VANGUARD RECORDS CELEBRATES ITS 60TH ANNIVERSARY
In 1950 — when Harry Truman was in the White House, the U.S. was on the brink of the Korean War and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was conducting his witch-hunt of suspected Communists — Seymour Solomon and his younger brother Maynard started Vanguard Records. They launched the label with a $10,000 loan from their father and ran it from a tiny one-room office in Greenwich Village. Two years later, as the company was expanding, the Solomons snagged an additional $13,000 loan. This was the total capitalization for a company that within a few years would become one of America’s preeminent independent labels.
Vanguard was founded soon after the introduction of the LP, which perfectly suited the classical repertoire the brothers initially focused on, as well as the fidelity they sought. The label’s album jackets proudly bore the legend, “Vanguard Recordings for the Connoisseur,” and as the LP market blossomed, so, too, did Vanguard’s fortunes. Before long, the company was recording music of every kind, from the Jazz Showcase series produced by John Hammond Sr. to show music.
The fledgling label’s defining moment took place in 1955 with the release of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, a reunion album by the blacklisted group, which became a surprise hit, putting Vanguard on the folk music map while also heralding the end of the McCarthy era. Following that audacious and historic breakthrough, the Solomons proceeded to gather a roster comprising some of the most important voices of the burgeoning folk movement, from Paul Robeson, Cisco Houstin and Leron Bibb in the late ’50s to Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian and Sylvia, Odetta, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Doc Watson and Richard and Mimi Farina in the first half of the ’60s. During that same vital period, Vanguard moved into blues, signing and recording Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, John Hammond Jr., Charlie Musselwhite and the Siegel-Schwall Band, while moving into rock behind the politically charged psychedlia of Country Joe and the Fish.
While the Solomon Brothers were leaving their musical imprint on the East Coast, bandleader, businessman and TV show host Lawrence Welk was making history of his own from his base in L.A. In 1955, five years after the launch of Vanguard, Welk founded Teleklew, the company that would later become the Welk Music Group, to oversee his investments and his weekly TV show, which would run for 27 years. It was not until 1979, with the acquisition of Ranwood Records, that WMG began releasing records. Larry Welk, Lawrence’s son, was one of Ranwood’s founders, and the purchase of the label put father and son in business together. It wasn’t long before Larry Welk was running WMG, and it was he who initiated the acquisition of Vanguard, which was completed in 1986.
Nearly a quarter century after the acquisition, Vanguard is enjoying a vibrant second life as part of WMG, which has perpetuated the label’s original emphasis on signing and patiently nurturing exceptional artists. The parent company — which added North Carolina-based roots label Sugar Hill Records in 1998 — is now headed by Kevin Welk, Larry’s son and a 17-year company veteran, though he hasn’t yet turned 40. A passionate music fan and a forward-thinking executive, Kevin has reinvigorated Vanguard with the modern-day equivalent of the label’s original adventurous spirit. Under his leadership, Vanguard has assembled a diverse roster that encompasses legends like Levon Helm and Merle Haggard; modern-day trailblazers like the Indigo Girls and Chely Wright; cutting-edge singer/songwriters like Matt Nathanson and Mindy Smith; indie rockers like Greg Laswell and Blue Giant; and adventurous iconoclasts like Isobel Campbell, the Living Sisters and Jesca Hoop.
On April 17, in honor of Record Store Day, America’s annual celebration of indie music retail, Vanguard reissued five seminal titles on vinyl, complete with the original artwork: the self-titled debut albums from Joan Baez and Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt’s Today, Buddy Guy’s A Man and the Blues and John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess. At the other technological extreme is a digital collection that can be found at the iTunes Store. The 50 tracks selected span the label’s six decades of musical innovation, from vintage gems like the Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene,” Odetta’s “If I Had a Hammer” and Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” to modern-day classics like Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher,” Smith’s “Come to Jesus” and Shawn Mullins’ “Beautiful Wreck.”
“You must have a balance,” Kevin Welk says of Vanguard’s eclectic stable of contemporary acts. “If we did all developing artists, it wouldn’t work. If we did only established acts, we would have no future. What we’re able to do here is to get artists we know are going to sell a certain amount and really try to maximize those projects, knowing that we can bring a focus that wasn’t there with the major. So instead of working under the belief that everything’s declining in today’s music business, I look at it in exactly the opposite way.”
A roster of this size and quality requires a full staff, and Vanguard’s workforce is now north of 40. Of equal importance, Vanguard has a distribution deal with EMI Music, including an upstreaming trigger when a project calls for it, as in the case of Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope, which has continued to grow since its 2007 release.
The ability to take a release deep into six-digit territory is one of the elements that separates this company from the vast majority of indie labels, even as today’s Vanguard maintains the same underlying philosophy that made it great to begin with. “Here’s our common denominator with Maynard and Seymour Solomon,” Welk noted to interviewer John Morthland earlier this year. “They looked for opportunities and niches they felt they could focus on and be successful at, and so do we. Our basic principles remain intact today; those are artist development and controlling our own destiny.”
Welk embraces the challenge of maintaining the Vanguard legacy. “I love rolling the heavy rock up the hill — everybody in this company does,” he says now. “The common denominator with our heritage is that we’re fiercely independent, and we know how to sell records without having radio hits. But these days, more than ever before, the artist-label relationship works best as a partnership. Now, it’s more about, ‘How do we win together?’ Because if we win, the artist is going to win. The fact of the matter is we’ve been able to build a label that’s staying with the times and is profitable. That’s something very few labels today can claim, and it’s what I’m most proud of.”
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