In 1950, a nineteen-year-old college student with an interest in electronics met another student in his dorm who had a vast collection of folk records. Having not heard this kind of music before, Jac Holzman "fell in love with the simple directness of melodies and words." He attended a vocal recital of poems accompanied by a pianist and offered to record the musicians for his record label-a label that existed only in his mind. And so Elektra Records was born. This creative impulsiveness was to become a hallmark of Jac Holzman's remarkable career as a producer, label owner, technical innovator, and business executive. Trusting his instincts, he learned early on the importance of "following the music." There was no path for "training" to become a producer or label owner, so he had to figure it out as he went along. This book chronicles that journey. The first Elektra release sold only 100 copies. Jac left college and moved into a $5 a week walkup in Greenwich Village. An early member of the AES, he made a modest living setting up systems for a small clientele of hi-fi buffs and designed and sold one of the earliest ported bookshelf speakers. He took over a $100 a month lease on a West Village sheet-music store and transitioned it into The Record Loft, selling folk music and other unusual records that would later become known as world music. His little shop became a hangout for bohemian music buffs, hi-fi enthusiasts, and folk musicians, some of whom he would record for his upstart label. Even Charlie Parker stopped in one night to hang out.
Jac had electronics knowledge, great instincts, and a good ear. He found the tiny recording studios of the day clinical and uninspiring and recognized the value of matching the music to the right environment, so he recorded these folk musicians in their apartments and in churches late at night. With his newly purchased Magnecord tape machine and Electro-Voice mic, he carried his recording gear around on a Vespa scooter (the first one in NYC) and produced singers accompanied by guitar, banjo, harp, and dulcimer. Instead of using blank leader tape, he inserted the ambiance of the recording environment in the space between the tracks. His electronics tinkering paid off as he became skilled in the art of equalization, overcoming the technical difficulties of disc mastering and pressing. The business aspects of promotion, distribution, and accounting were learned by trial and error.
The label grew slowly and took a few years to become profitable, but Elektra earned the reputation of being a label where the music mattered first. Jac insisted on quality sound and his records were highly regarded for their excellent fidelity. He hired a talented art director named Bill Harvey, and Elektra releases also became known for their great cover art. The sixties saw innovation with the first compilation samplers and sound-effects records. Holzman was also one of the first to embrace Dolby noise reduction. An Elektra sales rep named Paul Rothchild became an important asset as a producer, helping to shape the Elektra sound along with talented young engineers Bruce Botnick and John Haeny.
By the mid-sixties, Holzman continued to "follow the music" as the folk scene began to fade, and newer, more adventurous types of music emerged. Elektra was right there with it signing groundbreaking artists like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Love, Tim Buckley, and The Doors. In true late-sixties spirit, the label bankrolled a commune/writers' workshop/studio in the northern California mountains called Paxton Lodge. There was a lot of partying but not much music making (this episode is one of the most entertaining segments of the book). Elektra became a place where artists wanted to be. Into the seventies, Elektra continued its adventurous signings with bands like The Stooges and Queen, as well as respected singer-songwriters like Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, and Jackson Browne (on the sister label Asylum).
Follow The Music is a fascinating, honest and entertaining account of a watershed period in modern musical history. Any music fan or recording enthusiast will enjoy being transported back to this special time. Jac is a good writer too, so you really feel like you know these people and are right there experiencing it. And his candor is quite honorable. This must-read book also comes with a fine CD of some early Elektra tracks (Susan Reed's "The Foggy Dew" gave me chills). Who knows if we would have ever heard some of this great music without Jac Holzman's vision and determination. Thanks for the music, Jac.
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.