Music CEO Art Rob, whose niche recordings were a major milestone during rock ‘n’ roll’s formative years and helped launch careers Little Richard, Sam Cooke and many others, are dead. He was 104 years old.
Rob, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died Friday at his home in Santa Barbara, California, according to the Arthur N. Rob Foundation. The institution did not disclose the cause of his death.
The Greensburg, Pennsylvania native was a contemporary of Jerry Wexler, Leonard Chase, and other white businessmen and producers who helped bring black music to the general public. He founded Specialty in Los Angeles in 1946 and gave early breaks to artists such as Cooke and his gospel group Soul Stirrers, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, John Lee Hooker and Clifton Chenier.
Music historian Billy Vera wrote in his notes to The Story of the Specialty, a five-CD set that appeared in 1994.
Rupe’s highest-grossing and most significant signature has been Little Richard, a percussion, blues and gospel player since his teens who struggled to break out commercially.
In a 2011 interview with the Archives of the Hall of Fame, Rob explained that Little Richard (professional name of the late McConne, Georgia, original Richard Penniman) had learned about the specialty through Price, sent out a demo and for months called out to try and see if anyone had listened. He finally asked to speak to Rob, who pulled his tape out of the rejection pile.
“There was something I liked about Little Richard’s voice,” Rob said. “I don’t know — it was just too exaggerated, so it was emotional. And I said, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance and maybe we can make him sing like a BB King.'”
Pre-registration sessions It was uninspiring, but during a lunch break at a nearby inn, Little Richard sat at the piano and played a song he was performing during club dates: Tutti Frutti, with its immortal opening cry: “Awopbopaloomopawopbamboom!”
Released in September 1955 and one of the first rock ‘n’ roll hits, Tutti Frutti was a manic but cleaner version of the saucy original, which included rhymes like “Tutti Frutti/good booty”. Rob noticed that Little Richard’s performance changed when he accompanied himself on the piano.
“Up until that point, Bumps (producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell) had Little Richard just a singer,” said Robbie. “The neck bone is attached to the knee bone or something; his voice and his play kind of lifted him up.”
Critic Langdon Weiner may liken Little Richards’s specialty recordings of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records sessions as “models of vocals and music that have inspired rock musicians ever since”.
Little Richard’s other hits with the Specialty included rock classics like Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly, and Rip it Up before he abruptly (temporarily) retired in 1957. The specialty was also home to Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy (with Fats Domino on piano) ; Don and John Dewey Farms; Dizzy Miss Lizzy Larry Williams, which was later covered by the Beatles; and music by gospel pioneers such as Dorothy Love Coats, Silverton’s Swan and Pilgrim Traveler.
Known for underpaid his artists, Rob engaged in a exploitative practice common among trademark owners in the early rock era: getting performers to sign contracts that left him with much or all copyright. Young Richard was suing him in 1959 for late royalties and settled out of court for $11,000.
Around the same time, Rob became increasingly frustrated with the “payola” system of bribing broadcasters to play recordings and distanced himself from the music business. He sold Specialty to Fantasy Records in the early 1990s, but continued to make money through oil and gas investments. In recent years, he has chaired the Art N Rupe Foundation, which has supported education and research to shed “light of truth on critical and controversial issues”.
Rob’s survivors include his daughter, Beverly Rob Schwartz, and granddaughter Madeline Kahan.
Arthur Goldberg was born, the son of a Jewish factory worker who started his passion for black music by hearing singers at a nearby Baptist church. He studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, and briefly thought about working in film and decided on music instead, educating himself by buying “race records” and listening with a metronome and a stopwatch. He co-founded Juke Box Records in the mid-1940s, but soon left to start specializing. He also changed his last name to Rupe, the family’s ancestral name.
Rupe’s distinct flair made him a hit, but it cost him at least one major hit. In the mid-1950s, Cook was keen to extend his appeal beyond gospel and recorded some pop songs for Specialty, including one that became a standard, You Send Me. Rupe found the song cute and stunned its white backing singers. Cooke and Blackwell, who became Cooke’s principals, were allowed to purchase the copyright and release it through RCA.
“I didn’t think sending me it was cool. I knew it would have a certain intrinsic value because Sam was so good,” said Rob, who added, “I’ve never dreamed of being a multi-million dollar seller.”