Art Rupe, who died Friday at age 104, was one of a hardy band of independent record label owners who were responsible for the emergence of rock n’ roll in the 1950’s. Over a roughly three year period from 1955 to 1958 the architects of the musical genre were popping up at indie labels across the USA. There was Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sun Records in Memphis; Fats Domino at Imperial, Chuck Berry on Chess, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and James Brown on King-Federal to name but a few. With the exception of Sam Phillips, the other indie label owners were Jewish, with eastern Europe roots. Among these was Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records and the man who put Little Richard on the map along with Lloyd Price.
Rupe was born Arthur Goldberg. to a working-class Jewish family in a Pittsburgh suburb. His father was a factory worker who had immigrated from Galicia. As a boy, he listened to music sung at a local black Baptist church. He attended college at Virginia Tech, Miami University, and UCLA.
At the end of WWII Rupe started a small independent record company, He spent $200 on what were called “race records” at the time to systematically analyze them and determine the formula for records that would sell. In 1944 he started a new company, Specialty Records in Los Angeles. The label soon thrived with Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, and Jimmy Liggins, along with a very successful gospel catalog. The major producers for the label were Rupe, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, and J.W. Alexander. Johnny Vincent was a sales representative for the company.
Rupe signed the Soul Stirrers—a gospel group that featured a young Sam Cooke as lead singer. When Cooke wanted to try secular music, Rupe fired him and Cooke ended up at another LA indie label, Keen Records, where he recorded the hit “You Send Me.”
In 1952, Rupe first traveled to New Orleans because of his attraction to the gospel sound of Fats Domino, and it was on this trip that he auditioned and then recorded Lloyd Price (Lawdy Miss Claudy).
Rupe obtained his most successful artist when Little Richard, then a little-known recording artist, followed Lloyd Price’s suggestion and sent Rupe a demo record. Rupe sent Blackwell to New Orleans to do a recording session, and during a recording break Little Richard sang an obscene song while playing the piano. Blackwell sensed that it was a hit, but after the lyrics had been cleaned up, there was no time to teach the song to a piano player. So Little Richard both played and sang the only song to emerge from that first session, done in just three takes, “Tutti Frutti”, one of the most significant rock and roll records ever made.
During the 1960s and later, Rupe became increasingly involved in oil and gas investments. In the early 1960s, he stopped producing records but remained active in the music business as a publisher. He returned during the 1950s-revival period in the late 1960s, but only to reissue landmark recordings of the R&B era. Rupe sold Specialty to Fantasy Records (Creedence Clearwatedr) in 1991.
Rupe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2011, he (along with former Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman) was awarded the Ahmet Ertegun Award by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to the citation, Rupe “brought R&B and soul into the mainstream and launched Little Richard’s career. Rupe’s fastidious work ethic and uncanny musical intuition shaped the evolution of rock.”