My 50 Favorite Albums from the Golden Age of Capitol Records (Part 1 of 3)
A tiny musician-run indie outfit grew into the most innovative label in the world—with some help from Frank Sinatra and the Beatles
Capitol Records, founded in 1942, is now just another small cog in the Universal Music Group empire.
But the label transformed commercial music in the 1950s and 1960s, with a roster that included everything from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles—as well as Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, Les Paul, Miles Davis, and Judy Garland, among other mega-stars.
And it all started as a glorious experiment to see if musicians and music lovers could run a record business better than professional managers.
Capitol got its start over lunch in 1942. Three people met at Lucey's Restaurant in Hollywood and hatched an ambitious plan to take on the big players RCA, Columbia, and Decca.
Lyricist and singer Johnny Mercer would act as talent scout.
Songwriter Buddy DeSylva would provide financing.
Music retailer Glenn Wallichs would contribute business savvy.
They were crazy and unrealistic. It wasn’t just a tough time to make money in music—it was impossible.
Because of World War II, labels couldn’t get enough shellac to press records—FDR had demanded a 70% reduction. Even worse, musicians were going on strike. Most observers would have bet against Capitol—or, at best, envision a modest future as a tiny indie outfit.
But Capitol grew up fast, and became the most innovative music business in the world during the 1950s and 1960s. The label made big bets, took huge risks, and set high standards—most of the time, aiming higher than the competition.
Even Capitol’s headquarters, the world’s first circular high-rise office building—designed to resemble a stack of records—testified to its rule-breaking attitudes. The Capitol Tower is still my favorite SoCal landmark a grand example of LA mimetic architecture and lasting testimony to a wackiness that barely exists nowadays in Hollywood and the mainstream music business.
During that era, Capitol was a hit-making monster. But even more, the story of Capitol Records in its glory years provides a useful reminder that musicians and music lovers are not only capable of running a music business, but might actually be the best people for the job.
I will write more about the history of this remarkable company in the future. The story has an unhappy ending—Capitol lost its independence and eventually lost its unique vision too. But for a brief spell, Capitol Records set an example of how music people can control their own destiny and flourish.
Below is the first installment of a three-part survey of Capitol’s 50 greatest albums during its peak years of 1950-1968.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
My 50 Favorite Albums from Capitol Records, 1950-1968 (Part 1 of 3)
These albums are listed in chronological order.
Jo Stafford: American Folk Songs (1950)
Jo Stafford rose to fame alongside Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s big band, where the two vocalists shared the same stage (and sometimes the same mic). Johnny Mercer signed her as Capitol’s first solo artist. But how do you reinvent a Swing Era singer for a postwar audience? You can’t just keep singing the same old songs, can you?
How about trying even older tunes? Some people call them folk songs—but could they really tempt fickle modern listeners? This was a kooky notion in the late 1940s, long before the folk song revival, and you don’t make much money in music if you are too far ahead of the trends. (Capitol learned the same lesson when it signed Miles Davis around this same time and released the first cool jazz records—but nobody paid attention, and Davis was soon gone.)
These tracks, issued as 78 rpm records in 1948 and on LP in 1950, did not go unnoticed. Critics grasped their originality and Judy Collins later cited them as an influence. Stafford didn’t stay at Capitol long enough to reunite with Sinatra, and signed with Columbia before the end of 1950. But the label was already proving its willingness to back unusual projects.
But the next item on my list is even more peculiar. . . .
Yma Sumac: Voice of the Xtabay (1950)
Once again, Capitol Records rolled the dice, taking a risk on a project so astonishing that the artist became a symbol for the outré and outlandish. The name itself, Yma Sumac, looks like an anagram or secret code. (It’s Camus’ Amy in reverse—is that a clue?) Was this Peruvian soprano, with her expansive voice, a pioneer of world music? Or did she invent musical exotica? Or was she a legit virtuoso singer, deserving respect for her alleged five-octave range.
Sad to say, back in the 1950s she was none of the above—and instead Yma Sumac got treated as a novelty act. And it didn’t help when Guinness World Records honored her for “the Greatest Range of Musical Value.” But for a while, she made $25,000 per concert, and sold lots of records. The truth is that there’s lasting value here (and maybe a few lessons on multiculturalism, too), but the mainstream music business didn’t know what to do with Yma Sumac in back in 1950—and only Capitol took the plunge.
Nat King Cole: Penthouse Serenade (1952)
We will encounter Cole’s smooth singing later in this survey, but find a moment to savor his sleek piano stylings, which slyly merge swing and bebop ingredients into something more elegant than either. This album—released as a 10 inch LP in 1952 and expanded to 12 inch with four extra songs in 1955—has been ruthlessly mined by later cocktail keyboardists, who stole from King Cole lock, stock, and barrel, barely leaving him with his merry old soul. Can we get an injunction?
But this is the smarter and better original—reminding us that even the greats (e,g., Oscar Peterson) borrowed from Nat’s piano playbook. And you ought to savor every note on Penthouse Serenade, because Cole played fewer and fewer of those 88 keys in later years, and sometimes skipped them completely
Duke Ellington: The Duke Plays Ellington (1953)
Duke Ellington was at a low point in his career when he signed with Capitol, and only stayed with the label for three years. But the music he recorded during this period was outstanding, and even includes his last crossover hit single (“Satin Doll”). But my favorite Ellington album of this era is the uncharacteristic The Duke Plays Ellington from 1953 (later reissued with extra tracks as Piano Reflections).
This LP showcases the bandleader in trio and solo contexts, and I’m certain that you won’t miss the absent big band. These tracks have found many admirers over the years—Bill Evans, for example, later recorded “Reflections in D,” which made its debut on this album. You won’t find a more impressionistic or nuanced record in Ellington’s long oeuvre.