Bethlehem Records: Post-Syd

Syd Nathan would end up acquiring jazz label, Bethlehem Records, in a series of strategic moves over the course of years — so when exactly can Syd Nathan take credit for shaping the music released on that label?  Unfortunately, that’s a question that each person has to answer for him/herself.  I can, however, put forth some relevant information.

Gus Wildi, a Swiss immigrant, founded Bethlehem in 1954, as Billboard reports in its February 27, 1954 edition.  By 1958, however, Wildi – in a desperate bid to stay liquid – would give Syd Nathan half ownership of the label for distribution.  As Cash Box reports in its August 2, 1958 edition:

King Takes Over Bethlehem Distribution

CINCINNATI — Sydney Nathan, President of King Records, and Gus Wilde [sic], President of Bethlehem Records, jointly announced last week the conclusion of an agreement whereby King will take over the exclusive world-wide distribution of all the Bethlehem product. The agreement is effective immediately, but the distribution does not take place until the near future.

In discussing the take over of Bethlehem by King, Nathan pointed out that this is only the first of several deals now in negotiation whereby King is getting a new look and expanding its product line by agreements with other labels.

Wilde [sic] will continue as President of Bethlehem and will supervise the operation from his New York headquarters. A big program of regular monthly new releases is scheduled, starting in August with new albums by Mel Torme, and The Australian Jazz Quartet. In addition Wilde has concluded contracts for a new heavy recording schedule which kicks off.

This deal, on its surface, would seem to connote a 50/50 partnership, but as Both Sides Now Publications points out in their Bethlehem Records history piece, Syd Nathan immediately took charge, once this new relationship was established:

From the time King Records essentially took over, Bethlehem slowly wound down. Nathan incessantly mined the back catalog for various artists compilations, and fewer and fewer new recordings were done…

Bethlehem continued to fade, and in 1962, Gus Wildi sold the remaining 50% of the company to Syd Nathan. By 1965, Nathan had just let the label fade away.

Around this period of time, Otis Redding, interestingly enough, would enter the picture when his debut single – “Fat Girl” b/w “Shout Bamalama” – needed a little extra help launching off the ground.  The debut 45 by Otis Redding and the Pinetoppers was originally released in 1962 on the Confederate label.  The single would find a new home that same year on tiny Orbit before enjoying wider distribution on Bethlehem two years later in 1964.

45Cat contributors Dead Wax and Ort. Carlton (among others) have the back story:

[Dead Wax] According to Peter Guralnik (Sweet Soul Music) the record was first issued on Confederate. The record enjoyed some local success, but not before Bobby (Confederate owner) was forced to change the name of the label to get airplay on r&b stations.  Also later re-issued on Conco, a Confederate related label, possibly co-owned by Wayne Cochran.

[Ort. Carlton] When several influential disc jockeys, including Big Saul at WOIC in Columbia, S. C. and John “R.” Richbourg at WLAC in Nashville heard the disc, they knew it was a hit, but both suggested a label name change. Apparently Bobby [Smith] and (to a lesser degree) Phil Walden put Orbit in business for this purpose only.

Bobby Smith Studios, according to Discogs, is a Macon, Georgia recording and production facility that was founded when Syd Nathan “commissioned the engineer and producer Bobby Smith to build a studio in the adopted hometown of the James Brown, the star of the King labels.”   45Cat contributor “mickey rat” – with the discerning eye – speculates aloud about Bobby Smith and his business relationship with Syd Nathan:

For years I’ve wondered who was involved in Boblo Music. I’ve always had it listed with that clutch of half a dozen imprints that Syd Nathan of King Records shared with his favourite producers (e.g. Men-Lo = Fred Mendelsohn & Syd Nathan and Son-Lo = Sonny Thompson & Syd Nathan, where the “Lo” bit was short for Nathan’s flagship publishing imprint Lois Music). Anyway after reading the current comments on the initial releases of this Otis Redding record on Confederate and Orbit it’s dawned on me that the “Bob” bit is probably Bobby Smith in Macon, GA. Looking quickly at other Boblo discs on King by James Duncan, Bobby Leeds, Billy Soul and Fabulous Denos, they all have a “BS” prefix on matrix numbers. Can anyone confirm this is indeed Bobby Smith? Interesting too that Boblo’s big hit was Wayne Cochran’s composition “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson. Nathan missed the actual record but would have done very well from the publishing royalties. Boblo seems to have evolved later into Macon Music, also a King related imprint I think.

Dead Wax staunchly refutes others’ assertions about the date of the Otis Redding recording session (Ruppli’s sessionography, for instance, says September, 1960) while also revealing the back story behind future Bethlehem recording artists, The Rockin’ Capris:

Recorded in March 1962 in Athens, GA, in the studios of WGTV, the public television station affiliated with the University of Georgia. Otis was backed by members of Wayne Cochran’s group, the Rockin’ Capris.

“Shout Bamalama”     Otis Redding & the Pinetoppers     1962

Ruppli’s King Labels recording sessionography indicates that some new recording did take place at King’s Cincinnati studios in a few instances related to the Bethlehem label, most seeming to take place 1962-63 (The Mighty Faith Increasers; The Wilson Sisters; Jean Dee; Beverly Buff; The Guitar Crusher; & The Vice-Roys), with a few faint stirrings up until 1969.

What’s In a Name?
From the Pen of Syd Nathan

Chief among Syd Nathan’s contributions to Freddy King’s musical legacy, notes Jon Hartley Fox in King of the Queen City, were the nonsensical titles he gave to the legendary blues musician’s original tunes:

As Freddie remembered, “‘Hide Away’ and ‘Just Pickin’,’ I think those are the only two I named.  I made ’em all, you know, wrote all the tunes, but the studio put the names to ’em.  Some of them, I don’t even know … They said ‘Swooshy,’ you know.  I’d listen to it and not even know what he’s talkin’ about.  They got some heck of a names in there.”

There seems to be a common thread running through “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist,” “San-Ho-Zay” and some of the nuttier album titles coming out on the Bethlehem label post-Syd Nathan, as Jon Hartley Fox observes:

During King’s involvement with Bethlehem, King tried to broaden the audience for Bethlehem’s artists by releasing a series of multiple-artist compilation LPs with such cornball titles as Nothing Cheesy About This Jazz; We Cut This Album for Bread; Jazz Music for People Who Don’t Care About Money; A Lot of Yarn But A Well Knitted Jazz Album, and No Sour Grapes, Just Pure Jazz.