THE LIBERTY YEARS 1966-70: A TALE OF TWO OWNERS
(A summary of the final conclusions of this post, incorporating comments and futher research and new pictures has been added to the permanent pages of LJC “Blue Note: The Liberty Years” here)
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. Master engineer Rudy Van Gelder continued to work for Blue Note, recording and engineering, as he always had, with many labels. A long list of titles were already prepared for release, to be joined by reissues of many earlier Blue Note titles, on the new Division of Liberty label.
Judging by market prices – generally a third or a quarter of “run-of-the-mill” original pre-1966 Blue Note pressings – Liberty has earned a reputation among dealers and collectors as “the poor man’s Blue Note”. Counting about ninety “Liberty” Blue Notes of one sort or another in my collection, including the first release of titles recorded in the Blue Note years, some superb quality pressings, and not a few lacklustre editions, it seemed overdue to take stock of The Liberty Years. A lot has been written about the Blue Note years, but very little on what followed, so LJC jumps in, both feet first.(Caveat: as always, the opinions here are my own, ymmv)
Good years, bad years
Immediately after the acquisition there was a period of “good” Liberty Records, extending for the next two years, but ending in a “not so good” Liberty Records after its acquisition by the conglomerate Transamerica Corporation in 1968/9. Somewhere between the two was a “middle” period where much good can still be found.
Fortunately for the vinyl collector, these three periods are identifiable from the changing look of the Division of Liberty label, though bad news for the colour-blind collector. Below are three “Blue Note” releases of Art Blakey, which illustrate the changing ownership and management of “Blue Note Records” ( catalogue numbers do not follow chronologically).
On the left, Liberty 1 (updated March 8th, 2013) , a healthy 155gm Liberty Blue Note with all the label characteristics of original Blue Note, saturated blue and white-cream, printed by the same specialist printers of original Blue Note – Keystone, Scranton PA, hence the similarity. Both first pressings and reissues of this period are of extremely high quality. This includes the “notorious ” earless NY/Liberty pressings – old stock original NY Blue Note labels, with metal-work pulled from the Van Gelder master, but no Plastylite “ear”. Most if not all of these early Liberty Blue Notes were pressed by All Disc Records, Roselle NJ, an East Coast plant bought by Liberty at the same time as the acquisition of Blue Note. The most reliable indicator of provenance is the Keystone label, with its perfectly former registered trademark symbol, a circled “R”, and vinyl weight at the upper end of the range towards 160 gm.
In the middle, Liberty 2, the yellow-cast label with blue tinted towards towards cyan. The quality of pressing of these records is mostly very good, but not reliably so. I reckon 1-in-4 not so good, but that is just my collection. Source of pressing unknown, label printers unknown but unlikely to be Blue Notes previous printers (Registered Trademark “R” beneath NOTE is malformed, with the circle barely visible, if at all) Pressing could be competetively placed, and those labels supplied to any plant, hence the variability of quality.
On the right, Liberty 3, dark royal blue and buttermilk label, associated with thinner vinyl of an average 135 gm, and thinner still audio quality, some not even Van Gelder mastered. It is still recognizably music, but to the sound quality often flat and anaemic-sounding, at least in my five copies, which are linked with later Liberty and “Entertainment from Transamerica Corporation”
Records exist in a world of variations and exceptions. I count six distinguishable variants among Division of Liberty labels, suggesting a variety of print sources, and the near- impossibility of tying any particular variety of label to a particular pressing plant or as a predictor of quality, in contrast to the almost complete consistency of quality offered by original Blue Note and Plastylite.
A Steve Hoffman Forum poster adds this nugget of arcane knowledge: Some pre-Liberty Blue Notes that wouldn’t have had the Plastylite ‘ear’ could’ve come from the West Coast. I’ve seen some scans of LP labels where the typesetting of the label copy came from Bert-Co Press in Hollywood, as opposed to the Plastylite-pressed copies whereby label copy was set by Keystone Printed Specialties Co., Inc. of Scranton, PA.
This is the sort of knowledge you could live without, but it may be the key somehow to these label differences.
(See update 10th December 2012, at foot of post)
Sellers often little help
Unfortunately, most record sellers photo’s are taken with inexpensive point and shoot cameras under a mixture of light: tungsten indoor lighting (yellow cast), natural window light (blue cast) or eco-nonsense (green colour cast), resulting the loss of colour fidelity: you are sometimes hard-pressed to tell which you are looking at. This Liberty seller’s mind was clearly on the gatefold not the label. Well, at least he’s normal. Many people are not aware of colour variation – they see “blue and white” and they are at a loss how else to describe it.
Where it all went wrong: Transamerica Corporation
In the 1960s, Transamerica, originally a banking and an insurance group was forced to divest itself of its banking arm, and reinvented itself as a diversified financial conglomerate, which went on to include United Artists film and records, the Transamerica airline, and Budget Rent A Car among other interests.
In 1968 Transamerica bought Liberty Records for $38m, to enlarge its entertainment industry portfolio, two years into Liberty’s ownership of Blue Note. When the entertainment arm of Liberty and United Artists began to post significant losses Transamerica was said to have introduced “new management techniques” to restore profitability. Sinister. Having been on the receiving end of management techniques on many occasions, reducing the cost of manufacture rather than increasing product quality will have figured high among them.
In 1969 Transamerica merged United Artists with Liberty Records, commencing a decade of Blue Note under the United Artists label. This period produced few original titles and a large quantity of indifferent quality reissues, apart from briefly, the unexpectedly fine “Division of United Artists” series (1970-3). I have twelve, and all but one is a cracker.(That one destined for a future post)
Collectors Corner – some thoughts
Blue Note collectors are always panning for gold. Searching for that elusive original first edition of Mobley 1568, chasing first pressings on Ebay, very often coming up empty-handed. The good news is that gold just got a whole lot easier to find – selectively, from the Liberty Years.
“I’m kinda surprised, Jed. I never knew you could read.”
Early Division of Liberty Blue Notes are on the whole very well pressed records, with a Van Gelder master source and vinyl production quality to the high standard pre-dating the Oil Price hike of 1973, and great value. They make great listening, perhaps not as great as original Plastylite Blue Notes but at a third of the price or less, and for especially sought after titles, often all that is available.
However, that said, it would not stop me from upgrading from a Liberty to an original Blue Note if one came up at an affordable price. Which is not very often.
Liberty vs Japanese pressings
The obvious question for the
cheapskate 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, with the Japanese press more “polite” and restrained. Hopefully that is not a bit of national stereotyping kicking in.
The only reservation I have is that I first started to appreciate the strengths of “Division of Liberty” pressings only after a series of turntable improvements . Until then I held a pretty dim view of them. It may well be that it requires equipment beyond the ordinary to extract the quality of Liberty pressings.Or perhaps better quality equipment, properly tuned, makes all vinyl sound better, pulling Liberty up a couple of levels into the arena of happy listening.
Whatever the reason, I now class the “good Liberty” , especially the earless NY editions, as a jolly good listen. With renewed confidence, I have picked up a couple of Libertys recently and have been very happy with them. The “Liberty 3” period however remain unsatisfactory in my view, and are dismissed … to the naughty step, until such time as they own up and admit they have been bad vinyl, and that they are very very sorry. Even then, I still won’t let them come round to my house and play. Only good vinyl is allowed to play.
Of course, Blue Note collectors of the original artefact, original first pressings, will never be satisfied with anything else. That is their priviledge.
UPDATE December 9th
Mystery: who pressed Liberty Blue Notes? Why do they start so good?
LJC poster Felix has found evidence, from Billboard (28th May 1966), that Liberty purchased their own pressing plant in New Jersey at the same time as the acquisition of Blue Note:” All-Disc, Roselle, New Jersey, operated by owner Van Amo”. Seems they may have pressed Blue Note, the “Caddilac of Jazz lines” for themselves.
More interesting, the plant acquisition was a second foray into pressing plants by Liberty, following the purchase of Research Craft LA the previous year. Research Craft are documented as pressing Riverside US editions.
The trail is hot.
Update 10th December
“Nice theory, shame about the facts, LJC” Too many anomalies for me to feel comfortable with, so no rush to judgement. Looks like one may have to consider who printed the labels, as well as who owned to company, and which plant pressed the record.. I am in the process of going through each of the forty odd Division of Liberty pressings I have, to come up with a better story. Whatever it is, it is more complex than I initially imagined.
UPDATE 11th December
All of the labels, around forty, shot under identical lighting, and put them into similar groups, in which I count six main variations. These show little consistency over time, suggesting they could just be variations in print suppliers rather than pressing plants, as I believe the record company commissioned and delivered the labels to the chosen pressing plant. Four of the forty have the Capitol “sixpence” depression, which I understand is definitive, so 90% are not pressed by Capitol. Around half colour-match original Blue Notes in a Classic Blue Note design, complete with registered trademark. Around 90% have a VAN GELDER or rarely, an RVG master source.
Some label printers seemed not have a registered trademark symbol in their font set, hence the plain character “R” in place of the circled R, as deployed in the Blue Note-like Classic label typsetting. Its always the little things that give you away.
Sonically the worst sounding records are those which don’t 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.
I am not sure how much this has added a lot to our understanding of the Liberty years, except they come across as confused, inconsistent and probably not worth further effort to understand.
In one of those Rumsfeld moments, the amount I don’t know I don’t know has reduced (I am guessing of course) but the amount I know I don’t know has increased.
So that’s all good then.
UPDATE December 19, 2012
W.B at Steve Hoffman Forms responded to our enquiry , thank you so much W.B – this really puts perspective on the Liberty East/West Coast dimension, Great!
For the mouse-challenged, this is the text of W.B’s response:
Well, though this is peripheral, in the period up to 1968 United Artists Records (which, along with its film company parent, was acquired by Transamerica in 1967) had their LP’s on the East Coast pressed by Abbey Record Mfg. in East Newark, NJ since at least 1966; I can’t say for sure if Abbey pressed for Blue Note in the years leading up to the Transamerica acquisition of its then-parent Liberty, though it may be possible. What I do know is, West Coast Blue Note pressings at the point of the Liberty acquisition would have been by L.A.-based Research Craft which Liberty had taken over in 1965, while on the East Coast there was also the little matter of All Disc Records in Roselle, NJ, which Liberty acquired the following year (and which I saw was touched on in the blog post in that link).
Based on this, it appears BST 84245 (“Liberty 1,” with label typesetting by Keystone Printed Specialties of Scranton, PA) would have been an All Disc pressing, while the other two examples of BST 84170 and BST 84258 (“Liberty 2” and “Liberty 3,” respectively, with label typesetting by Bert-Co Enterprises of Los Angeles) were pressed by Research Craft; the former plant had 2.75″ diameter circular indent on the label area (just as latter-day Plastylite Blue Notes), while the latter had a 2.875″ diameter circular indent which was long associated with Monarch pressings and the “delta numbers” on the deadwax. It is very unlikely RCA would have pressed Blue Notes in the two-year interim between the Liberty acquisition and the onset of the Transamerica era (given their 2.75″ diameter “deep groove” and use of glossy paper for their labels), but then I’ve been surprised more than once by certain pressings that shouldn’t have been.
It should also be noted that by the time the Transamerica era was well underway, Liberty’s own studios in Los Angeles (which were rebranded as United Artists studios upon Transamerica’s early 1971 dissolution of Liberty and their absorption of what was left of their artist roster to UA) took over the lion’s (no relation to Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion) share of the job of lacquer mastering which may explain why the sound of those latter Liberty-era Blue Notes was “anemic.” (I’ve quite a few Liberty/UA-mastered 45’s in my collection; there was a big hunk o’ compression in many cases, and some with somewhat narrow stereo. I’m also at a loss as to which lathe Liberty/UA would’ve used – whether it was a Scully or Neumann – maybe the former, given their use of constant [not variable] pitch and depth. Van Gelder, of course, always used Scully mastering equipment – most definitely the 1950 model that was the first to have variable pitch/depth control and preceded the 1955 Model 601.)
Also, by the end of Liberty’s existence, some 45’s on Blue Note were pressed by Columbia (and maybe a few LP’s, too). I have one such 45, by Richard “Groove” Holmes (one side of which was a rendition of the theme from the film Love Story); the typesetting and pressing (styrene, natch’) came from their Pitman, NJ plant, and the Blue Note label design (at least on 45) was conformed to the “Liberty style” design of labels, with “Liberty/UA, Inc., Los Angeles, California” in the rim print; the lacquer mastering on that release was handled by New York-based Mediasound, Inc., on a Scully lathe by former Bell Sound mastering engineer Dominick Romeo.