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).