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Clip: NYT Review of The Label: The Story of Columbia Records

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  • Carl Z.
    Long Player By JOHN ROCKWELL Published: April 8, 2007 Writing a history of Columbia Records
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 9, 2007

      Long Player

      Published: April 8, 2007

      Writing a history of Columbia Records must have seemed a piquant idea,
      and "The Label," by Gary Marmorstein, indeed tells an epic tale, full
      of the requisite clashing egos in the executive suite and (figurative)
      blood on the boardroom floor, with some of the great music of our time
      as underscoring.

      All juicy corporate sagas offer such intrigue, maybe, but
      Marmorstein's subject is particularly promising. For a century, more
      or less, and certainly from after World War II into the 1980s,
      Columbia was an American household name. It played Avis to RCA
      Victor's Hertz for a long while, but later seemed to catch up. It and
      its affiliate labels, especially Epic, shaped, reflected and profited
      from American musical taste, with the most sophisticated classical
      (except for opera, which they slighted), jazz and Broadway offerings
      and a wide swath of rhythm and blues, country and, eventually, rock
      recordings. The Columbia Record Club spread the company's discs deep
      into the heartland. And, one might think, the story has a built-in
      ending, now that the purchase of recorded artifacts is giving way to
      Internet downloading.

      Like the welter of competing start-ups that accompanies any new
      technology, Columbia emerged out of overlapping companies with
      long-forgotten names early in the last century. The big breakthrough
      came in 1948, when its long-playing record transformed the industry.
      Columbia boasted some of the legendary executives in the business —
      above all the sophisticated, charismatic Goddard Lieberson, but also
      including John Hammond (who was sometimes given mythic credit for
      "discovering" everyone from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin to Bob
      Dylan to Bruce Springsteen) and the flamboyant vulgarians Clive Davis
      and Walter Yetnikoff, and ending with the avocational classical
      vocalist Norio Ohga, then the chairman of Sony, which had devoured

      Marmorstein refers to the great social and cultural shifts of the 20th
      century and to the poetic musings of Evan Eisenberg and others on
      phonography, the deeper philosophical study of recorded sound. But his
      real interest lies in chatty anecdotes about the executives,
      producers, artists-and-repertory men, art directors and publicists —
      and the musicians as seen through their eyes — who crisscrossed
      through this skein of corporate combining and recombining.

      A lot of work has gone into this book, and all of it shows.
      Marmorstein, the author of "Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and Its
      Makers, 1900 to 1975," has pored over the many books and interviews
      devoted to his key players. He has conducted his own interviews. He
      has combed through internal corporate memos (although "The Label" does
      not claim to be an authorized history). The result is a sometimes
      charming string of stories and thumbnail sketches, funny or outrageous
      or moving. Marmorstein knows and cares about a wide range of music,
      although he seems less comfortable with classical music and rock, and
      is curiously sympathetic to Mitch Miller's bullheaded resistance to
      rock 'n' roll.

      But the dizzying diversity of the tales he is trying to tell has
      defeated him. Trouble occurs at the outset, when a dogged cavalcade of
      obscure executives and companies with funny names tumble one upon the
      other. Marmorstein chats on about minor squabbles among program-note
      annotators but slights key figures like William Paley and Frank
      Stanton of CBS. "At this point," he writes ruefully, "a scorecard
      might help." Indeed.

      After the midcentury, Marmorstein's organization becomes chaotic. In
      trying to follow the fate of a particular executive, no matter how
      minor, he loses track of chronology and narrative logic. He repeats
      himself. He makes sloppy mistakes: Jon Landau did not call Springsteen
      "the future of rock 'n' roll" but, in one of the most famous of rock
      quotations, "rock 'n' roll future." John Raitt was a baritone, not a
      tenor. George Szell and Rudolf Serkin recorded the Brahms First Piano
      Concerto, not the Brahms First Symphony. "Amberson," the name of
      Leonard Bernstein's company, does not mean "amber stone" in German;
      "Bernstein" does. All books have errors, but this one has far too

      Marmorstein's style is full of slangy contractions, and while he can
      turn a vivid phrase, sometimes his constructions are downright weird,
      or both vivid and weird: "Waters, in the shank of her own Columbia
      evening, wrote. ..." Or: "Lieberson, whose emotional chambers were
      rarely left ajar. ..." Or: "The 'Roses Are Red' single sailed like a
      comet up through the charts, its tail hailing the long, lucrative
      union of Vinton and Epic." Or: "... hauling the stonework of American
      blues across the Atlantic to erect monuments of guitar-heavy electric

      Successful corporate histories tend to focus on one dominant
      personality, or a clash between two or three. Marmorstein has such a
      figure in Goddard Lieberson, who could use a comprehensive modern-day
      biography. Marmorstein respects him as the visionary he was but seems
      to hold him at arm's length, offended by what he (or some of his
      interviewees) sees as Lieberson's snobbery.

      The story of Columbia is that of so many corporations, and not just in
      entertainment. From technological wizards to hustling capitalist
      dreamers to artistic visionaries to egomaniacs to lawyer-driven
      bottom-liners, Columbia spiraled downward in cultural significance
      even as its profits swelled.

      And yet, and yet: there are great stories here, and a great story, and
      great music too, all dimly discernible through the breezy clutter of
      Marmorstein's prose. Maybe someday, someone will tell that story with
      the elegance and insight it deserves.

      John Rockwell, a former arts critic for The Times, is a freelance writer.
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