My 50 Favorite Albums from the Golden Age of Capitol Records (Part 3 of 3)
From Frank Sinatra to the Beatles, Capitol was at the forefront of commercial music for two decades—and then it all fell apart
Capitol Records didn’t exist until 1942, when three music lovers decided over lunch to launch an indie label. These three dreamers—Johnny Mercer, Buddy DeSylva, and Glenn E. Wallichs—decided to build a business run by musicians for musicians.
What a charming idea.
But somehow this tiny startup rose to the top of the music world. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, Capitol stood out as the most innovative label in the world. Everything it touched, from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles, turned to gold—or at least gold records hanging on the wall.
And then it all fell apart.
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My 50 Favorite Albums from Capitol Records, 1950-1968 (Part 3 of 3)
Lou Rawls (with Les McCann): Stormy Monday (1962)
Capitol missed out on the funkier music scenes of the early 1960s. But Lou Rawls, whose smooth voice combined soulfulness with supper club sophistication, was a natural fit with the label.
He enjoyed just one top ten hit in his career (after leaving Capitol), and I’m sorry to say that his most frequently heard vocal work was made for a TV commercial. Rawls deserved better—his voice was ready-made for crossover success.
But he recorded more than a dozen albums for Capitol in the 1960s, and they represent (in my opinion) his finest work. This 1962 pairing with Les McCann is a good place to start.
The Beatles: Meet the Beatles (1964)
Here’s a boneheaded move for the history books.
In 1962, Capitol turned down US distribution rights to the Beatles, declining an offer from parent company EMI. So VeeJay, an indie Chicago label, got to introduce the British invasion to America. Two years later, Capitol execs recognized their colossal error, and embraced the Beatles with enthusiasm.
Meet the Beatles from 1964 was a huge success, topping the chart for 11 weeks and selling more than 4 million copies before the end of the year. But even those numbers fail to measure the significance of this album, widely imitated by rock bands everywhere and setting popular music on an unpredictable new trajectory.
The Beach Boys: Summer Days (and Summer Nights) (1965)
Nobody since Handel had written better music about water than Brian Wilson. But the Beach Boys weren’t singing just about surf—this oddball album even includes musical tributes to New York and Salt Lake City.
But beach life and teen angst are the dominant themes of Summer Days (and Summer Nights). “Help Me Rhonda,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” and “You’re So Good to Me” serve up a timeless trifecta of puppy love feelings. But “California Girls” is the biggest hit here, climbing to number three (behind the Beatles “Help!” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) on the singles chart.
Good times like this never last. Brian Wilson was already restless. He later claimed that the intro to “California Girls,” with its Bach chorale rigor, was the highlight of the release—and it set the tone for more experimental Wilsonian approaches to come.
I can already hear a wistfulness in these tracks, an acknowledgement that even the most carefree teens eventually must grow up. But when it actually happened with the Beach Boys (see below), nobody was less prepared for adulthood than the bosses at Capitol Records.