Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Record label. Began as Music Corporation of America, a booking agency formed by Jules Stein before WWII; moved into management, films (Universal Studios), music publishing; entered the record business early '60s, buying Decca USA, which had begun as a subsidiary of Decca UK: Sir Edward Lewis had hired Jack Kapp away from Brunswick to run it. Kapp and his brother Dave (1904--76) had operated a music store in Chicago '21--31; Dave was a vice-president at Decca '35--52, formed own Kapp label '54--67, sold it to MCA. (Another brother, Paul, was a pianist, songwriter and producer; worked in MCA's radio dept '30--33.)

Kapp made USA Decca the second biggest label in the USA for a time, selling records cheaply during the Depression, roster incl. Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby (the best-selling recording artist of the first half of the century by a wide margin), the Andrews Sisters, Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Art Tatum etc. Historic Brunswick and Vocalion label names and recordings incl. titles by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson etc were purchased from CBS late '30s. Jack initially signed Basie to a contract that would not have paid any royalties; at the height of the boogie-woogie craze he tried to copyright those words, so that any song title using them would have earned him money. But by the time he died '49 his legacy was a more open-minded attitude to genres than the other majors had; he made a great many records that deserve reissue, to say nothing of infl. hits by Louis Jordan; Decca's traditional interest in country music was marked by big Ernest Tubb hit 'I'm Walking The Floor Over You' '43. The label had Billie Holiday, Gordon Jenkins, Peggy Lee; 'Goodnight Irene' by the Weavers was one of the biggest hits of '50. Acts in the '50s incl. Bill Haley (prod. by Milt Gabler, who had prod. Jordan; before that he founded Commodore, see that entry), with Buddy Holly on subsidiary Coral, the Crickets on Brunswick. Country music remained important: Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline were both big crossover successes, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Tubb and many more almost dominating the country charts. Rick Nelson and Loretta Lynn were added '60s, from the UK the Who; later Neil Diamond (on Uni), Pointer Sisters were big.

Over the years MCA acquired ABC-Paramount (incl. Bluesway, Impulse, Dunhill), also Dot, Chess, Enoch Light's Command and the venerable US classical indie Westminster. In '74 all the labels were grouped together as MCA; in the UK product was switched to EMI, breaking the last link with UK Decca; later MCA tried to establish overseas subsidiaries but failed; operated in the USA, UK and Canada, with product licensed to WB for the rest of the world. Kapp had been a record man, but MCA under chairman and majority stockholder Lew Wasserman semed to flounder, acquiring breadth only by buying other companies. The first-class technology lavished by Command on records by the Pittsburgh SO cond. by William Steinberg went out of print c'72 and the orchestra had no redress; in an interview Steinberg exploded, 'Gangsters! That's what they are! Gangsters!' MCA was apparently unaware of the riches it owned; valuable historical tracks went in and out of print in various countries, often in awful phoney stereo, while the contemporary catalogue wasn't up to much and gossip was that the country music had carried the label for a long time. But the winds of change were blowing in the record industry. The company distributed Motown for a few years after '88, and purchased the independent jazz label GRP (Grusin-Rosen Productions, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen): reissues were turned over to GRP and within a few years MCA's reissues of classic material (Basie, Ellington, Holiday etc) were as good as any in the industry. GRP's jazz-lite recorded by Grusin and others also had plenty of fans. MCA's Master series made albums by UK-born guitarist Albert Lee, dobro genius Jerry Douglas and others, immaculately recorded instrumental music with country-rock flavour; meanwhile producer/exec. Jimmy Bowen in the USA helped Reba McEntire to win every award country music can bestow, and MCA signed Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, among the best 'new country' talents, Tony Brown often co-producing with the artists. MCA purchased Geffen Records '90 (EMI-Thorn had offered more money, but Geffen was gambling and won; see his entry). The acquisition of Geffen doubled MCA's market share (MCA and Geffen together had more chart albums in the USA '89 than any other company) and had the advantage of making a hostile takeover more difficult, but it still didn't have an overseas operation, Wasserman was 78 years old and the stockholders were getting restless: in early '91 the company was sold to Japan's Matsushita (which also owned Panasonic). But within a few years the concept of synergy (companies like Matsushita and Sony selling both hardware and software, films and recordings) was not proving to be the expected bonanza, and MCA was sold again, to the drinks giant Seagram.