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Book Review: Becoming Elektra: The True Story Of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label by Mick Houghton

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Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, is something of a renaissance man. Combining an engineer’s intellectual curiosity, a genuine love of music, and a pragmatic business sense, he built a scrappy and successful independent record label with a vision broad enough to encompass virtually the entire musical spectrum – and then some.

Launched in 1950, Elektra Records wasn’t much more than a hobby at first. With John Gruen’s New Songs its inaugural release, Holzman set about recording the simple, direct music he loved, applying meticulous care to ensure the highest possible fidelity. That attention to detail became one of Elektra’s defining characteristics – the sound on virtually every Elektra recording is as good as the technology of the time permitted.

Holzman was clearly in the right place at the right time. His love for folk music coincided with the folk music boom of the early sixties, fueled to a very large degree by the mercurial Bob Dylan, who helped usher in the era of the singer-songwriter. With a keen ear for good songs, Holzman built an impressive catalog based on musical merit rather than commercial potential. And to Holzman, folk music meant more than poets with guitars – Elektra’s early releases included indigenous music from Haiti, Mexico, Russia … Holzman would record just about anything as long as he felt the material was strong enough (Elektra’s ultimate financial stability owed much to a series of sound-effects albums).

Holzman’s eclectic approach paid off. He sold enough records to finance his more esoteric offerings; he repeatedly avows that “sales are not the measure of success.” Many Elektra artists have had greater influence than their record sales would suggest, and the music world is unquestionably richer thanks to Holzman’s vision and determination. Yet his business acumen was equally canny, and his restless musical curiosity and catholic tastes allowed the label to evolve as folk faded and rock became the people’s music. He signed the Paul Butterfield band at a time when white people simply didn’t play electric blues, and certainly not in a racially integrated ensemble. And he signed The Doors just as psychedelia emerged, bringing Elektra its greatest commercial and artistic success with rock’s reigning bad boys (Keep in mind, though, that at the same time Elektra was also home to Bread, the quintessential purveyors of soft-rock mush).

Holzman merged Elektra with Warner and Atlantic to form the Warner Music Group in 1970, and while he retained a prominent role until leaving in 1973, Elektra became a different beast under the corporate umbrella. Mick Houghton does a fine job of tracing the label’s history until the merger, with just the right balance of the personal and the musical. Houghton paints a revealing portrait of Holzman — a modest and generous man with genuine integrity — but keeps the spotlight squarely on the label and the music. Briskly readable, Becoming Elektra traces the musical zeitgeist of the times and provides fascinating glimpses into the business and production of recorded music.

Becoming Elektra is a bit clumsy to handle – an oversized paperback, it looks at first glance like a rather generic computer manual. But the size allows for full-color reproductions of virtually every title in Elektra’s catalog, themselves a revealing portrait of changing tastes and evolving consumer sophistication. Houghton’s research is meticulous but he avoids the minutia that clogs many music books; though the focus is on one man and a single record label, Houghton has done a fine job of placing the Elektra story in its historical context, informative yet a compelling read. The book ends with an afterward from Holzman himself, expressing a humble yet thoroughly justified pride in his accomplishments. Houghton should be proud, too – Becoming Elektra is a remarkable achievement, crafted with obvious love and care. Highly recommended!

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