In 1973, an obscure English press published a softcover book called Walking to New Orleans by a hitherto unknown young writer named John Broven. The book quickly became a must-read for those of us who were just beginning to appreciate rhythm-and-blues and the mysteries from whence (and how) it came. “Broven’s book” (as the widening pool of enthusiasts called it) followed the history of Fats, Fess, the Nevilles, K-Doe, Irma et alia through their recording dates and also followed how the songs fared on the charts. Five years later, Pelican Publishing Company reissued the title as Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans, and it has circulated ever since.
Broven, like many English blues aficionados galvanized by the 1950s American music he heard on radio, began collecting records. In ’58, as he writes in the introduction to the new book, Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers (University of Illinois Press), a fellow collector “approached me before the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level Mock examinations [at Bexhill Grammar School] to advise me that Fats Domino’s Imperial recordings were actually made at the Cosimo studios in New Orleans. Somehow the test papers dimmed into insignificance upon this startling revelation.”
Out of school, Broven became a banker while his record collection expanded in exponential ratio to his fascination “about the record makers’ ways of doing business.”
Broven made his first trip to New Orleans in 1970, interviewing Cosimo Matassa and many of the artists who filled out his early accounts of R&B. Since then he has made many trips here, and to other key sites on the map of popular music. He now lives in Long Island.
Makers and Breakers is a big train of a book that follows the rise of blues, R&B, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll through the lives behind the independent labels. Long though it is, the ride is rich for anyone curious about the business dynamics of popular culture.
Cosimo Matassa had the only recording studio in New Orleans for many years. In 1956 his studio was located at 525 Governor Nicholls St. Jerry Wexler, who molded the early blues-to-rock sound for Atlantic Records, recalls: “[Guitar] Slim blew all the tubes on Cosimo’s new board! So Cosimo never had any spare tubes, he didn’t believe in it. He had a little kid run down to the electric store to get one more tube, and we had to wait while he came back … The piano was all kicked in because Professor Longhair used to kick to keep time. But that was Cosimo’s studio, put together with spit and wire.”
The indie labels – like Sam Phillips’ in Memphis that launched Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and a flock of blues artists – relied on regional distributors to move the 45 rpm singles to record stores and the lucrative jukebox business. Today the record industry is tanking because the big labels can’t stop Internet downloading. In the early 1960s, the large labels began gobbling up the smaller indie labels and mom-and-pop distributors to consolidate distribution in New York City, Chicago and L.A. The early producers traveled the byways, doling out cash to deejays for spinning their discs, a form of bribery called “payola,” which caused Congressional investigations.
Shreveport’s “Stan the Record Man” (last name: Lewis) persuaded jukebox operators to eschew the five-and-dime stores and buy from him instead. “I was probably one of the first one-stops in the country which served all these operators in the Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana,” he tells Broven.
“The business changed constantly. I saw white teenagers coming into the shop to buy black records … At one time I was the biggest Delta Air freight user in Shreveport; I’d order, like, 50,000 of Little Stevie Wonder. We had records before anybody; we had great people working for us. We were on top of everything.”
He turned down a $5 million offer for his business in 1967, but, looking back ruefully he remarked, “I was only 40 years old and I thought the bubble would never burst. It was a big mistake.”
The music industry, like so much of the industrial print culture, is in a financial free-fall owing to the Wild West show that’s the Internet. Many musicians use the Internet to post tunes for the obese consumer culture to download and gorge upon, hoping to generate full CD sales stage-side.
This wheel will be reinvented; in the meantime, Broven’s book sweeps across the days of rock yore, filling in tales of a world that was.