Sunday, January 26, 2020

Downstate Recording Studios and Record Labels of the 1950s & 1960s

A version of this article appears in the
Jan / Feb 2020 issue of Illinois Heritage
By Chris Young

     For downstate Illinois musicians hoping to make a record in the 1950’s or early 1960’s it often meant travelling to Chicago or even Nashville.  By that time each city had its own respective “record row” where independent record labels and recording studios could be found in close proximity to song publishing houses, record distributors and radio stations.  Still, recording studios and record labels did exist downstate, albeit on a much smaller scale and often isolated from the larger music industry.
     In fact, most downstate recording studios of this era were modest, one or two person operations with beginnings in a basement or a garage of a home.  Some studios focused on producing commercials for radio or background music for local businesses.  Others catered to local musicians hoping to record a demo or produce a single.  A handful of these studios did evolve into legitimate businesses but the majority were short-lived, labors of love.
     It is important to note that there was no handbook or manual for building a recording studio in this era.  Nor was there a place you could simply buy all the equipment you needed as a unit, off the shelf or out of a catalog.  The men and women that build these studios did so by piecing together the necessary electronics, component by component, and often made them work in a space that was never intended to be a sound studio.  It was a process of trial and error that required a basic understanding of electronics and acoustics and more than a little bit of luck.  In doing so each studio developed its own sound, sometimes crude but often quite professional. 
     With nearly all of the studios there was a “house” record label for commercial releases which was typically little more than the studio’s name printed on the release.  These labels often did not operate in the traditional sense as separate companies that were building a roster of artists which they would help market.   Instead it was usually the artist’s responsibility to promote and distribute their own release.  As a result, most singles had little chance of getting on the radio or becoming a hit outside of their hometown. 
     Typically studios would handle the business of getting a release manufactured by working with the few pressing plants in the country that would process small run custom pressings.  While some of these studios did produce albums, most produced singles only.  By the mid-1950’s singles were almost exclusively being pressed on 7” vinyl and played at 45 rpm.  These records would be pressed in batches of 200 to 1,000 copies at a time, often depending on what the artist was willing to pay for.
     Record labels not affiliated with a studio did exist downstate as well.   Sometimes it was an entrepreneur hoping to cash in on the latest musical fad or a local business planning to use the records as promotional items.   Other times they were started by the musicians themselves, hoping to have more control over their output and career.   These labels however often lacked the music industry connections to secure proper distribution or the means to get their singles on the airwaves outside their home market.  As a result, most labels did not last.
     The directory of Record Labels and Their Manufactures published in the March 15, 1952 issue of Billboard magazine listed only five labels and/or recording studios with Illinois addresses outside of the Chicago area:  Ace Recording Co. (Mt. Vernon), Blue Ribbon Records (Staunton), Challenge Records (Du Quoin), Inter-City Recording Service (Moline) and Ring Records (Farmington).
     Of the five only Blue Ribbon Records appears to have been producing commercially available recordings at that time.  That said, Blue Ribbon was not a typical record label.  Despite the fact that there were a variety of artists with releases on the imprint, all of them were centered on the songwriting output of the label’s owner, Charles “Chaw” Mank, Jr. of Staunton.
     Mank was truly an extraordinary character.   He was a songwriter, silent film organist, bandleader, author, publisher, pen pal, Hollywood fan club pioneer and record label owner just to name a few of his interests and talents.   Mank reportedly received more than 10,000 letters a year, belonged to over 200 fan clubs and claimed to only sleep three hours a night.
     In the 1930’s Mank formed his own orchestra, the Blue Ribbon Dance Band, which he continued to lead for over 50 years.  In the 1940’s, Mank’s Blue Ribbon Music Company began publishing songs and sheet music, many of which he wrote or collaborated on.  By the late 1940’s Mank formed the Blue Ribbon record label as another means of publishing and promoting his songs.  Mank would continue to release records on Blue Ribbon and other labels for the next four decades.  Nearly all the releases contain at least one song that Mank penned or co-authored.

     Another company listed in Billboard’s 1952 directory, the Inter-City Recording Service of Moline was primarily recording transcription discs and acetates for radio broadcasts.  One of Inter-City’s owners however would open a second studio in the Quad Cities that would cater to musicians looking to have a commercial release.
     Fred Mauk along with his wife Lois opened Fredlo Recording Studios at 2436 16th Street in Moline in the early 1950’s.  One of the first available singles on their Fredlo imprint was released in 1952 by a western swing group called the Buddies of Airlanes. 
     By 1956 the Mauks moved their operation across the river to a large home in Davenport, Iowa.   For the next 20 years, the couple operated the Fredlo studio on the main floor of the house while living upstairs.  In total, Fredlo recorded and released hundreds of singles and albums by artists from Iowa and Illinois.
     A few years after the Mauks and further down the Mississippi River in Belleville, Ron Lipe, a radio disc jockey known on air as Uncle Buck, started recording and producing records out of the garage of his home at 10 Marlo Drive.   In 1958 and 1959 Lipe released a handful of rockabilly singles on Ron-Mar Records, including one of his own compositions “Mr. Ducktail” released under the moniker Uncle Buck Lite.
     By November of 1960 Lipe had changed the name of his record label to Marlo Records and eventually started a second label called Cinema International.   In total he would produce dozens of singles by singers and groups from both Illinois and Missouri.   Sometime in the mid-60’s Lipe moved his operation to St. Louis where he continued to work as a disc jockey under the name of Prince Knight.
     Around 1959 in nearby Granite City, Bill Stevens with the help of his father Fred started a short-lived rhythm and blues label at 2213 Washington Avenue.  Stevens Records would last just over a year.   Despite its short run, the label contains several early performances by a young guitarist named Ike Turner who, while under contract with another label, released two singles under the pseudonym Icky Renrut.

     In central Illinois one of the earliest record labels of the era was Tempus Records based in Peoria.  The label was owned by Steve Clark and operated out of the 1st National Bank Building in downtown Peoria.  Tempus Records started in 1958 but ceased operations only two years later when Clark took a job with Vee Jay Records in Chicago.   In its short existence, Tempus produced a dozen or more singles with perhaps the most popular being an instrumental called “The Beat” by a group of teenagers from Metamora known as the Rockin’ R’s.

     Around the same time that Tempus was in operation another label had sprung up in Peoria.  Hit Records was the brainchild of Blane Gauss, an Arthur Murray dance instructor and local talent promoter.  Gauss launched his label with the release of two singles in 1958 by Byron “Wild Child” Gipson who had just come off a lengthy tour with Little Richard.   On both singles Gipson was backed by a group of teenagers from Quincy, Freddie Tieken and the Rockers.
     While these first two singles were recorded in Chicago, the subsequent releases on the Hit imprint were recorded in a small makeshift studio located in the attic of the Arthur Murray building in downtown Peoria.   Despite the entire operation being based in Peoria, a Chicago address was printed on the 45 rpm labels which Gauss felt gave the label more credibility.  In total, the label released at least ten singles by Peoria area artists before ceasing in the early 1960’s.
     In 1963, Freddie Tieken who had played on the earliest Hit singles, was ready to record his first album with a new lineup of his band, the Rockers.  Using some basic equipment owned by bandmate Jack Inghram, who was still in high school at the time, the group recorded By Popular Demand in the Fellowship Hall of the First Union Congregational Church in Quincy. 
     Together they self-released the album on their own IT Records which proved successful enough that the two moved the recording equipment into Tieken’s basement and started IT Studios.  Between 1963 and 1968, IT produced around twenty releases from Quincy area groups.
     Another musician to record for Hit that made the leap to studio owner was a guitarist named Jerry Milam.  Inspired by the fact that Hit had been producing singles with rudimentary equipment and little else, Milam went about building a small 4 track studio in the basement of his Pekin home.  Milam, who would prove to have a gift for sound engineering, was able to achieve quality recordings in his basement studio even producing two releases on his own Milam Records.
     However, the limited space as well as noise complaints from his neighbors meant he had to find a new location. In 1965 Milam and his wife purchased a small parcel of land on the edge of South Pekin and went about building a professional recording studio from the ground up.

Jerry Milam at Golden Voice
     The Golden Voice Recording Company was a rare example of a downstate space conceived, designed and built as a proper sound studio which even included a live echo chamber.   Milam opened its doors in 1966 and over the next 12 years Golden Voice would be the top recording studio in downstate Illinois producing records for several major labels including national acts like Dan Fogelberg, Styx, Head East and REO Speedwagon.
     In addition, the studio recorded hundreds of area bands in a variety of musical styles, many of which released singles and albums on the Golden Voice label as well as Thunder Records which was briefly used as a second “house” label in the early days of the studio.
     Jerry Milam and Golden Voice’s influence however went far beyond the music it recorded.   Several people that worked and recorded at Golden Voice over the years went on to have prominent careers in the music business either as engineers or studio musicians.   As for Milam, he sold Golden Voice in the mid-1970’s to focus on Milam Audio, his then growing business of designing and installing professional recording studios.  The Golden Voice studio in South Pekin however was destroyed in 1978 by a random act of arson.  It was never rebuilt.
     Peoria would however see several other short-lived record labels during the 1960’s.  Kandy Kane Records, owned by LaHood Enterprises, released a handful of singles in 1963-64 likely showcasing groups that performed at the Kandy Kane night clubs in Peoria and Bloomington.   Another example, Ledger Records would release just a few singles in 1967 by area artists using Golden Voice studios for all of its recordings.   Despite only being in business for a very brief time Ledger has the distinction of releasing the first recording of Peoria-native Dan Fogelberg, who at the age of 16 was singer and songwriter with the group the Coachmen.
   
     Around the same time Milam was building Golden Voice in South Pekin, two musicians were similarly inspired to build their own studio in Danville.  Arlie Miller of Danville and Arlie Neaville of Champaign-Urbana had been performing music separately around central Illinois since the late 1950’s.  Miller had even made a few recordings of himself and other Danville musicians in his garage in 1960, releasing three rockabilly singles on Lucky Records.
     By 1963, Miller and Neaville, who had changed his stage name to Dean Carter by that point, joined forces to form a new band, the Lucky Ones.   Frustrated with having to travel to Chicago or Nashville to cut a record, the two men bought a house on West Ross Lane on the south edge of Danville and transformed it into the Midnite Sound Studio.  Soon they were hosting regular recording sessions with local musicians.
     Miller’s unconventional approach to sound production would give the studio an otherworldly sound which seemed to match the kind of music they were interested in making.
     By 1965, the two Arlies started Milky Way Records eventually releasing eleven singles over the course of the next three years.  In addition to their own music, Milky Way released several other Danville area artists in many different styles including a rock single by a group of junior high students as well as what is likely the world’s first Amish rock song.   In fact, in this short period the studio made dozens if not hundreds of recordings by Danville area musicians, most of which would go unreleased. 
     By 1967 however Miller’s divorce along with a cease and desist order from the makers of Milky Way candy bars put an end to the label but not the studio.  Miller continued operations at Midnite Sound at least into the 1970’s and even started another label, Redd Hedd Records. 
     In the June 10, 1972 issue of Billboard magazine, Midnight Sound’s studio rate was still listed at the very affordable $10 per hour.
     Soon after opening their doors, the two Arlies had some competition when Roger Francisco opened RoFran Enterprises in nearby Urbana.  Francisco was a musician and audio engineer who had spent some time in Nashville producing records.  Around 1964 he opened a studio in his basement at 5 Rainbow Court where he produced radio and television commercials as well as singles by local bands which were often released on the RoFran or Custom imprints.
     In 1967, RoFran had expanded its operation and moved into a new space at 115 West Main Street in downtown Urbana.  By the end of the decade, Francisco was performing and recording more experimental and jazz-oriented music with close ties to University of Illinois musicians and composers.  Francisco eventually dropped the RoFran imprint for releases but continued to record Champaign-Urbana groups until 1974 when he sold the business.   Francisco would eventually open and operate additional studios in Champaign-Urbana in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
     In southern Illinois one of the longest running and most prolific downstate labels & studio is Crusade Enterprises based in Flora.    Started in the early 1960’s by Ray Harris, Crusade primarily produced religious and gospel music.  The early recordings were done in St. Louis however in 1966 they opened their own studio, Crusade Sonic Sound Studio, in Flora. 
     Unlike most downstate labels, Crusade produced primarily albums rather than singles.   Over the course of several decades, Crusade Enterprises’ output is hundreds possibly thousands of unique titles.   While the focus of the label had always been gospel music, many non-religious groups over the years have used the studio and label as well.   As of 2019, Crusade Enterprises remains in business.
     No other studio or label in the southern half of the state started in the 1960’s would come close to matching Crusade’s longevity.   In fact, several labels came and went with little proof of their existence besides the records themselves.   One such label was Oblong’s Royce Records which had a handful of releases in the mid-1960’s.   The address printed on the singles was 109 W. Main Street in downtown Oblong but it is unclear if there was a studio at that location or simply the label’s office.  Another example was KB Records “The Great Sound of the Midwest” from Centralia which produced probably less than ten singles in the late 1960’s.
     In northern Illinois however there is another example of a long running and successful studio and label.  Radex Recording Studios was opened in Freeport in 1953 by Dexter Witt.   Originally started in Witt’s apartment, the business eventually moved to the 3rd floor of the Cheeseman building on Galena Ave in downtown Freeport where Witt also sold and repaired stereo equipment.  Recordings were made in studio as well as on location such as school bands and church services.   In a July 28, 1969 article in the Freeport Journal-Standard, Witt claimed that Radex was producing 10,000 records yearly under the Radex label from 40 to 50 masters.  Radex continued to release singles and albums on vinyl consistently throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.

      In nearby Rockford yet another label was starting up in the late 1960’s.  Vincent Chiarelli, a Sicilian immigrant who had arrived in the United States in the mid-1950’s, had established a successful tailoring business in Rockford when he decided to pursue his love of music and performing.  In 1967, the “Singing Tailor” started Vincent Records along with his own song publishing company.  Chiarelli’s label would release several singles of his own compositions along with a number of other artists from Rockford and its surrounding areas including several rock, soul and funk groups.
     The emergence of new downstate studios and small labels not only continued but increased by the start of the 1970’s.  With the help of businesses like Milam Audio, turnkey recording studios were becoming a reality.  At the same time, the cost of having records pressed remained affordable.  In fact, the 1970’s would prove to be the heyday of small run or “vanity” pressed records all across the country.   Downstate Illinois would be no exception as more and more studios and labels would continue to pop up in new locations across the state over the next two decades. 
     As for the records that were produced downstate in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most sold very few copies at the time and the music largely seemed destined to be forgotten along with the people that played and recorded it.  Starting in the 1980’s however, record collectors, especially those from Europe, started to take a special interest in obscure American record labels and the regional music they captured.  Over the last three decades that interest has only increased especially with the recent resurgence of vinyl records.  In fact, many obscure downstate releases have now become collector’s items and extremely valuable in part because of the small quantities in which they were originally made but ultimately for the unique and authentic sounds they preserved.

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