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Big City Bohe mians

From the coffee houses of Greenwich Village to the psychedelic explosion on Sunset Strip and back over to the proto-punks of late-60s Detroit, Elektra was the constantly evolving fable label of American bohemia. On the eve of its 70th birthday year, Gareth Murphy talks to founder Jac Holzman and finds out what kept Elektra at the cutting edge

THE ELEKTRA RECORDS STORY

Over heard of a “musician’s musician”? Oft en used to describe the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Ben Harper, Gene Clark and others, it’s the notion that working musicians tend to study, not so much the stars, but a higher breed of greed-resistant crusader making music for music’s sake. Well, a similar distinction exists among music business players. If you ask all the great label founders of the 70s and 80s for their guiding reference, the first name you’ll hear is Elektra – the original big city bohemian.

So how did a popular heroine of Greek tragedy get to be re-spelled with a curious k? Elektra’s founder, Jac Holzman, jokes that it was the missing k his parents forgot to include in the name Jac. The story begins in 1950 when Holzman, a loft y 19-year-old 6ft 3in sound enthusiast, opened a Greenwich Village record store called the Record Loft. Although it was a cramped shoe-box operation, he proudly compiled a wide stock of folk and traditional music while tinkering away on his Elektra experiments from the back office.

Right place, right time: Greenwich Village in the 50s was a bustling downtown hive of coff ee houses, bistros, clubs, book stores and 24-hour music supported by a local community of bohemian residents. On Saturdays, Washington Square Park drew thousands of buskers, beatniks, poets, students and oddballs from all over New York. There were already a handful of dominant indies, notably Folkways and Keynote, who’d been documenting American folk and blues since the 40s. Jac Holzman, however, being a younger newcomer, was quick to recognise a growing interest in world music.

In 1954, he shut his money-losing store and moved Elektra into a proper office on Bleecker Street, the Village’s main thoroughfare of folk clubs. Specialising in 10" albums from singers such as Jean Ritchie, Sonny Terry and Josh White, he also produced albums with exotic themes: Bulgarian chants, festival recordings from Haiti, steel drums from Trinidad, Gold Coast percussionists, Turkish and Russian folk, even sound eff ects and audio lessons on Morse code. Curating his catalogue almost like a book publisher, maximum attention was given to substance, sound definition, artwork, liner notes and detail.

Th anks to this perfectionism, by the late 50s Elektra was selling thousands of records from an Israeli balladeer named Theo Bikel. Other niche hits came from flamenco guitarist Sabicas and American singer-songwriters Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.

But by all accounts, Elektra’s transformation revolved around folk diva Judy Collins (the inspiration behind Crosby Stills & Nash’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes). A folk icon but not a songwriter herself, the beautiful and articulate Collins rallied the label’s collective talents around her ambitious productions.

With Holzman’s apartment nearby, his vast and esoteric record collection became an A&R annex. In-house producer Mark Abramson sought unusual-sounding instruments from around the world. Josh Rifk in, who ran Elektra’s classical sub-label Nonesuch, provided the beautiful arrangements. Collins herself tracked down obscure writers such as Leonard Cohen, whose songs she was first to record and champion.

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About Long Live Vinyl

Issue 34 of Long Live Vinyl is now on sale! Farewell to 2019! Our massive end-of-year special rounds up the very best of the year in vinyl. First up, we bring you the top 100 new albums of the last 12 months, selected by an expert panel of record shop owners, labels, bands, writers and festival organisers. Once you've filled your Christmas list with that lot, we've picked the top 20 reissues of 2019. You'll find interviews with some of the heroes of the year, too, including Fontaines DC, The Specials, Amyl & The Sniffers, Weyes Blood, Bill Callahan and The Murder Capital. If you're on the lookout for a new turntable, amp, speakers or headphones for Christmas, you'll want to check out our extensive Gear Of The Year awards, and after more than 10,000 of you voted, we name our second annual Record Shop Of The Year. Pick up your copy to find out who's won! In other news, former Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant sits down for a chat about his new boxset and podcast, while Beck opens up about his latest album, Hyperspace. We also reminisce with The Pop Group over their classic 1979 album Y and tell the story of the label that brought us Love, The Doors and MC5: the one and only Elektra Records. If all that's not enough, you'll find the widest range of vinyl-related news, features and reviews anywhere on the newsstand. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for Vinyl lovers.