Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


OBERSTEIN, Eli and Maurice

Elliott Everett 'Eli' Oberstein (b 13 December 1901; d 12 June 1960, Westport CT) ws a record producer and industry executive, very successful during the Swing Era, then a colourful wheeler-dealer. The legendary Ralph Peer, who discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, had offered to make records for free for Victor in exchange for copyrights on the songs, and is said to have recruited Oberstein from Okeh to Victor to keep an eye on his interests, but they became enemies, and Peer did not get many of those copyrights.

So Oberstein was an accountant at Victor in the 1920s, and oversaw a recording session as early as 1930, becoming head of popular Artist & Repertoire when Ed Kirkeby left in 1936, at what had then become RCA Victor. Oberstein is given credit for the launch of the 35-cent Bluebird label, which was a big success during the Depression. There was country music and blues on Bluebird as well, but Oberstein oversaw hits by Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey on RCA Victor and signed Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller to Bluebird (Miller would have been happy to be on the budget label, always conscious of the fact that his fans were young people without much money). RCA Victor in those days was famous for probity and also for not paying people very much; Oberstein was one of the first record producers (the term barely existing then) to make deals with songwriters, publishers and others in order to make a living; he pioneered some of what later came to be called payola, but was surpassed in greed by later generations. He was suddenly fired with no explanation c.1939.

He formed a U.S. Record Corporation in Scranton PA, with labels called Royale and Varsity; an article in Time magazine said he had 'resigned' from RCA, and claimed that Eli was himself a musician, playing several instruments. In the article he bragged about his accomplishments at RCA: 'Dorsey used to hold his trombone solo until the third chorus. I saw to it that every record he made for me started with a Dorsey solo.' That Tommy Dorsey allowed anybody to tell him how to play an arrangement is unlikely. Eli had tried to imitate Jack Kapp, who had left Brunswick in 1934, hired to run Decca Records as a new subsidiary of British Decca, and took Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers and Guy Lombardo with him from Brunswick. But Kapp had those artists under personal contract, so he could take them wherever he went; when Oberstein left RCA he had produced hits by big-name artists and expected some of them to follow him, but few or none did, and his company was soon bankrupt. (One story is that Dorsey's contract did not pay him much in the way of record royalties, and that Dorsey may have been tempted to go with Oberstein, but suddenly had a new RCA contract that guaranteed him $60,000 a year.)

Oberstein was soon back in business as the Imperial Record Company, with the budget Elite label, which made Bunny Berigan's last recordings (the alcoholic trumpeter died in 1942). He merged his operations with a Classic Record Company of Philadelphia; at one time or another he acquired masters from Crown and Gennett; Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records was a close friend, and they swapped masters among their various labels, creating problems for discographers. He sold recordings made in Mexico and new releases made as soon as he could sign with the musicians' union, on strike against the other labels in 1942-3. (During that strike he had already acquired the reputation of a pirate, and did pretty much as he pleased; he was one of the few people who ever got the best of James Petrillo, leader of the musicians' union. Petrillo was furious with Oberstein, who said that making records in Mexico ‘may be bootlegging, but it's legal.') For a while Oberstein was selling records in Firestone stores, because during the war Firestone didn't have any tires to sell to the public. Johnny Messner, the bandleader formerly on Bluebird whose mildly risqué recording of ‘She Had To Go And Lose It At the Astor' allegedly sold over 100,000 copies on Varsity, conspired with Eli to start Tophat Records, specialising in the double entendre, or what were called party records.

Another Oberstein label was called Hit, which had a couple of hits by Louis Prima in 1944. In February 1945 Oberstein, probably swamped with legal problems, sold his studios, pressing plant and masters for more than half a million dollars to the Majestic radio company, who wanted to start a record label; he worked for Majestic until June, but his flamboyance was probably not a good fit and he was replaced by bandleader Ben Selvin (but not before Prima had his next hit on Majestic. Oberstein was not entirely without judgement.) With the end of the war the industry was optimistic that the record business would soon be booming; in July Oberstein was hired back by RCA, and saw that the Swing Era was over, leading the transition to pop singers like Vaughn Monroe and Perry Como, but was bounced again in 1947, a scapegoat when the record business was in disarray. In 1948 he formed Wright Records and revived his Varsity label; in July 1949 he had a contract with Columbia to market their budget label, Harmony (which ended with lawsuits, because if there was a hit on Harmony Columbia would yank the artist back to the full-priced label). Oberstein had been sniffing around MGM, but when that company finally launched a record label it was Frank Walker who got the plum job.

When the Majestic label was formed it had looked like a good idea, because the company had a ready-made distribution system of radio dealers, but the label didn't last long. Many post-war labels died because of inflation in the cost of materials and the Battle of the Speeds, which began in 1947-8: small labels couldn't afford to manufacture in two or three speeds. At the same time Majestic was probably also trying to expand from radio into the TV business. Mercury bought the remains of the Majestic label in 1948, probably to get singer/ bandleader Eddy Howard, who was making hits ('To Each His Own', a big no. 1 that year), and Oberstein was later able to buy back what was left of Majestic from Mercury, including, for example, eight tracks Majestic had made by conductor/arranger Percy Faith; which is why, when Faith became a big name at Columbia in the 1950s, his 1947 tracks appeared on budget labels like Royale or Rondo-lette. It was Oberstein, making a living. In 1952 Oberstein purchased the Allegro classical label; there was a lawsuit about recordings by opera singer Regina Resnik. On Royale Oberstein released a recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado which had the singers recorded in England and the orchestra in Germany, difficult with the technology of that time; it was said to be the worst recording of Mikado ever made. Classical recordings on Allegro Royale included recordings by the great pianist Egon Petri, which Oberstein apparently got from Edward J. Smith, another buccaneer.

[Smith was especially famous among opera fans; he started three different series of bootleg opera recordings: The Golden Age of Opera 1956-72, Unique Opera Records Corporation 1972-77, and the A.N.N.A. Record Company 1978-82. The recordings were of poor quality, but fans were glad to have them in any quality; nobody cared about the bootlegging because there was not much money in it, and most of the singers were flattered that anybody cared enough to bootleg them. Among Smith's other projects was an American Stereophonic Corporation, all of whose releases were mono. Smith's projects are a discographer's nightmare, but William Shaman and others made a brave attempt at unsnarling it for the Greenwood Publishing Group.]

In 1954 Oberstein bought the Rondo label, formed in Chicago in the mid-1940s, whose biggest hit had been 'You Can't Be True, Dear', by organist Ken Griffin in 1948, which was heard in every skating rink in the USA. Early in the microgroove era Rondo had put out cheesy ten-inch LPs made of red plastic; Oberstein graduated to 12-inch records and phony stereo. He merged his interests into the Record Corporation of America (initials RCA!), then sold out to Pickwick International in the late 1950s, keeping Rondo, which he marketed until he died.

Eli's only child, Maurice Louis Oberstein (b 26 September 1928, New Jersey; d 12 August 2001, London, England, of leukemia) was called Obie. He sold Rondo to PRI (Precision Radiation Instruments) in 1961, and that company put out budget LPs for racks in supermarkets for a few more years. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Obie rush-produced an LP of speeches called John F. Kennedy - A Memorial Album and allegedly sold millions of copies in less than a month. He went to work for Columbia Records in New York and was soon sent to England to oversee the launch of the CBS label. A colourful character like his father, with a sense of humour, he was described by a colleague as having ten ideas a day, nine of which would be worthless and one brilliant. He often brought a pet dog to an awards ceremony and pretended to consult it; he was also well-known for unpredictable headgear, and if he became impatient during a negotiation he would put his Homburg, Tam o' Shanter, sailor cap or whatever on the table and walk out, saying 'Talk to the hat.'

Obie did all right during the 1970s and '80s with punk and pop groups like the Clash and Wham! When he had differences with Walter Yetnikoff in New York, Yetnikoff announced Obie's resignation, whereupon Obie became chairman of Polygram UK. By that time boomers were buying truckloads of CD reissues of all their favourite albums from 25 years earlier, and the major labels were beginning to have trouble finding the new multi-million-sellers on which they depended. Obie was interviewed on television in 1991: ‘By and large we have been starved of the hit records turning into hit artists turning into album performance that we can sell. I think as a result we have fewer new artist development [sic] ... We don’t have any new artists delivering big new albums.’ Obie was twice chairman of the British Phonographic Industry, a trade group, but the big-time international record business was heading for the wall by the time he retired. He had become a full-blown anglophile, and wanted his ashes divided between a race course and a soccer pitch.