Come Fly with Me.

The Capitol Records Building, Hollywood and Vine
Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 1991. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1956, in Hollywood, California, Capitol completed the construction of its iconic HQ, the circular Capital Records Building. Within the building is the world-famous Capitol Studios. The first artist to record there was Frank Sinatra for his album Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!

Capitol’s Halcyon Days: 1960s

From 1962’s Surfin’ Safari to 1969’s 20/20, the Beach Boys recorded and released a total of 14 studio albums on the Capitol label. Surprisingly, none of them reached the top spot on the Billboard Top 200 LPs chart although Surfin’ U.S.A. and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) both reached number 2. By 1966 the band had become disillusioned with Capitol’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the band’s more ambitious projects so formed their own label, Brother Records. Contractual obligations meant that their first Brother release in 1967, was followed by three more Capitol releases.

Bobby Darin enjoyed a brief interlude from Atlantic Records, as he signed to Capitol in 1962, but left again in 1964. Country star Glen Campbell signed to Capitol in 1962 and his first five albums did not chart before 1967’s Gentle on My Mind, which reached number 5 on the Billboard Top 200 LPs chart.

Campbell released an album with Bobbie Gentry in 1968 which although making number 11 on the Top 200 LPs chart, was not such a hit as Gentry’s Capitol debut from 1967, Ode to Billie Joe. She went on to release a total of seven studio albums before abruptly quitting recording after 1971’s Patchwork.

Bobbie Gentry promotional copy for Ode to Billie Joe
Capitol Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1968, Capitol signed Bob Seger who went on to release many albums and singles with various iterations of his band. The Steve Miller Band released their first album, Children of the Future, in June 1968. Of course, as EMI’s American arm, Capitol released The Beatles in the US and Canada, though somewhat controversially the releases did not match the British ones on the Parlophone label.

A period of consolidation: 1970s

Moving into the seventies, and Carole King released some albums on Capitol, including 1977’s Simple Things. Paul McCartney and Wings released four albums on Capitol – either worldwide or in conjunction with EMI, according to territory. Linda Ronstadt had released two albums for Capitol in the late 1960s and released three more including her most famous work, Heart Like a Wheel in 1974.

CDs Begin to Edge out Vinyl: 1980s and Beyond

After leaving RCA in 1980, David Bowie released a couple of albums under the banner of EMI America which was an imprint of Capitol, although never directly for Capitol. In 1988, Bonnie Rait released her tenth studio album, Nick of Time, after signing for Capitol.

By the end of the 1980s, when CDs had asserted their ascendancy over vinyl, for recorded music, Capitol had added many more artists to their roster. After their first album Licensed to Ill had been released on Def Jam/Columbia in 1986, Beastie Boys then switched to Capitol, releasing Paul’s Boutique in 1989 followed by six more albums.

Duran Duran, an EMI band were released in North America, on the Capitol imprint, Harvest. So too, were Iron Maiden. In the case of another EMI band, Queen, EMI was partnered with Elektra in North America until 1983 when they signed a deal with Capitol there. Tina Turner had several record labels, including Capitol. 1984’s Private Dancer followed by Break Every Rule and Foreign Affair were all released on Capitol.

Capitol Studios and the Art of Music Production

Capitol Studios is renowned for its significant contributions to the sonic landscape of countless iconic recordings. Located in the basement of the Capitol Records Tower, the studio has been a creative haven for musicians since its inception. With its legendary echo chambers, which extend under the building’s parking lot, and innovative acoustic design, Capitol Studios was the birthplace of some of the most memorable albums in the history of music. Offering, many argue, an unparalleled warmth and depth of sound.

Capitol Studios was dedicated to the implementation of technological advances from the get-go. Pioneering the use of stereo recordings and magnetic tape fully bears out the ethos of its designers to achieve the highest standards of audio excellence. Over the decades, musicians and producers have been drawn to Capitol Studios for its unique sonic character and the creative spirit that permeates its halls.

Frank Sinatra at Capitol Studios (1955)
English: Photographer uncredited and unknown. There is a Globe Photos sticker on the back of the copy seen at Photo-Memory.eu., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Much like EMI’s Abbey Road Studio, it is more than just a physical space for recording, but a testament to the artistry and craft of music production, influencing the industry’s sound and leaving an indelible mark on both the art and the science of creating music for the masses.

Legacy: What claim does Capitol Records have on our imagination?

As we have seen, Capitol Records, as one of the major record labels in the music industry, has a rich history. If they had done nothing more than record the odd Frank Sinatra record or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, it could claim to be emblematic.

Something that has been being built since 1942, Capitol Records’ legacy lies in its pioneering spirit, dedication to technological advancements, and its role in fostering the careers of legendary musicians, collectively influencing the trajectory of modern music.

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