THE BLUE NOTE LIBERTY YEARS (1966-70): a collector’s view.
In 1966, the iconic record label and greatest catalogue of jazz recordings of all time, Blue Note Records Inc, was sold to the giant Liberty Records Inc. and in a short space of time, ”Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc” was born. BN 4250 Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind was the last official original Blue Note release, though many lower catalogue numbers went on to be released later.
Purist collectors often tend to focus on “original” Blue Notes, meaning specifically records manufactured prior to the sale to Liberty, and some only the most sought after 1st pressing. However there is a considerable body of good music released during the Liberty years, of excellent pressing quality, and less expensive Liberty reissues are encountered frequently among records for sale, not always properly described, so it is important to be aware of the transition to the Liberty years.
The first visible change marking the period of Liberty ownership was the disappearance of the cursive letter “P” Plastylite pressing plant symbol, from the run-out of all further pressings. The high quality of pressing that had been achieved by Plastylite however was maintained, for some time at least.
Blue Note first releases by Liberty
A backlog of around forty Blue Note titles, mostly recorded in 1965 and a few earlier, had been prepared and were awaiting release prior to the sale.Those recordings, mastered (mostly by van Gelder) and previously allocated a chronological Blue Note catalogue number, included important titles by Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and others. Many of these were then released for the first time by Liberty with already printed Blue Note NY address labels and covers, those mastered by van Gelder the stamp, but all without the telltale ”ear”. On the cusp of the change, the mono edition of some titles was released with “ear” by Blue Note, and the stereo edition a few months later, without the “ear” by Liberty.
Liberty continued a programme of over 300 new Blue Note releases in the 4000 series, from BN 4250 up to 4435. Many were recorded at van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs Studios, featuring artists such as Duke Pearson, Big John Patton, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and Hank Mobley, all of which recordings have their first release on “Division of Liberty” labels – “Original Liberty 1st press”
Blue Note re-issues by Liberty
Liberty also set about reissuing many of the more popular earlier titles from the Blue Note catalogue, important to the collector, using up any old labels and covers first, including even 767 Lexington Ave and 47 West 63rd St addresses. These can appear to be ”original” in every respect including van Gelder master stamp, except the absent “ear” (and vinyl weight). Liberty reissues of older titles, with original labels and covers, continues to be a grey area on Ebay, where sellers argue there is no obligation to describe what is not there – no “ear”.
Liberty’s own new “Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc” label was put in service once old Blue Note labels were used up, and where none previously existed, and the label continued in use until 1970, for both reissues and new releases. However there are at least four main variations of the label which signify variation in pressing plant and pressing quality during those four years.
Liberty record pressing
Liberty purchased a record pressing plant, All Disc Records, of Roselle, N.J., at the same time as Blue Note, and this is the most likely source of the high quality first Blue Note pressings for Liberty Records. In addition to the missing “ear”, what distinguishes Liberty pressings from “genuine” Blue Note originals is the telltale vinyl weight.(as found in my collection, of course, ymmv)
Early Liberty pressings, of whatever label, are typically around 145 – 155 grams compared with original early Sixties Blue Notes of 160-180 grams. Though each distribution has a few outliers, the weight of vinyl is generally indicative of the origin. That “Lexington” weighing 150 gm almost certainly isn’t.
The Blue Note release backlog and early reissue pressings on Division of Liberty label show a continuity of label printers – font, inks and paperstock identical to original Blue Note labels, both printed by Keystone Printed Specialties of Scranton PA.The distinguishing characteristic of Keystone is the clearly-formed circle around the Registered trademark. This distinguishes these early high quality Liberty pressings from later variable quality pressings using other plants and other print services.
Later, Liberty pressing was distributed to other plants, including Capitol-owned facilities, and Liberty’s own West Coast plant, Research Craft L.A., purchased some years previously. Label variations from the early Liberty phase above are shown below:
(Note: these label pictures were taken with colour-managed workflow, viewed on a colour-calibrated monitor, which corresponds with reasonable accuracy to actual colour viewed under natural light. They may not correspond to an ebay snapshot or viewing on an uncalibrated monitor)
Close up detail of the Keystone label trademark symbol compared with other print variations shows that at this time only Keystone were able to print a clear circled R symbol, where Bert-co and others have a small malformed R with only the faintest trace of circle. This, taken with the variation in the hue of blue, points to a different supply chain of printing and vinyl pressing services.
The broadening of Liberty/Blue Note pressing to Liberty’s own West Coast plant, Research Craft, and possibly other plants (around 10% are identifiably Capitol pressings from the sixpence-sized pressing circle around the spindle) associated with more variable quality and lower vinyl weight, coincided with the acquisition of Liberty Records by Transamerica in 1968. It is not possible to say there is a causal relationship, however it remains a useful collectors “rule of thumb”, that early East Coast Liberty pressings, as indicated by Keystone labels, are a good predictor of superior audio quality.
Liberty sale to Transamerica.
In 1968, Liberty Records was sold for $38m, to the financial conglomerate Transamerica looking to expand their entertainment industry portfolio. Transamerica, originally a banking and an insurance group, had been forced to divest itself of its banking arm, and reinvented itself as a diversified financial conglomerate, which included United Artists pictures, the Transamerica airline, and Budget Rent A Car among other interests. Significantly for Liberty, United Artists had its own records division.
“Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc” continued to function under Transamerica ownership for a further two years, until in 1970, when Transamerica decided to rationalise Liberty and United Artists holdings under the United Artists Records banner, retaining the Blue Note/Liberty name only for marketing purposes. Here begins Blue Note, the United Artists years, and the pulling of jazz in different directions..
Audiophile’s Corner – some subjective opinions
Division of Liberty variations
Pressings by All Disc, as indicated by a Keystone printed label, vinyl weight around 150gm, with VAN GELDER master stamp, are excellent quality, with sound close to original Blue Note. These account for around a half of all my Liberty pressings.
The remaining three types of label variation, signalled by lower vinyl weight around 135gm, in all probability West Coast pressing, and often falling into the Transamerica period, are more variable in sound quality. Some are excellent, still with benefit of van Gelder mastering, some less so. It is not like you have a choice – that is how they come, you have to either take it or leave it.
Liberty vs Japanese pressings
The obvious question for the price-conscious collector is how do Division of Liberty Blue Notes compare against the similarly priced Japanese Blue Note pressings? Though I am full of respect for the quality of King and Toshiba engineering, where I have both a Japanese and a Division of Liberty edition for comparison, I have to say the Liberty is the more enjoyable experience. More slap and immediacy, whilst the Japanese press is generally more restrained.
Neither are as good in my view as original Blue Note/ Plastylite, but sometimes that is not an affordable option. All three are generally superior to CD. I can’t speak for audiophile reissues, which some collectors rate highly, though I am not one of them.
Sonically the worst sounding records are those which do not have a Van Gelder source master.The best, I found a couple which are sourced from an “RVG” stamped master which sound a fresh as yesterday. I am still of the view that the closer to 1966 the better, and the closer to 1970, the worse, though that may be for a host of reasons other than company ownership.
Thanks to WB, whose knowledge of 60′s vinyl pressing plants and label printing is extraordinary and unrivalled.