Eli Oberstein

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Eli Oberstein
Born Elias Oberstein
(1901-12-13)December 13, 1901
New York City, United States
Died June 12, 1960(1960-06-12) (aged 58)
Westport, Connecticut, US
Nationality American
Occupation Music executive, record label owner
Years active c.1925–1960
Known for Founder of Bluebird Records and other labels
Children Maurice Oberstein

Elliott Everett "Eli" Oberstein (13 December 1901 – 12 June 1960)[1] was an American record producer and music business executive who was responsible for establishing the influential Bluebird record label in the 1930s, and later owned a succession of small labels in the 1940s and 1950s

Life and career[edit]

He was born Elias Oberstein in New York City,[2] the son of Ella and Morris Oberstein, a police officer of Russian Jewish descent, and grew up in the Bronx.[3][4] By 1920 he was working as a clothing salesman,[4] before taking a job as a salesman under Ralph Peer at Okeh Records. In 1928, after Peer had joined the rival Victor Records, Oberstein joined him there as a salesman and accountant. By 1930 he had begun overseeing recording sessions, and that year also set up his own company, Crown Records, increasing his influence. After Peer left RCA Victor in 1932, Oberstein began recording country musicians around the Southern states.[5]

He is also credited with establishing the Bluebird record label in the early 1930s, as a 35-cent low priced subsidiary of Victor. The label became successful during the Depression era, and established the reputations of many country and blues musicians including The Delmore Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Big Bill Broonzy, and Roosevelt Sykes.[6] In 1936, he became head of popular Artist & Repertoire at RCA Victor.[6] He signed Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey to RCA Victor, also adding Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw to the roster at Bluebird. As a record producer, Oberstein pioneered the practice of making deals with songwriters, music publishers and others, which eventually developed into what became known as "payola". In 1939, he was abruptly fired with no explanation by RCA Victor.[5][6]

His Crown record company soon went bankrupt, and he set up new labels including Royale and Varsity, based in Scranton, Pennsylvania; however, none of the leading musicians he had produced followed him, and the labels again folded. Oberstein then set up the Imperial Record Company, with the Elite label subsidiary. He recorded Bunny Berigan's final sessions, and began acquiring smaller companies and exchanging masters with Savoy Records. He circumvented the 1942-43 "Petrillo Ban", which stopped recordings being made by union members in the US, by making and distributing recordings that he claimed had been made in Mexico. He also reissued many older recordings made for labels such as Crown, Gennett and Paramount; the legality of his business methods in acquiring and re-selling the recordings sometimes came into question.[7] With bandleader Johnny Messner, he set up the Top Hat record label which specialised in risqué double entendre "party" records. Oberstein also established the Hit record label, which found chart success with Louis Prima's "Angelina" in 1944.[5][6]

Oberstein was described as "a colorful wheeler-dealer".[5] In 1945 he sold his recording studio, pressing plant and master recordings to the Majestic radio company, and helped them set up the record label of the same name. He was briefly re-hired by RCA Victor before he was again fired, and then relaunched his Varsity label. In 1948 he bought back the rights to the Majestic label, which had been sold to Mercury Records, and, after a period with Columbia Records, he acquired the rights to the Allegro classical music label in the early 1950s. He set up the Royale label through which he sold acquired recordings at budget prices, and bought the Rondo label in the mid-1950s. He based the label in Union City, New Jersey, as part of his group of companies which he called "Record Corporation of America" in the apparent hope that clients and customers would confuse it with the much larger RCA (Radio Corporation of America) Victor company.[8] Later in the decade he sold many of his interests to the Pickwick International record company, while retaining his control of the Rondo label.[6]


His son, Maurice "Obie" Oberstein (1928–2001) sold the Rondo label shortly after his father's death. He then worked for Columbia Records, where he was responsible for setting up the CBS imprint for producing and distributing the company's recordings in the UK. He later became chairman of Polygram UK, and twice chairman of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).[6]