THE HISTORY OF BRUNSWICK RECORDS
From pre-Motown Detroit to New York’s Brill building and Chicago’s Record Row, the story of Brunswick Records is the story of classic soul and R&B music. The label’s soulfully dynamic recordings seem to reflect the times and lives of the artists, producers and executives who created this timeless reservoir of hit music. The following is just a small portion of the remarkable and sometimes turbulent story behind one of the most important labels of the classic soul era.
In the spring of 1956, Nat Tarnopol left his job at Detroit’s Union Tire to pursue a career in the music business. The 25-year-old Tarnopol spent his evenings listening for talent at the Flame Show Bar, which was the Motor City’s main hot spot for black entertainment at that time. Tarnopol was soon taken under the wing of the much older Al Green who was affiliated with the bar and also managed Atlantic recording artist Lavern Baker.
At around this time, a 22-year-old Jackie Wilson had just broken his contract with Billy Ward & The Dominos in hopes of starting a solo career. After hearing Wilson sing the song “Danny Boy” in an audition, Tarnopol convinced a reluctant Green to sign Wilson to a management deal. After Tarnopol recorded a series of demos for Wilson with music written by unknown songwriters Billy Davis and Berry Gordy Jr, Green shopped Wilson to Atlantic Records, where Green had signed Lavern Baker.
While Atlantic contemplated signing Wilson, Decca Records’ A&R chief Bob Thiele offered a small recording contract to Wilson in an attempt to persuade Green into signing Lavern Baker to Decca at the end of her Atlantic commitment. The night before Wilson was scheduled to arrive at Decca’s Madison Avenue offices to sign his recording contract, Al Green suffered a massive heart attack and died in the lobby of New York’s Taft hotel. By the time Wilson walked into the Decca offices the next morning, Nat Tarnopol was his new official manager.
Wilson’s first single “Reet Petite”, which was recorded at New York’s Pythian Temple Studio, entered the Billboard pop chart in November of 1957. However, Decca decided to release the record on their lesser-known Brunswick label. The Brunswick trademark went all the way back to the twenties and had been passed around from Warner Brothers Records to Columbia Records and then to Decca in the 50’s. Decca placed Wilson on Brunswick so as not to blemish the pristine image of the Decca label with the association of an R&B artist. In the late fifties, R&B music was still referred to as “Race Records.”
Over the next three years, Tarnopol scored seven Top Ten singles with Wilson, which reinvigorated the Brunswick trademark and made Jackie Wilson one of the first black artists to cross over into popular music. Hits like “Lonely Teardrops,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” “I’ll Be Satisfied”, “To Be Loved” and “Doggin’ Around” made Wilson one of the biggest stars of his day and a regular on American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show and at New York’s Copacabana. Wilson’s biggest hit, “Lonely Teardrops,” was actually written as a blues ballad before it was completely rearranged the day it was recorded.
Despite the success Wilson was enjoying on the Brunswick label, Tarnopol feuded with Decca executives behind the scenes over the disparity in promotion and marketing resources allocated to Wilson and Decca’s white recording artists.
Tarnopol also argued that Wilson lost record sales on “Lonely Teardrops” due to Decca’s unwillingness to press and ship sufficient quantities of records to retailers prior to its radio release. To prevent it from happening again, Tarnopol had to personally guarantee Decca’s pressing costs for a quarter of a million records for the April 1959 release of “That’s Why (I Love You So)” which reached #2 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.
On September 30th, 1960, convinced that Tarnopol was halfway out the door to start his own record label with Wilson right behind him, Decca agreed to make Brunswick a sovereign record company owned in partnership by Decca and a production company owned by Tarnopol and Wilson. Decca also agreed to guarantee Wilson a quarter of a million dollars to resign for five more years which far exceeded the $35k signing guarantee RCA paid Elvis Presley five years prior.
With the new deal with Decca in place, Wilson and Tarnopol moved from Detroit to Manhattan. Shortly after the move Wilson replaced Tarnopol as his personal manager with a pair of well-connected New York managers after a disagreement over a real estate deal in the Caribbean. At this time Wilson’s current wife (Freda) was still living in Detroit while Wilson occupied a Manhattan penthouse with Ebony model and future wife Harlean Harris. This situation complicated matters when, on February 15th, 1960, Wilson was shot by a scorned third woman (Juanita Jones) who was waiting for Wilson in the lobby of his apartment building. In an effort to protect Wilson’s career and complicated personal life, Tarnopol persuaded NYPD detectives to report that Wilson was shot accidently while preventing a distraught fan from committing suicide.
When Wilson finally returned to the recording studio after recovering from losing a kidney and nearly his life, his new management began introducing a mixture of bluesy and operatic sounding productions to Wilson’s repertoire in order to transition him from the “chitlin’ circuit” into the more lucrative white venues. At this time the escalation of Wilson’s drinking and drug abuse began to have an effect on both his personal and professional life. With the exception of his number one 1963 single “Baby Workout”, Wilson’s ability to reach the top of the Billboard charts had seriously diminished.
In early 1966, Chicago record producer Carl Davis met with Tarnopol to sign recording artist Gene Chandler to Brunswick. Davis had recently been fired from his VP position at Columbia’s Okeh Records for moonlighting. According to Davis, he was eager to get Chandler a signing advance of $50k in order to receive a management cut of $10k (20%) which he needed fast to remove a mob contract put on the life of his partner, Irv Nahan. Nahan was in the crosshairs of a booking agent named Milt Shaw who believed that Nahan’s new booking agency (Queens Booking Agency), which Nahan owned with Davis, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, was going to steal The Drifters from the Shaw Booking Agency since Nahan already managed the Drifters.
After learning of Nahan’s predicament, Davis reached out to one of Wilson’s managers to intervene. During an intense “sit down” in a dimly lit back room of a Brooklyn NY tavern, a visibly terrified Nahan assured the parties involved that he would not interfere with Shaw’s deal with The Drifters. The hit men assigned to eliminate Nahan agreed to spare his life on the condition that Nahan and Davis make good on the $10k promised to them by Shaw to do the job. When Nahan and Davis could not come up with the cash, Wilson’s manager directed them to Brunswick as a potential source of funding. Both Davis and Nahan were very relieved when Tarnopol agreed to sign Chandler and pay the $50K advance.
The unusual circumstances that brought Tarnopol and Davis together would soon have much greater ramifications than the signing of Gene Chandler. Tarnopol saw the value in Davis’ production ability and soon contracted him to produce an album for Wilson, which resulted in the hit single “Whispers (Getting Louder).” With much bigger plans in mind, Tarnopol made Davis his Executive Vice President of A&R and set his sights on the vast pool of talent in Chicago.
1449 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago was the address of Vee Jay Records, which had recently gone out of business and whose assets were being auctioned off in February of 1967. Tarnopol and Davis purchased most of the assets and converted that same building into Brunswick’s new A&R office over a period of six weeks. The building was a simple two-story walk-up with a very basic recording studio on the first floor and offices on the second floor, just a couple of blocks up from Chess Records. One of the first recordings made in the studio were the music tracks for Jackie Wilson’s “Higher & Higher.” The tape was then flown to New York’s Bell Sound Studio where Wilson laid down his vocal performance.
Some of the musicians who came over to Brunswick were former Okeh Records musicians like guitarists Johnny Bishop, Byron Gregory, Phil Upchurch and Danny Leake. Brunswick’s two main keyboardists were Floyd Morris and Tennyson Stephens, who were both recording artists in their own right. The brass section, which helped personify the Brunswick sound, was comprised of John Avant and Morris Ellis on trombone, Maury Watson and Lionel Bordelon on trumpet and Willie Henderson, Cliff Davis and Steele Seals on saxes. On bass guitar was Bernard Reed, on the vibes was Bobby Christianson and, last but not least, on drums was Quintin Joseph, who played every session standing up.
The string section for Brunswick was usually contracted out to Sol Bobrov. Bobrov would be advised by one of the label’s arrangers how many strings they wanted and what the ratio of instruments would be – violins, violas, cellos, and string basses. Bobrov would then pick out the appropriate musicians to play the session. Bobrov and Elliot Golub were two of the regulars in the string section.
The majority of the writers at Brunswick came from the stable of artists who recorded on the label. Eugene Record wrote for his own group, The Chi-Lites. The Lost Generation and The Artistics both wrote their own songs as well as Barbara Acklin, who also co-wrote quite often with Eugene Record. Additionally, Brunswick’s producers – Carl Davis, Otis Leavill, Richard Parker, Willie Henderson and Leo Graham – contributed many songs for several artists, particularly Tyrone Davis.
Brunswick hired six of the best R&B arrangers in the city of Chicago, starting with Sonny Sanders, Tom Washington, Willie Henderson and James Mack. Sonny Sanders, like Tarnopol, was a native of Detroit and, after arranging several hits for Ric Tic Records, moved to Chicago. Brunswick’s main arranger, Tom Washington, was raised in the Ida B. Wells projects on Chicago’s South Side. Washington first played drums, then keyboards, and then became an arranger after receiving formal music training from James Mack at Crane Junior College.
Like Tom Washington, Willie Henderson studied with James Mack at Crane. In 1968 Henderson joined Brunswick as an arranger, but after he established himself as an ace producer, he left most of the arranging to Washington. Henderson’s very first arranging and producing effort, “Can I Change My Mind” by Tyrone Davis, sold over 1.5 million records and subsequently he was responsible for a large portion of the singer’s recordings. Henderson also made his own recordings during this period under the name Willie Henderson And The Soul Explosions. In 1970 this ensemble reached number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart with the recording “Funky Chicken.”
James Mack was brought to Brunswick by his former pupil, Henderson. Mack was classically trained, having earned a Master’s degree in composition and theory from Roosevelt University. His first teaching job was at Crane. Most of his arranging work at Brunswick was for Tyrone Davis, and when another of his former students, Leo Graham, became the singer’s producer almost exclusively sometime after 1973, Mack became the artist’s principal arranger. The roll of orchestra director was first held by Gerald Sims and later by Willie Henderson.
Behind the mixing board was future engineering legend, Bruce Swedien. It was Swedien who designed, built and continuously kept the Brunswick recording studio on the cutting edge of audio technology. Swedien even developed an audio sound process called “Ultra-Range” which was prominently advertised on the back of many Brunswick LP covers. Later in his career, Swedien worked alongside Quincy Jones on some of the biggest albums of the 80’s and 90’s. Swedien claims that the techniques he used to help create Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album came directly from his experience working with The Chi-Lites at Brunswick.
Right off the bat, Brunswick had a steady stream of national hits from artists such as The Artistics, The Young-Holt Unlimited, Gene Chandler, Barbara Acklin and Jackie Wilson. In addition to the Brunswick label, Davis started the Dakar label in 1967 as a way to keep the musicians working full time, and as an avenue to release additional artists such as Major Lance, Otis Clay, Alvin Cash and Otis Leavill. Dakar was distributed by Atlantic Records up until 1970. This sister label to Brunswick would become the launch pad for such innovative recording artists as Hamilton Bohannon and R&B Hall Of Famer Tyrone Davis.
One of the most important elements to Brunswick’s success was a former Chicago taxi driver who became a songwriter and producer by the name of Eugene Record. Best known as the lead singer of The Chi-Lites, Record had a hand in so much of the music that came out of the Brunswick studios. According to Record, he couldn’t wait to get to the Brunswick studios each morning so that he could just drink in the music that was being produced there. Outside of the building there was always a line of brand new Cadillacs and Rolls Royces parked along Michigan Ave. Record added that the atmosphere at Brunswick was always electrifying and like a family, with each artist helping out the other in whatever projects they were working on. Even while singing lead for The Chi-Lites, Record held the position Director of A&R at Brunswick.
Prior to getting her chance as a recording artist, Barbara Acklin started out as a receptionist and then, after co-writing “Whispers (Getting Louder),” finally got her start singing duets with Gene Chandler, who came over to Brunswick in 1967. By 1968, Acklin had her first solo hit single with “Love Makes A Woman.” If you listen carefully, you can hear The Chi-Lites singing Acklin’s background vocals in several of her recordings.
By 1970, Decca Records was a subsidiary of MCA as a result of MCA’s 1962 takeover of Decca Records and Universal Pictures. The one thing that had not changed was the abrasive relationship between Tarnopol and the Decca/MCA hierarchy. On May 19th, 1970, MCA head Lew Wasserman agreed to resign as president of Brunswick Records and to sell MCA’s 50% interest in Brunswick to Tarnopol under the condition that MCA maintain control of Brunswick’s pressing and distribution. Two years later in the summer of 1972, Tarnopol ordered an audit of MCA that uncovered a million dollars in unreported record sales owed to Tarnopol by MCA. To prevent the results of the audit from going public, Wasserman was forced to credit Tarnopol the million dollars and to finally release Brunswick from MCA’s pressing and distribution hold, making Brunswick and sister label Dakar completely independent for the first time.
According to Brunswick A&R executive and former New York Yankee bat boy Ray Daniels, working at Brunswick’s New York office in the 70s was surreal. Each morning started with a listening session of new music to determine which artists to sign and what records to release. The A&R sessions were usually followed by a promotion meeting to determine how much cash, TVs and stereos were needed to break each record. Daily visitors to Brunswick included recording artists, baseball players, actors, mobsters and even a young reverend from Brooklyn named Al Sharpton. It was also pretty common to walk into Tarnopol’s office and find him smoking a joint with anyone from Soupy Sales to Louis Armstrong.
While artists like Jackie Wilson, The Artistics, Gene Chandler and The Young-Holt Unlimited were losing their ability to sell records, a new group of Brunswick artists, led by The Chi-Lites, Tyrone Davis and Bohannon were now emerging as the new stars of the label. With a steady stream of hits and regular appearances on national television shows like Soul Train and Flip Wilson, Brunswick clearly had become one of the most influential R&B labels in America. Between 1970 and 1975, Brunswick and Dakar enjoyed their most productive period with 17 Top 10 R&B singles.
As Brunswick’s fortunes grew, so did the friction between Tarnopol and the management team that controlled its major artists and Carl Davis. To make matters worse, a year after its split with MCA, Brunswick had become the target of a payola investigation by the Nixon justice department and the IRS. MCA’s financial support and close relationship to the Nixon White House led Tarnopol to believe that the investigation was not a coincidence. In March of 1974 federal agents raided Brunswick’s NY office and in June of 1975 several Brunswick executives, along with Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records and Clive Davis of Bell Records, faced a variety of tax and payola charges.
While Brunswick’s focus and resources shifted from music to lawyers, it was also dealing with a series of internal crises. According to Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites, group member Creadel “Red” Jones suffered several psychotic episodes after becoming hooked on marijuana laced with Angel Dust (PCP). While in Washington DC, Jones walked stark naked into the crowded lobby of the Watergate hotel and proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ. On the evening of September 29th, 1975, Jackie Wilson suffered a massive heart attack and stroke while performing at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey with Dick Clark. As a result of the attack, Wilson remained incapacitated for more than eight years, until his death on January 21st, 1984.
The label’s legal troubles ended in December of 1977 when a U.S. appellate court found all Brunswick executives not guilty. However, when attorneys for Brunswick requested the return of its books and records confiscated in the 1974 raid, the justice department claimed that all of the boxes containing the books and records were somehow lost or destroyed. Swimming in massive debt from its legal fees, Brunswick teetered on bankruptcy and wound up selling its music publishing catalog to stay afloat.
Brunswick’s growing fracture between Tarnopol and the managers controlling Carl Davis and the label’s key artists ultimately resulted in the dismemberment of the label. As a result, Barbara Acklin signed with Capitol records, Tyrone Davis signed with Columbia Records, Eugene Record signed a solo deal with Warner Brothers Records, the remaining Chi-Lites went to Mercury and Carl Davis was given a million dollars to start the Chi-Sound label. Unfortunately, neither the artists nor Davis were able to recapture the success that they once had with Tarnopol at Brunswick.
Brunswick resurfaced during the late disco era with hit records by Vaughan Mason and Young & Company from 1979 to 1981. However, by 1982 the dismal condition of the record industry prior to the CD revolution forced many independent labels like Casablanca, De-Lite, and Prelude to either sell out to one of the major labels or to simply close their doors, as Brunswick did. Only two years later, the industry experienced a dramatic rebound on the shoulders of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album. When he accepted his Grammy award for Album Of The Year, Jackson paid tribute to his hero, Jackie Wilson, who had passed away a month earlier.
On December 24, 1987, Nat Tarnopol filed a federal lawsuit against the United States government for the willful and unlawful destruction of Brunswick’s books and records after a U.S. appellate court had cleared the label of any wrongdoing in 1977. Convinced that the government’s 1974 payola investigation into Brunswick was in retaliation for Brunswick’s 1972 audit of (and exit from) MCA, Tarnopol hoped to prove that elements within the Department of Justice were coerced by MCA. A day after filing the lawsuit, Tarnopol passed away from congestive heart failure at the age of 56.
However, the legacy of Brunswick Records continues to resonate. In addition to the music’s popularity in films, TV, commercials and various digital platforms, the classic bass lines, horn licks and drum beats are continuously being re-used today through sampling by artists such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, K Michelle, Common, Joss Stone and American Idol winner Fantasia, to name only a few. On the evening of November 4th, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park preceded by the campaign’s official theme song, “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson, which was produced just a few blocks away at the former Brunswick recording studio on Michigan Avenue 41 years earlier.
Billboard magazine has ranked three of Brunswick’s artists – Tyrone Davis, The Chi-Lites and Jackie Wilson – in their top 50 most charted R&B artists of all time. All together, Brunswick artists have reached the Billboard R&B singles chart an astonishing 150 times. However, the most enjoyable way to evaluate the music is to purchase or download a few albums and discover why Brunswick holds such a prominent place in music history.