Caught by the River

Becoming Elektra : The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label

Andy Childs | 6th October 2010

Becoming Elektra : The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label by Mick Houghton (published by Jawbone)

review by Andy Childs.

Up until his untimely death in December 2006 at the age of 83 the music business’ most venerable executive was unarguably Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records. With his passing that distinction must surely now lie with Jac Holzman, the visionary audio fanatic and music fan who started Elektra Records at the beginning of the 50s and who is still to this day very active in the record business at 80 years of age.

This month, October 2010, Elektra Records is officially 60 years old and, fittingly, the occasion is marked by the publication of this thoroughly-researched, highly-readable and beautifully produced book from Mick Houghton which charts the beginnings of the label in Holzman’s dormitory room at St.John’s College, Maryland right through to 1973 when he left the label that three years before he’d sold to the Warner Music group.

The bare facts alone are reasonably well-known : as a college student with a keen interest in audio engineering, Jac Holzman started Elektra primarily as a folk label in New York and steadily grew his company astutely if intuitively so that by the time of its tenth anniversary it was one of the leading folk music labels in the U.S. Moderate success with the likes of Jean Ritchie, Theodore Bikel, and Josh White and a series of inventive compilation albums and cannily-marketed sound effects records, paved the way for more commercial signings so that by 1965 Judy Collins, Judy Henske, The Dillards, Fred Neil and Tom Rush were all signed to Elektra and making superior records, many of them produced by Holzman himself. The devotion to folk music continued but the unprecendented changes in popular music that were about to occur had become apparent to the ever-alert Holzman and, having witnessed, first-hand, the excitement generated by Bob Dylan’s infamous electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and having quickly appreciated the possibilities spawned by that event, “folk music and Elektra”, as Holzman says, “were never the same again.”

Having already established a West Coast presence in 1962, Holzman was well-placed to take advantage of the developing folk-rock scene there and, in an inspired move signed the mighty Love. Largely because of Love Holzman went on to sign The Doors which well and truly established the company financially and signalled a significant period of growth and artistic success until eventually, in need of some distribution muscle, Holzman sold the company to Warner Communications in 1970. He continued to run Elektra for a few years but, not entirely comfortable operating within a corporate structure, left in 1973. Legend has it that he realised it was time to leave when, on entering Warners’offices in Hollywood, he was asked who he was by a hapless security guard.

Upon this scant summary Mick Houghton builds a full and compelling narrative, full of anecdotes and great quotes (most of them from the eminently quotable Holzman himself), so that at the conclusion the reader is in no doubt that as well as achieving not inconsiderable commercial success Elektra, guided by Holzman’s intuitive vision was as innovative, adventurous and ultimately influential a label as it was probably possible to be. The first ‘modern’ record label.

Like most serious music nuts of his generation Mick Houghton inevitably bought an Elektra Record around the mid to late sixties. In my case it was a Tim Buckley LP and for Mick it was the debut album from The Incredible String Band, a record he admits to struggling with at first; but as it all started to make sense and reveal its virtues, and a whole new musical world began to take shape, it was Elektra Records that shaped the tastes of discerning listeners with wonderfully idiosyncratic records that although only aired by John Peel on ‘Top Gear’ and on Pete Drummond’s show with any regularity, became increasingly influential and slowly gave Elektra an eclectic but beautifully realised label identity. Every serious record collection that spans the 50s and 60s ought to have at least twenty Elektra releases (my assertion) and Mick does an admirable and totally convincing job of explaining why. As he tells the Elektra story, the career of every important and influential artist signed to the label is capsulized and put into context so that we come away with a far more complete and proportioned view of the merits of artists like Jean Ritchie, Tom Paley, Josh White, Bob Gibson, Koerner, Ray & Glover, and The Butterfield Blues Band – relatively unsung heroes all, but crucial to Elektra’s development and well-being. One of the great strengths of this book is that Mick deliberately and rightly spends nearly half of it documenting Elektra’s birth and progress during the 50s – that much-maligned musical decade that, along with what Mick discusses here and what Pete Frame examines in unprecedented detail in his essential tome ‘The Restless Generation : How Rock Music Changed The Face Of 50s Britain’ is at long-last being intelligently and convincingly re-assessed. That what Holzman achieved with Elektra in the 50s, both from a commercial and artistic standpoint was absolutely crucial to the label’s future success is in no doubt but Mick also successfully argues the artistic merits of much of the music that emerged on the label during that decade to the point that we are further tantalised by the faithful full-colour reproductions of every Elektra album sleeve and the quest to hear much of this music starts to become an obsession (it did for me anyway).

Besides half a life-times worth of Elektra listening and as a long-time respected chronicler of contemporary music’s less well-known but eminently worthy practioners Mick’s credentials for writing this book are further enhanced by the fact that four years ago he wrote the extensive notes for and, along with Stuart Batsford and Phil Smee, put together, the monumental and totally essential 5CD box set entitled ‘Forever Changing : The Golden Age Of Elektra Records 1963-73’ (Rhino) which not surprisingly serves as an ideal companion piece to this book.

I should add that one of the many pleasures of ‘Becoming Elektra’ is the inclusion of so much visual material; besides the aforementioned sleeve reproductions (hours worth of perusing alone) there are wonderful photographs to accompany every phase of the label’s history and many letters, memos and documents that reveal the passion and commitment that drove the label forward and the genuine affection and respect that artists and Elektra personnel obviously felt for Holzman. Another treat is that it also occasionally reveals peripheral nuggets of information that, while not directly relevant to the Elektra story are nevertheless fascinating, such as the fact that Miles Davis was instrumental in getting The Byrds signed to Columbia.

As an example of how to research, examine and chronicle the history of a great record label and its mercurial founder and leader (every truly great record label has one, and usually only one), I can’t praise this book enough. Pretty much everything you’d want or need to know about the heyday of Elektra, including it must be said a complete discography, is here (there is a postscript that briefly charts the label’s history from the early 70s to the present day) and I can think of several other eminent labels that would justifiably benefit from similar attention.

Becoming Elektra : The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £16.00

read previous articles by Andy Childs HERE.