How Decca Records brought jazz music to the world
Decca Records can boast a magnificent eclectic catalog that includes The rolling stones, david bowie, Vera Lynn, George Formby, Luciano Pavarotti… and Winston Churchill. But the label has also hosted some terrific jazz over the decades.
The first commercial advertisements for the “Decca Record” appeared in the July 1929 edition of melody makerand within two years the record company had acquired Brunswick’s UK franchises – bringing their early jazz stars, such as Cab Calloway and The Mills Brothers, into the fold.
“Where’s the melody?”
One of the label’s biggest hits in the mid-1930s was with the million-selling Andrew Sisters, who had been inspired by the vocals of Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz vocalist responsible for so many excellent Decca recordings between 1934 and 1955. Musicians knew Decca was a benchmark for high standards. “The Decca studios in New York were in a long rectangular room. In the background was a large image of a young Indian girl, standing and holding her hand in the air, as if to signal that she had a question,” recalls singer Maxene Andrews. “In the ‘dialogue balloon,’ she was asking, ‘Where’s the melody?’ As you were recording the opposite, you couldn’t help but see this question. He was staring you in the face the whole time you were singing.
In Europe, Decca also pressed much of the early releases of Riverside, Contemporary Vogue and Esquire, ensuring their top-notch engineering skills were put to good use and allowing them to release music by musicians from jazz as acclaimed as the saxophonist. Coleman Hawkins.
“Gives the song a whole new value”
The jazz master Louis Armstrong joined Decca in 1935 and over the next nine years composed over 150 sides with his bands, some of which were very commercial tunes. “A musician isn’t supposed to play just one type of music,” Armstrong said at the time. The results speak for themselves, as Armstrong’s Decca singles feature some of his best-known music – recordings that remain hugely popular.
billie holiday had grown up as an Armstrong fan and was more than happy to record for the same label as him. She joined Decca on August 7, 1944, when she was 29 years old. She was brought to the label by Milt Gabler – the man who had been brave enough to record her song about the lynching, “strange fruit“, for Commodore Records – after he became head of A&R at Decca.
Holiday’s first song for Decca, “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” – a slow ballad often simply known as “Lover Man” – peaked at No. 16 on the charts and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. During her years at Decca, Holiday’s voice became more and more subtle. Bob Haggart, who was Holiday’s musical director on some of the Decca sessions, was always captivated by her gift for reshaping melodies. “The 1947 song ‘There Is No Greater Love’ is a great example of how Billie could take a standard tune and add her Midas touch to the existing melody – giving the song a whole new value,” Haggart said.
In September 1949, during one of her final Decca appearances, Billie Holiday shared a recording date with Armstrong. Trumpeter Bernie Previn, who performed during the session, recalled how excited she was to work with her idol. They collaborated beautifully on “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart” and “My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash.”
“One of the coolest and most prestigious labels of all time”
Other big names of the era to record for Decca and its subsidiaries included Louis Jordan – his wonderful hit song “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” – bassist Ray Brown, vocalists Mel Tormé and Teddy Grace and bandleaders orchestra Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington. At that time, Decca in America was churning out around 135,000 records a day.
The 2013 Compilation Count Basie: The Original American Decca Recordings – which appears in our guide to 50 greatest jazz albums of all time – brought together all the parties Count Basie recorded for Decca between 1937 and 1939, and captured one of the greatest swing bands at their most vibrant. Basie’s brilliant band at the time included the saxophone maestro Lester Youngas well as singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes.
In the post-war period, Decca became a revolutionary house of pop and rock – with a stable that included The Rolling Stones, Them, Tom Jones, WHO, moody blues, and David Bowie – but they continued to support jazz, including some of George Melly’s early UK releases. As part of his work for Decca, the late producer Tony Hall, passed away in June 2019revived subsidiary Tempo label and produced sessions of jazz artists such as Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Dizzy Reece and Victor Feldman for the label, before the imprint was discontinued in 1961.
Jazz in the 21st century
In recent times, some of the most popular jazz musicians of the 21st century have signed to Decca Records. When Universal Music’s Universal Classics and Jazz (UCJ) labels were renamed Decca in 2009, it brought Jamie Cullum into the fold. Cullum was snapped up by Tom Lewis in 2003 and established himself as an international star. New Jersey-born singer Melody Gardot was another big signing.
In September 2013, Gregory Porter published liquid spirit on Decca in the UK (via Blue Note France), an album that achieved success with the title track, ‘Hey, Laura’, ‘The In Crowd’, ‘No Love Dying’ and ‘Water Under Bridges’.
In 2018, Decca signed actor and jazz fan Jeff Goldblum to make his piano recording debut. “I’m so happy to be in cahoots with the great people at Decca, one of the coolest and most prestigious labels of all time,” Goldblum said.
Any label that can swing with Basie, scat with Armstrong, flirt with Holiday, and walk in with Ella certainly deserves to be called “cool” and “prestigious.”
Decca: The Supreme Record Company – The History of Decca Records 1929-2019 can be purchased here.
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