DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Believe it or not, in the mid-1950s Los Angeles didn't have much of a pop music scene. The film industry dominated everything. But there were some tiny record labels hoping for hits and, sometimes, getting them. More labels sprung up with the appearance of rock n' roll. Rock historian Ed Ward tells us about one of them named Dore' and the guy who ran it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ED WARD: Someday, some genius is going to do a "Mad Men"-type show about the little record labels of the late 1950s. And yes, I'll happily serve as a consultant. My first suggestion is that the L.A. part be set in what was known as Record Row, a bunch of cheap studios, record-company offices, promotion companies and music publishers essentially bounded by Selma, Sunset, Argyle and Vine in Hollywood.
It was here, in 1955, that Era Records opened an office on North Vine. Era was run by Lew Bedell, who'd had a comedy act for some years, and Herb Newman, a younger guy who'd had some record business experience. Lew put up $7,500 of his own money on the suggestion of his Uncle Max, who knew people and thought this would be a good idea.
In fact, it was: Era had a number of hits by people like Gogi Grant and Art & Dotty Todd, artists who performed in local nightclubs, and their promotion folks were canny and effective, which meant that even the non-hits made money. Lew did well enough to marry his fiancée, Dede Barrymore, from the famous acting family, but it was becoming evident that he and his partner didn't see eye to eye on the rock 'n' roll stuff that seemed to be selling.
So in 1958, Lew started a subsidiary label named after his new son, Dore', and bought a couple of unreleased recordings from a New York producer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER SCHOOL ROCK")
THE BARITONES: (Singing) Do-be-doobie-do do wop wop. Do-be doobie-do do wop-wop. Do-be doobie-do do wop wop. Do-be-doobie-do do wop wop. Do-be-doobie-do do wop wop. That's how to do it, the after school rock. Come, come, jump (unintelligible) and dance. Our music can't be stole. Asked the man for a soda pop, then you start doing the after school rock. Rock and roll...
WARD: "After School Rock" was one of those records people who didn't understand rock 'n' roll thought was rock 'n' roll, and it tanked. Still, the doors at Dore'were always open, and one day a couple of teenagers who called themselves The Teddy Bears walked in with something they'd recorded at Gold Star Studios.
Bedell listened to the tape, a song called "Don't You Worry My Little Pet," and liked it enough to put up a few bucks for the group to record a B-side. Philip Spector, the group's songwriter, adapted the words on his father's tombstone for the trio's girl singer, Annette Kleinbard, and they recorded "To Know Him Is to Love Him."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM")
ANNETTE KLEINBARD: (Singing) To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him. Just to see him smile makes my life worthwhile. To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him. And I do. And I do. And I do. whoo-oo. And I do and I do and I do. And I do and I...
WARD: The more Bedell listened to this, the more he liked it. Herb Newman was scandalized: It was a demo! You couldn't release a demo. But Bedell released it, and every day after school, Philip would drop in to ask, "How are we doing today, Mr. Bedell?" And Bedell would invariably say, "No word." Then, one day, there was word, from Fargo, North Dakota, that the distributor there had sold 18,000 copies and needed more.
His territory also included Omaha, and from there it spread and spread, topping the charts in September 1958 and becoming Dore's' first - and only - million-seller. Soon thereafter, the Welk Music Group approached Era/Dore' and offered $180,000 for the copyrights on five of their songs, including The Teddy Bears', and Newman used his part to buy his share of Era from Bedell and move into swankier offices.
Bedell knew better: His next hit could walk in off the streets at any minute, and it did.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BABY TALK")
JAN BERRY: (Singing) Bom ba ba bom bab um dab um dab um wa wa wa.Bom ba ba bom bab um dad um dab um wa wa wa.Bom ba ba bom um dab um dad um dab um dab.I am only five years old and my baby's three.(Bom ba ba bom um dab um dab um dab um dab.)But I know that she's my girl just you wait and see.
(Singing) When I say I love my girl, she replies to me. Yeah.Bom ba ba bom bab um dab um dab um da da. Bom ba ba bom bab um dad um dab da da. Which means to say she loves me. In baby talk. To say she loves me. In baby, baby talk.
WARD: Jan Berry had already had a hit with local DJ Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsberg, but he and his friend Dean Torrance had rewritten a flop record by someone called The Laurels and had their friends Herb Alpert and Lou Adler take "Baby Talk" around town for them. Dot Records made them an offer, but they wanted a second opinion, and Bedell's opinion was that he wanted it.
It scraped into the national Top 10 in 1959, and Bedell bought himself a Jaguar XKE with "LEW B" licence plates. Dore' wasn't much into what's called today, artist development. Most of the artists who recorded there went elsewhere for their next records.
Not John and Judy; a brother-and-sister act. They were being pushed by their mother, and their first record for the label, "Hideout," got them two more, which didn't do as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HIDEOUT")
JOHN AND JUDY: (Singing) About a block down the street there's the place where we meet. Mm-hmm. It's a real nice spot and the music's real hot. Mm-hmm. There's always something going on and you can have a lot of fun at the hideout.
WARD: They kept going, and eventually John wound up as part of the Walker Brothers. Occasionally, there was an actual hot record on Dore'. Tony Casanova was a Puerto Rican kid whose best friend in high school was Ritchie Valens and he used to play guitar with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SHOWDOWN")
TONY CASANOVA: (Singing) I hear there's a guy looking for me and he's been fooling with my baby. They say he's Johnny Brown. He says he'll run me out of town. Johnny Brown, Johnny Brown, you and I are going to have a showdown. Now I've got...
WARD: The Beatles, though, took Bedell by surprise, just like everyone else. One thing he noticed immediately was that, while his pop acts suddenly weren't selling, the black groups kept going just fine, because the black stations weren't playing the British groups. In 1964, he made the wise business decision to focus on soul. But that's a story for another time.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.