Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoree Art Rupe as founder of Specialty Records was one of the pioneering promoters of early Rock and Rock, Soul, and Gospel. His label launched the careers of many early stars in the late 1940s to the 1950s. His roster included Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Johnnie Taylor, Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams and more. One of Specialty Records early releases, “Cadillac Boogie”, was a direct forerunner of “Rocket 88”, that is cited as the first rock and roll record. Along with Sun Records, Art Rupe's Specialty records played a key role in the history of rock and roll.
Beginnings in McKeesport
Arthur N. 'Art' Rupe, was born Arthur Goldberg in Greensburg, Pa. on September 5, 1917. His father David, a furniture salesman and bass player interested his son in music. Art grew up in the booming Mon Valley steel town of McKeesport, Pa. in an ethnically mixed neighborhood. There he fell in love with gospel music hearing it at an African American Baptist church. After graduating from McKeesport High School in 1935 he attended Virginia Tech and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He enrolled in a business program at UCLA in Los Angeles in July of 1939. In California he changed his last name from Goldberg to his ancestral name of Rupe. During World War II Rupe worked for a Los Angeles shipbuilding company.
Near the end of World War II in 1944 Rupe invested in the record business becoming a partner at Bob Sherman's Atlas Records. Through the label had Frankie Lane, and Nat King Cole on it's roster it went out of business. Rupe lost all of his investment money. The small label could not compete against the large labels in the popular music market.
Search for a New Market
Rather than competing against the major labels, Rupe decide to focus on an under-served market segment. Limited by a war time shortage of shellac used to make records, the major labels like RCA, Columbia, and Decca had abandoned ethnic and specialty music. They did not record those artists and did not distribute records in much of the South. In an interview Art said "I looked for an area neglected by the majors and in essence took the crumbs off the table of the record industry."
Having selected of a niche music market, Rupe conducted market research to understand the market for race records. He spent $200 to buy jazz, blues, and gospel records made by and for African Americans. Analyzing the songs he devised a formula for creating a hit song. Rupe’s formula was to find a big band sound with a "churchy" feel. He also noticed that many of the best songs had the term "Boggie" in their titles and were uptempo. His next step was to find artists who could record those "churchy" boogie tunes. In search of talent he went to many after-hours clubs in Los Angeles’s Watts district.
Juke Box Records
With $600, a target market, a formula for hit records, and a new set of partners Rupe launched the Juke Box Label in 1944. The first Juke Box release Boogie #1” by the Sepia Tones sold 70,000 copies. Juke Box had a another hit from Roy Milton with his song “R.M. Blues”. Rupe had discovered Milton playing at a club in Watts. Juke Box also had hits with Marion Abernathy's "The Blues Woman," Roosevelt Sykes's "The Blues Man," and "Voo-it! Voo-it!" by the Blues Woman. Unhappy with his Jukebox business partners Rupe sold his share of Juebox Records, but kept several of the masters of the Sepia Tones, the Blues Man, the Blues Woman, Buddy Banks and Roy Milton.
Rupe founded his own label Specialty Records in August of 1946. His choose the label name for his target market the "specialty" African American Adult R&B and Gospel markets. Coming over from Juke Box singer Roy Milton scored 19 top 10 hits for Speciality. Specialty Records had its first number one hits in 1950 with Joe Liggins’ “Pink Champagne” and Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” After Fat Domino became a star for another label, Rupe went in search of artists in New Orleans opening a branch office headed by Bumps Blackwell. There he found Lloyd Price who had a no. 1 R&B hit for Specialty in 1952 with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy". It sold a million records in 6 months. He also found Guitar Slimin New Orleans.
Rupe was a hands-on manager involved in A&R, record production, pressing plant construction and operation, distribution, and sales. As an A&R man he looked for songs that expressed strong emotion. For his A&R team he recruited Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Harold Battiste, Barrett Hansen (who later became "Dr. Demento") and a young Sonny Bonny. He studied thermodynamics to understand the design and operation of record pressing plants. Rupe created a network of regional distributors to get his records in stores and jukeboxes. Specialty Records was a vertically integrated company encompassed recording studios, publishing, a pressing plant, the Herald Attractions Booking agency, a New Orleans office, and its distribution network.
Rupe followed the standard record industry practice of paying little or no royalties to artists. He paid out only one half cent per record after deducting recording and promotion costs. An artist who sold one million records might net $3,000, while Specialty made a quarter to a half a million in profits.
Rupe added Gospel music to his product line in 1948 when he recorded the Pilgrim Travelers. He subsequently released music by the Swan Silvertones, Alex Branford, Brother Joe May, Sister Wynona Carr, the original Gospel Harmonettes, the Chosen Gospel Singers and the Soul Stirrers. Rupe's booking agency Herald attractions booked appearances for the label's Gospel Acts
When the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, R.H. Harris, left the group R.H. a 20 year old singer named Sam Cook was brought in. With Cook singing lead the Stirrers scored a gospel hit with “Jesus Gave Me Water”. After six years and many more gospel hits Cooke wanted to record secular music. In 1956 Rupe let Cook record the secular song “Lovable” under the name of Dale Cook and it sold 25,000 copies. But the Soul Stirrer’s gospel fans were angered by the secular song and booed the group at performances. The Soul Stirrers replaced Cooke with singer Johnny Taylor. When Cooke wanted to release the secular song “You Send Me” Rupe refused. Rupe gave Cooke’s contract to his A&R man, Bumps Blackwell in lieu of money that he was owned. Blackwell negotiated a new deal for Cooke at Keen Records. “You Send Me” released by Keen Records, went to number one on both the Pop and R&B Charts and sold 2 million records. In an interview for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Rupe admits that he blew it with his Sam Cook decision.
An unknown dishwasher named Richard Penniman from Macon, Georgia was advised by Lloyd Price to send Rupe a demo tape of two blues songs that he had recorded at radio station WMBL-AM. Richard kept calling and hounding Art and Bumps Blackwell asking then to listen to the tape. Bumps and Art relented and liked Richard's voice. Little Richard and producer Blackwell met in New Orleans to record. What they recorded was the 1955 smash hit "Tuttie Fruity" that launched the career of Little Richard. The single climbed to number 2 on Billboard’s R&B charts and a number 17 on the Pop charts. It is ranked at #43 on the Rolling list of the Greatest 500 Songs of All Time. All of Little Richard's 1950's Rock 'n' Roll hits were released by Rupe's label. Between 1956 and 1959 Little Richard had 16 top 100 hits including four top 10 songs. Richard's string of hits stopped in 1957 when suddenly quit the music business to enroll in Bible College.
For the Record
In total Specialty Record released almost 450 rhythm & blues and rock & roll singles in addition to its gospel releases. Specialty Records big hits with Guitar Slim's 'The Things That I Used to Do,' Percy Mayfield's 'Please Send Me Someone to Love,' Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy.'
Speciality Records had its last Top Ten hit in 1958 with Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The label slowed down after 1960 releasing a set of singles in 1964 including Little Richard's comeback single "Bama Lama Bama Loo". Art Rupe stopped promoting new records after that point. But he continued to make money with the Speciality catalog with covers of his artists tune by the Beatles and other artists.
After his withdrawal from active participation in the record business Rupe invested his time and money in the oil and gas business where he made his fortune. Art Rupe sold the the Specialty Records catalog to Fantasy Records in 1990. A five-disc box set, "The Specialty Story, a compilation of Specialty Records releases was issued in 1994.
Hall of Fame Honors
Art's contributions were recognized with his inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007.
Art Rupe was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, He received the Ahmet Ertegun Award, which is given to influential record company executives whose work has had a major impact on music. His Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page highlights his importance in rock history:
"Art Rupe is part of a select fraternity of music-biz trailblazers that includes Sam Phillips, Leonard and Phil Chess, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Syd Nathan. As founder of Specialty Records, one of the premier independent labels of the rock and roll era, Art Rupe signed and recorded numerous legends in the areas of rhythm & blues, rock & roll and gospel music Specialty helped bring a niche market (rhythm & blues) into the mainstream and also helped ignite the rock and roll revolution by launching the career of Little Richard."
Art Rupe Foundation
Rupe became a philanthropist when he established theArthur N. Rupe Foundation to endow academic programs, scholarships, and various community institutions. He came to the aid of his hometown McKessport that was devastated economically by the loss of the steel industry in the 1980's. Remembering his home town he established the ArthurN. Rupe Foundation Scholarships in 2001. Scholarship awards of $2,000 to $2,500 are given annually to three graduating McKeesport High School seniors to further their education. His foundation has also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to educational and community organizations in the McKeesport area, including the Consortium for Public Education.