Introduction

Okeh Records, founded by Otto (Jehuda) Karl Erich Heinemann, holds a significant place in the history of American music. This article delves into the origins of Okeh Records, its contributions to the music industry, and its enduring legacy.

The Visionary Founder

Otto Heinemann, a German-American manager for the U.S. branch of Odeon Records, set the foundation for Okeh Records. Born on December 20, 1876, in Lüneburg, Germany, Heinemann played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s success. In 1916, he established the Otto Heinemann Phonograph Corporation, complete with a state-of-the-art recording studio and pressing plant located in New York City. In 1918, he launched the record label under the name Okeh.

Embracing Innovation

Okeh Records initially produced vertical cut discs but later adopted the more prevalent lateral-cut method . The label’s parent company, the General Phonograph Corporation, underwent a name change, adopting the name “OKeh” for its record labels. The 10-inch discs retailed for 75 cents each, while the 12-inch counterparts sold for $1.25. Frederick W. Hager, Okeh’s musical director, played a significant role in shaping the label’s sound. Credited under the pseudonym Milo Rega, Hager oversaw the production of popular songs, dance numbers, and vaudeville skits, akin to those released by other record labels.

Catering to Diverse Communities

Heinemann’s vision extended beyond mainstream audiences, leading Okeh Records to produce recordings tailored to communities that had been overlooked by larger record companies. Okeh Records released lines of music in various languages, including German, Czech, Polish, Swedish, and Yiddish, catering to immigrant communities in the United States. While some recordings were leased from European labels, others were produced by Okeh Records itself, demonstrating their commitment to serving diverse cultural backgrounds .

Pioneering Jazz and Blues

Okeh Records played a vital role in popularising jazz and blues during its early years. The label introduced music by the New Orleans Jazz Band, further expanding its catalog with groundbreaking recordings. In 1920, encouraged by Perry Bradford, Fred Hager, the director of artists and repertoire (A&R), recorded blues singer Mamie Smith, a decision that would shape the course of American music . The popularity of Smith’s records led Okeh Records to launch a series of “race records” directed by Clarence Williams in New York City and Richard M. Jones in Chicago. This series showcased remarkable talents such as Williams, Lonnie Johnson, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. Renowned artists like Bix Beiderbecke, Bennie Moten, Frankie Trumbauer, and Eddie Lang also contributed to Okeh’s diverse discography.

The Legacy of Louis Armstrong

Among Okeh Records’ most iconic series was the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings by Louis Armstrong. Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong and his ensembles produced approximately three sessions per year, delivering unforgettable hits like “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” and “West End Blues”. Following the tremendous success of these records, Armstrong’s music transitioned to the popular series, which targeted a wider white audience in 1928.

Distribution and Copyright

As part of the Carl Lindström Company, Okeh Records distributed its recordings through various labels owned by Lindstrom, including Parlophone in the UK. While musicians received minimal payment for their studio performances, they found solace in copyrighting their compositions. By doing so, they hoped that other bands would record their songs, leading to a steady stream of royalties.

Changing Ownership

In 1926, Okeh Records changed hands and became part of the prestigious Columbia Records. Ownership shifted again in 1934, when the American Record Corporation (ARC) took over, marking the end of the race records series from the 1920s. Finally, in 1938, CBS acquired Okeh Records. Although the label primarily focused on rhythm and blues during the 1950s, it continued releasing jazz albums, including notable works by artists such as Wild Bill Davis and Red Saunders.

The Revival and Evolution of Okeh Records

Reviving the Name

Following a period of infrequent releases after 1932, Okeh Records continued its operations until 1935. However, in 1940, when Columbia lost the rights to the Vocalion name after dropping the Brunswick label, the Okeh name was revived to take its place. A significant event marking this revival was the introduction of the script logo, which was featured on a demonstration record.

Transition to R&B

In 1953, Okeh Records underwent a transformation when its parent company, Columbia, transferred its pop music artists to the newly established Epic Records. Okeh Records then became an exclusive label for rhythm and blues (R&B) music. The music publishing division of Okeh Records also underwent a name change to April Music.

Carl Davis and Okeh’s Success

In 1963, Carl Davis assumed the role of A&R manager at Okeh Records, leading to a significant improvement in the label’s sales over the next few years. Furthermore, Epic Records took over the management of Okeh in 1965. During this period, Okeh Records featured notable artists such as Johnnie Ray and Little Joe & the Thrillers, contributing to the label’s success in the pop music scene of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Soul Music Era

With the rising popularity of soul music in the 1960s, Okeh Records signed Major Lance, who delivered two major hits for the label with “The Monkey Time” and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”. Additionally, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Larry Williams found a musical home at Okeh Records, collaborating with a band that included Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Williams also produced albums for Little Richard, marking his return to secular music. These releases not only brought Little Richard back to the Billboard album chart after a decade but also generated a hit single, “Poor Dog”. Williams also served as the music director for Little Richard’s live performances at the Okeh Club in Los Angeles, resulting in a surge in bookings for the artist.

The Influence of Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield

Okeh Records experienced a notable period of success in the 1960s, largely attributed to the contributions of producer Carl Davis and songwriter Curtis Mayfield. However, due to disputes with Len Levy, the head of Epic/Okeh, Davis and Mayfield eventually left the label. Following their departure, Okeh Records experienced a gradual decline in sales and was quietly retired by Columbia in 1970.