The story Of Malaco Records isn’t much different than that of any other of the many independent R&B labels (Stax/Volt, Fame, Minit/Instant, etc) that sprang up in the early part of the 1960’s.
It was started by a pair of friends (Tommy Couch, Wolf Stephenson) as an outlet for putting out music they loved. Ran on a shoestring budget. Made ends meet recording commercials/jingles,leased out master recordings. Booked bands and promoted concerts mainly on the Deep South Fraternity circuit (a very lucrative source of income for many Blues/R&B performers). Rented out studio time for custom projects.
In 1967 this Jackson, Mississippi based label using mainly local based musicians and writers, began producing master recordings and leasing them out to major labels thereby guaranteeing a much larger degree of distribution, a common practice for fledgling labels. A series of 45’s and LP’s were released on various labels including ABC, Bang, Mercury and Capitol where they scored a major hit with North Mississippi blues legend Fred Mc Dowell’s LP “I Don’t Play No R N R.”
As revenue from recorded releases was minimal at best,they struggled on doing the best they could with what they had. Lady Luck lifted her skirts for them in the spring of 1970 in the guise of Wardell Quezerque (pronounced: Ka-Zur-Key) an established New Orleans producer who had formerly worked with artists like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Earl King and Robert “Barefootin” Parker, et al.
Struggling financially and with little to lose, Malaco struck a deal with Quezerque wherein he supplied them with artists in return for studio time and use of their session musicians. This proved to be an instant sucess for all parties involved. Two monster R&B hits came out of these early sessions. King Floyd’s reggae tinged soul hit “Groove Me” (#1 R&B, #6 Pop) and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (#1 R&B, #2 Pop). Trying to place these tunes with Stax and Atlantic proved to be unsuccessful, so they were released on a Malaco owned subsidiary named “Chimneyville”).
King Floyd scored another big hit in 1971 with “Baby Let Me Kiss You” also on the Chimneyville imprint. Bactracking a little here, following the major successes of “Mr Big Stuff” and “Groove Me” (covered by The Blues Brothers ), Stax/Volt and Atlantic records respectively picked up these discs for distribution on their own labels. Malaco was well on its way with a couple of hits under its belt and the musicians that served as the in house band being sought out for a back-up band by artists as diverse as Rufus Thomas and Paul Simon, who featured them on a few tracks on the highly successful 1973 LP “There Goes Rhymin’Simon.”
Malaco also released its first recorded foray into the Gospel field with The Golden Nuggets take on the tune “Gospel Train.” This was only a harbinger of many more successes in the field of spiritual based music that were to come for them.
Due in part to changing tastes, the advent of Disco and just plain fickleness of the record buying public, Malaco was in a slump by 1974. Rejection notices from labels with whom they had tried to place product were stacking up as were the bills from the day to day operations. With next to no operating capital left, they took a long shot that paid off and finally and firmly established Malaco as an independent force to reckoned with.
This coup came in the form of an ethereal, sweet soul ballad by Dorothy Moore called “Misty Blue.” The combination of Dorothy’s sexy voice, swirling strings and metronomic, low key drums seduced the public. It was a world wide hit reaching #2 R&B and #3 Pop in the US and # 5 in the UK charts. This effectively also launched Ms. Moore’s career as she went on to have thirteen more chart hits and five Grammy nominations between the release of “Misty Blue” in 1975 and 1980.
The success of “Gospel Train ” was paying off as well. Malaco signed up many top name and top notch artists including The Soul Stirrers (amongst whose alumni were Sam Cooke), The Sensational Nightingales, The Angelic Gospel singers and more). Mr Frank Williams of The Southernaires took over the A&R and day to day operations of their Gospel division until his eventual death in ’93. What helped to make Malaco unique was that the large part of their continued success was due to the fact that while several of their hits did crossover to be largely successful with white buying audiences they still continued to pump out music that was by and large considered commercial suicide in the 1970’s & 1980’s: gospel, traditional sounding 60’s styled R&B and Blues, genres that most labels would not have touched with a 10 feet pole at that point in time.
But the astute businessman they were, they knew that continued small successes would pay off better than a mega hit or two. Slowly they carved their niche amongst what is considered the “Chittlin Circuit” (a series of small clubs, taverns, gynasiums and even converted barns in small to mid sized cities that other larger perfomers generally eschewed after some larger degree of success) and the larger black neighborhoods of the South, North, Mid-West and Eastern Seaboard states as well as in the ghettos of large western cities such as L.A, Oakland, Seattle and Denver.
As their success enjoyed continued growth grew they signed on artists from the now defunct Stax label like Eddie Floyd and highly underrated soul singers such as Chicago’s McKinley Mitchell. In the”If you can’t beat ‘em, Join ‘em Dept.) they even took a stab the disco market such as recording the disco hit “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward which sold a phenomenal 10 Million+ copies.
By this point in time with a built in audience for their music, Malaco had reached a level of indepedence that allowed then to do what they wanted to do. In this case it was producing music by and large for their base audience. To Wit: Black Music for Black People. Although Blues was supposedly “dead” the release of Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” was released in 1980 and sold a tidy 500,000+ copies. Not bad for a “dead genre.” Not only was it a staple on the Southern Blues markets, it has lived on to become a de riguer set piece of many working blues and bar bands, both black and white alike.
Malaco has many artists on it’s roster that while being barely known outside of the “Chittlin” Circuit” are stars in their own right, continuing to play to packed houses everywhere they go. Names such as Denise LaSalle, Artie “Blues Boy” White, Poonanny, Benny Latimore, Little Milton, Johnny Taylor, Z.Z. Hill, Shirley Brown, Bobby Rush & Marvin Sease amongst others. Bonafide R & B legends Bobby Bland & Tyrone Davis were added to Malaco roster in the 1990’s. Mr. Tyrone Davis sadly passed last year and can be read about in a heartfelt homage by Eric Olsen. While many of these artists have passed in recent years the magic lives on in their recordings on the Malaco label and others.
Currently running on late night TV are advertisements for a pair of compact discs that feature some of Malaco’s better selections called “Juke Joint Saturday Night” & “Down Home Blues.” Also, if you’re at all interested there is a set of highlights spanning Malaco’s history from inception to the present that is called “The Last Soul Company”. T.L.S.C is available in truncated form as a two disc set and long form (recommended by the author) in a 6 disc set that covers the many fine “Blues, Soul, Funk, Gospel and R&B” sides that Malaco has put forth since its inception back in 1967.Powered by Sidelines