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Confessions of a record label owner

Story Highlights

• New box set released on 1963-73 years of Elektra Records
• Period included works by Judy Collins, Love, Doors
• Label founded by Jac Holzman, who guided it for 23 years
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Jac Holzman was in love with Love.

It was late 1965, and Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, was in Los Angeles, checking out the Arthur Lee-led proto-psychedelic band at a Sunset Strip nightclub called Bido Lito's. It was a different atmosphere for Holzman, who -- up to that point -- was known for his label's folk acts, such as Judy Collins and Phil Ochs.

"There were all of these swarming young ladies with pressed blond hair, wiggling their butts. It was sexy," he recalls.

"There was Arthur Lee on the stage, wearing these boots, not laced, the tongues of the boots hanging out, with prismatic eyeglasses. ... And you had a racially mixed band, though I never noticed that [at the time]. There were playing up a storm, and they were great live."

Recording that kind of music was new for Holzman and Elektra, but the label adapted quickly. Love gave Elektra its first chart single, an oddball cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "My Little Red Book"; the group's second album produced a Top 40 hit, the aural assault of "7 and 7 Is." And Love's third LP, "Forever Changes," is considered one of rock's finest albums.

But by that time Elektra had risen even higher. A few months after snagging Love, the label signed the Doors. And the rest, one could say, is history: Bread, the Stooges, Carly Simon, Queen and many other artists graced by the distinctive "E" logoexternal link. (Read Holzman's comments on three Elektra notables.)

Except the history goes backward as well as forward.

Elektra's "11 fatted years," as Holzman calls them, actually began at the tail end of the folk boom, around 1963. The era has been marked by a new box set, "Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973" (Rhino/Elektra).

Elektra mattered, Holzman says in a phone interview from his home in Santa Monica, California, because it had a vision.

"It was all done by basically one person. I'm not being vain when I say that," he says.

"If you have one person setting the tone for a company -- and it's an unconscious thing -- the tone mirrors who that person is. I was interested in doing the music that I loved and hoped that there would be enough people out there to buy the records to keep me alive and do it with quality."

Breaking through

Holzman is quick to offer others credit, including producer Paul Rothchild, engineer/producer Bruce Botnick and A&R man Danny Fields.

But he started as a solo. Elektra's history dates back to 1950, when a 19-year-old Holzman founded the record company in his dorm room at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

It was a good time to be starting a label, he observes. The LP record, high-quality magnetic tape and FM were all new, and there was the growing postwar consumer culture to feed.

"It made for a fertile field for independent record labels," says Holzman. (A fellow St. John's grad felt the same way; Ahmet Ertegun had founded Atlantic Records in 1947.)

Elektra grew slowly through the 1950s, finally breaking through with Theodore Bikel and, more profitably, with a 13-volume set of sound effects released in the early '60s.

By 1965, Elektra was a leading folk label, with crystal-voiced Judy Collins, the raw trio of Koerner, Ray & Glover, adventurous Fred Neil and singer-songwriter Tom Rush among its artists. But the music business was undergoing drastic changes. The Beatles had broken through and brought a new vitality to Top 40, and a number of folk artists -- such as Roger McGuinn and John Sebastian -- were picking up electric guitars.

So was Bob Dylan, whom Holzman -- intimately familiar with the Village scene -- had followed from the beginning. Holzman literally had a front-row seat -- he was in the photographer's pit -- for Dylan's live electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, an event that has become a tapestry of myth and legend in the ensuing 40-plus years.

Holzman remembers Dylan's Newport performance as "a little sloppy," but for him also electrifying. "Something seized my body. I had a direction. ... Dylan's performance certified where I was intending to head anyway -- to electric music, where you could demonstrate the ability to think and boogie at the same time," he recalls.

Getting the Doors

Elektra already had the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but now the label went in search of other electric musicians. Despite the label's old Village ties to Sebastian, Elektra lost out on the Lovin' Spoonful (who signed to Kama Sutra) and the nascent Buffalo Springfield (which went to Atco). But Holzman did land Love and later the Doors.

"When I first heard the Doors, I was astounded by the range of their material -- the Spanish influence, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 'Alabama Song' -- you didn't hear an American rock band singing that. ... It took me three or four days before I 'got' the Doors."

Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek remembers a hard bargainer.

"When he offered us the [advance] money and the points [royalties] -- absolutely miniscule," Manzarek recalled in "Follow the Music," Holzman's oral history of Elektra. (Holzman remembers things differently: He offered recording costs, a $5,000 advance, the majority of publishing rights and a three-album commitment for an unknown band.)

But the Doors didn't care: They would soon be fired from their club and Elektra's contract -- which granted the band creative freedom -- was solid.

"The whole point of it is that Jac saved us," Manzarek said.

Elektra added points to its cool quotient with new artists, including avant-gardists the Holy Modal Rounders and punk godfathers the Stooges. (Indeed, Elektra played a role in establishing garage rock as a genre with its 1972 "Nuggets" collection.) Holzman was the kind of label owner who gave his artists a chance, even if they weren't selling (his classical label, Nonesuch, threw off money that was plowed into Elektra).

Not all of them had the success for which Holzman hoped. Singer-songwriter David Ackles was an example.

"I was disappointed that more people didn't get him as a songwriter. He was Elton John's favorite writer," Holzman says. "When Elton first appeared in America at the Troubadour Club, he saw David Ackles on the bill and he thought he was opening for David Ackles. It was actually the other way around."

Holzman sold Elektra to Warner Communications (now Time Warner, also the parent company of CNN) in 1970 and left the label in 1973, though he retained ties to the parent company. (As "chief technologist," he helped establish cable TV, implement the compact disc, improve film technology and create an electronic-only label.)

But he takes pride in the heyday of his Elektra handiwork.

"[Listening to the box] reawakened in me what everyone had accomplished, not just me," he says, now 75. "It was a wonderful moment in time."


Love

Love, with Arthur Lee, top left, gave Elektra Records entree into the West Coast scene.

ELEKTRA RECORDS

Founded: 1950 by Jac Holzman

Noted artists (through 1973): Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, Love, the Doors, Bread, the Stooges, Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, Queen

First No. 1 single: "Light My Fire," the Doors

Why "Elektra"?: An uncle told him to pick a name early in the alphabet, "so your chances of getting paid are much better."

The importance of album cover art: "An album cover is meant to express the essence of what the label is about." It's also a great sales tool: For an early Bikel album of Israeli folk songs, Elektra used a photo of a young woman in a field to express "the authentic spirit of Israel." "It was a film fantasy brought to record covers," he observed.
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