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|Parent company||Sony Music Entertainment|
Legacy Recordings (reissues)
Rhythm & blues (1953–1970)
New-age blues (1994–2000)
|Country of origin||U.S.|
Okeh Records was founded by the Otto Heinemann Phonograph Corporation, a phonograph supplier established in 1916, which branched out into phonograph records in 1918. Since 1926, it has been a subsidiary of Columbia Records, now itself a subsidiary of Sony Corporation. Today, Okeh is an imprint of Sony Masterworks, a specialty label of Columbia.
Okeh (pronounced 'okay') was founded by Otto K. E. Heinemann (1877–1965), a German-American manager for the U.S. branch of German-owned Odeon Records. Heinemann incorporated the Otto Heinemann Phonograph Corporation in 1916, set up his own recording studio and gramophone record pressing plant in New York and introduced the company's line of records for public sale in September 1918. Heinemann formed the name of the record label from his initials; on early disc labels, the name is spelled OkeH. The first discs were vertical cut. In 1919, Okeh switched to the lateral-cut method of sound recording, more commony used for disc records. In that year the label's parent company was renamed the General Phonograph Corporation, and the name on its record labels was changed to OKeh. The common 10-inch discs retailed for 75 cents each, the 12-inch discs for $1.25. The company's musical director was Fred Hager, who was also credited under the pseudonym Milo Rega (his middle name and his surname reversed).
Okeh at first issued popular songs, dance numbers, and vaudeville skits similar to the fare of other labels, but Heineman also wanted to provide music for audiences neglected by the larger record companies. Okeh produced lines of recordings in German, Czech, Polish, Swedish, and Yiddish for immigrant communities in the United States. Some were pressed from masters leased from European labels, others were recorded by Okeh in New York.
In 1920, Ralph Peer's recordings of the African-American blues singer Mamie Smith were a surprise smash hit for Okeh. The company perceived the significant, little-tapped market for blues and jazz by African-American artists. In 1922, Okeh hired Clarence Williams as director of "race" (African-American) recordings for Okeh's New York studios, in addition to making recordings under his own name. Okeh then opened a recording studio in Chicago, the center of jazz in the 1920s, where Richard M. Jones served as "race" recordings director. Many classic jazz performances by such prominent artists as King Oliver, Lucille Bogan, Sidney Bechet, Hattie McDaniel, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were recorded by Okeh. As part of the Carl Lindstrom Company, Okeh recordings were distributed by other Lindstrom labels, including Parlophone in the United Kingdom.
Judged by the quantity of records recorded, Okeh's big stars were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lonnie Johnson, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Victoria Spivey, Clarence Williams, Miff Mole, Sophie Tucker, and Seger Ellis. King Oliver and Bennie Moten recorded for Okeh before moving on to other labels. The 8000 "race" series is highly prized by collectors, partly because Okeh recorded many blues and jazz artists who made only a few records. (The same can be said for Okeh's 45000 country/hillbilly series.)
The original Mamie Smith recording was in 1920, of "Crazy Blues." General Phonograph Corp, Okeh's manufacturer, used Smith’s success as the press to cultivate the new market. Portraits of Smith, and lists of her records were printed in advertisements in newspapers including the Chicago Defender, the Atlanta Independent, New York Colored News, and others popular with the African-American community (even though Smith's records were part of Okeh's regular 4000 series). Okeh had further prominence in the demographic, as African-American artists such as Sara Martin, Eva Taylor, Shelton Brooks, Esther Bigeou, and Handy’s Orchestra recorded exclusively for the label. Okeh started a special 8000 series devoted exclusively to "race" artists. The success of this series led Okeh to start recording where the music was being performed, known as “remote” or “location” recording.
The 8000 series, which began in 1921, lasted until late 1934, the final number being 8966.
Okeh Records pioneered the practice of "location recording" in 1922. Starting in 1924, Okeh sent mobile recording trucks to tour the country and record performers not heard in New York or Chicago. Regular trips were made once or twice a year to New Orleans, Atlanta, San Antonio, St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit, where a wealth of recordings of jazz and early country music artists were made.
In 1926, Okeh switched to the electric microphone system of audio recording. On November 11 of that year, controlling interest in Okeh was purchased by Columbia Records. Beside the legendary Okeh Race 8000 Series (which featured some of the great blues and black jazz of the era), Okeh recorded a series of legendary "chamber" hot jazz sessions with Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Frank Trumbauer's studio groups featuring Bix Beiderbecke, and Miff Mole's studio groups, among others. These are considered among the best of the 1920s hot small-group white jazz sessions.
Okeh releases grew infrequent after 1932, although the label continued into 1935. In 1940, after Columbia lost the rights to the Vocalion name by dropping the Brunswick label, the Okeh name was revived to replace it. The script logo design still in use today was introduced on a demonstration record announcing that event. The label was again discontinued in 1946 and revived yet again in 1951. In 1953, Okeh's pop music acts were transferred to the newly formed Epic Records making Okeh an exclusive rhythm and blues label. In 1963, Carl Davis became Okeh's A&R manager and boosted Okeh's fortunes for a couple of years. Epic Records took over management of Okeh in 1965. Among the artists during Okeh's "pop" phase of the 50s and 60s were Johnnie Ray and Little Joe & the Thrillers.
With soul music coming to the forefront in the 60s, Okeh signed Major Lance, who gave the label two big successes with "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um". Fifties rocker Larry Williams found a musical home for a period of time in the 60s, recording and producing funky soul with a band that included Johnny "Guitar" Watson. He was paired with Little Richard, who had been persuaded to return to secular music. He produced two Little Richard albums for Okeh Records in 1966 and 1967, which returned Little Richard to the Billboard album chart for the first time in ten years and produced the hit single "Poor Dog". He also acted as the music director for Little Richard's live performances at the Okeh Club in Los Angeles. Bookings for Little Richard during this period skyrocketed. Williams also recorded and released material of his own and with Watson, with some moderate chart success. This period may have garnered few hits but produced some of Williams's best and most original work.
Much of the success of Okeh in the 1960s was dependent on producer Carl Davis and songwriter Curtis Mayfield. After they left the label (due to disputes with Epic/Okeh head Len Levy), Okeh gradually slipped in sales, and was quietly retired by Columbia in 1970. (Davis moved on to Brunswick Records and made it a leading soul music label.)
In 1994, Sony Music reactivated the Okeh label (under distribution by Epic Records) as a new-age blues label. Okeh's first new signings included G. Love & Special Sauce, Keb' Mo, Popa Chubby, and Little Axe. Throughout the first year, in celebration of the relaunch, singles for G. Love, Popa Chubby and Keb' Mo were released on 10-inch vinyl. By 2000, the Okeh label was again retired, and G. Love & Special Sauce was moved to Epic.
As a jazz label
In January 2013, Sony Music reactivated the Okeh label as Sony's primary jazz imprint under Sony Masterworks. The imprint is part of Sony Masterworks in the U.S., Sony Classical's domestic branch, focusing on both new and established artists who embody "global expressions in jazz". The new artists include David Sanborn, Bob James, Bill Frisell, and Dhafer Youssef.
Sony Music Entertainment owns the global rights to the Okeh Records catalogue through Epic Records and Sony's Legacy Recordings reissue subsidiary. Parlophone parent EMI's rights to the Okeh catalogue in the UK expired in 1968 at which point Sony Music's predecessor company CBS Records took over distribution.
- The OKeh Laughing Record, which featured a man and woman laughing uncontrollably, was featured extensively in the Walter Lantz Productions cartoon short Sh-h-h-h-h-h, the last short directed by Tex Avery. The record was recorded in Germany by Beka Records in 1923, and would be issued in the UK as The Parlophone Laughing Record.
- Jean Shepherd also used the record many times as background music on his radio show on WOR.
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- White (2003), p. 268.
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