Collector’s Guide to Contemporary Records Part I (updated)

SUNDAY UPDATE: Guide to Contemporary 3500 series back covers now added to permanent pages for Guide to the  Contemporary Records  label.

(If you are able to provide better picture of original back cover with coloured text and frame, all contributions welcome, email to address under “Contact LJC” on the banner.)

2016digitalredUnprecedented, we have never seen a year as big as 2016 before. Scientists predicts that 2017 will be even bigger, but only if civilisation lasts that long. To be honest, the signs don’t always look that good. It is in moments of doubt like this I like to put a record on the turntable, as reminder of all the good things that we have and are still able to enjoy, for now at least. According to my turntable, it is still only 1958, loads of time, turn the clock back, while you still can. 1958

I’ve treated myself to a bit of label research that interests me and hopefully of interest to record collectors: Contemporary Records. Blue Note has been done, Prestige has been done, Impulse‘s been done, but not Contemporary.  I’ve done them in a shallow fashion to date: now it’s time for a deep dive. Take a deep breath, and join me in Contemporary fashion. I’ll catch up with covers soon, promise, and more records queuing up for review. They say variety is the spice of life. Myself, I’m quite partial to balsamic drizzle.



Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records was one of the great jazz labels,  arguably more advanced in the development of Stereo than any other, due to engineer  Roy Du Nann. It’s legacy includes some of  the best work of Art Pepper, Art Farmer, Barney Kessell,  Shelly Manne, Ornette Coleman, Hampton Hawes, not to mention André Previn (I asked you not to mention Mr Previn ) and a host of excellent west coast players like Bob Cooper, Curtis Counce and Harold Land. And some popular Broadway shows that may not have altogether stood the test of time.

The late 50’s and very early 60’s were the label’s most productive years, with a large body of recording sessions of a fairly small roster of musicians, in sparkling audio quality. Along with new releases, as with every label, reissues of  previously released material earlier kept the cash registers ringing. After the sale of the company to Fantasy in the early 70’s, the  new owner “worked the back catalogue” with yet more reissues.  The record collector (and seller)  is therefore faced with areas of uncertainty as to which issues are “originals” and which are later reissues, as a lot of identifiers useful in dating other labels are not well recognised with Contemporary.

Many “cloned” Contemporary Records titles (not manufactured from original tapes or pressed from legacy metal) have made their way to the market in the last few decades, and are commonly what is found in the shelves of record stores. Plenty also find their way onto auction sites, the giveaway being no label photo, vinyl condition “near mint – looks unplayed” (which if it’s André Previn, is probably true)  Uploads to Discogs often have a yellow label and put the date of issue as “Unknown”

In addition to the OJC reissues by Fantasy, there is an official modern reissue series – “an original Contemporary Classic, now available again” blue sticker. That O word again.


Unlike Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse, there is little documentation (in English) on Contemporary and the usual information sources like discographies and catalogues are not linked to physical manufactured product. It was custom and practice to reproduce original liner notes dated  say 1959 on reissues decades later and no date of issue or manufacture, only of copyright assertion.


The record label, being printed and then affixed during manufacture, is an important guide to provenance. LJC’s going to have a grumble. It is frustrating that several prominent US  jazz sellers on ebay never include a label picture. They are selling a record, so they picture just the jacket, or half the record peeking out the jacket, small as to be illegible.  I don’t want a tease, I want a full frontal. Collectors in Japan consider it a matter of honour to give a close-up of the label – that is proof of what you are buying. All the pictures here are from the good sellers, many Japanese,  and Discogs uploaders who understand. Euclid and Craig Moerer please note.  Grumble over.

Of course what you really want to see is the Lester Koenig machine stamped matrix in the run-out:


You should be so lucky.

First, a label roadmap, approximate timeline and originating labels, including both mono and stereo:


CorrectionContemporary Records Inc was sold to Fantasy in 1984, the company being run for seven years  after the death of Lester Koenig in 1977 by son John.

LABEL FLY-OVER: C3500 mono series

Kicking off with the C3500 series, mono 12″ deep groove editions in the mid to late ’50s, not every title has been found, but enough to get a feel for the territory. Amidst this series is the iconic Lighthouse label, used for Howard Rumsey All-stars Lighthouse sessions titles. Invariably, originals in this series will be  deep groove.



At C3559 the 3500 series divides, to be replaced by the High Fidelity (mono) M3500 series, and the stereo edition to the  S7500 series.

For stereo there is an added complication – the new parallel company STEREO RECORDS is born, in 1958. More of that later.

Contemporary-C3551-75-1920 (2)



Mono ceased altogether at some point, with the last half dozen titles unable to be found examples of in this research. I am guessing some of these last mono titles are reissues in the run up to the Fantasy years.

The M series originals are always yellow label deep groove, as evidenced by various DJ promo/ demonstration copies, just a couple of what look like  reissues in green:



UPDATE: differing green labels

On closer inspection, not all green labels are the same. These three look to me to have been manufactured at very different times.

  1. Looks to be vintage deep groove “trench”. The paper is glossy and the green is marbled, and the text looks authentically gold.
  2. is typical of many found: the groove is not a true vintage deep groove “trench” but a slim step, though in the same position. The gold text is muted and the  green is quite dark, vinyl weight 123gm. Original LKS stamper  origin.
  3. is only 100gm vinyl weight, sixpenny die-mark around the spindle-hole, and the paper is smooth semi-matt finish. Very definitely a “modern” reissue, but authentic LKS stamper origins, and sounds remarkably strong, considering.





Enter in late 1958/ early 1959 the STEREO RECORDS company, designed to sell the new stereo format but insulated from the Contemporary brand. Though some writers suggest the company commenced late 1958, the Billboard announcement is dated May 1958.


A new label deserves a new cover and new label of it’s own, the oval overprint on white, STEREO cover. I credit esteemed Japanese collector Kenplin for this fascinating archive. I admire the dedication of a true obsessive collector, 27 Stereo Records titles, terrific. I’ve got only two, and I know why – they are mostly all in Japan.


On to the all-important STEREO RECORDS labels, of which I omit a few non-jazz titles. These are all black glossy label/ gold text. The colour varies with picture-takers use of artificial light without white balance control. I’ve corrected hue where I can, but some still have a colour cast not present in the original. They are a truly beautiful sight viewed at full screen.


With stereo a technical accomplishment and the  industry next big thing, STEREO RECORDS was brought back into the Contemporary fold.Engineers among you will appreciate this excellent piece in The Soundfountain  which brings you this sort of mindboggling insight into recording the piano (No, I don’t understand it either) Aparently some people were better than others at recording piano.


Lots of interesting history of Contemporary, Koenig, and Stereo Records you can read for yourself, but it doesn’t address the vexed collector faced with competing claims of “original!!! status.Where Stereo Records left a, the new Contemporary stereo label appears in similar black label gold text, borrowing the same design:



To further complicate matters, there are a few anomalies to be found, not many, which look of more recent manufacture. The consistent feature is the presence (or absence) of the Contemporary Records CR logo  on the label. It disappears in the Fantasy years, not a device used again. Where it is missing, it is either a rare anomaly, or of later provenance. You didn’t mess with registered trademarks, or the cease and desist telegrams arrived thick and fast, followed by lawyers all over you like a cheap suit.


For reasons not entirely clear, Contemporary issued an alternative livery, essentially the same but dark green/gold text/deep groove, I would judge from the same era as black/gold, though there are found some later variants, illustrated at the end of the green tableaux: It appears only for a few high-selling titles, for which multiple label variants can be found. Suspicion suggests green was used for later pressings, I have seen no evidence but plenty of hearsay. There was one green glossy label gold text DG  Stereo Records found (seen below) no idea if it is vintage, there may be others..

Later variants also turn up in green livery, some in non-deep groove, and later still, with late 60’s new releases with titles in funky fonts



That brings me to the commonly found yellow stereo label in the S7500 series. My surmise is that these are sixties second or third issues probably early ’60s, some possibly later ’60s, but include a handful of new titles along the way. These are certainly the most difficult to date, as they are found on many titles. Almost never deep groove but generally with CR logo and boxed STEREO text – until a new design arrives may be mid/late ’60s and dumps these features.

There is sometimes a reference to the presence of the CR logo as indicating a reissue. Yes andNo.  The CR logo first appears in around 1961/2, so titles released before then shouldn’t have it, titles released after should,  all original pressings. It disappears with Fantasy in the early ’70s.


LJC-Michael-Caine- Professor Jazz fastshow30That brings to a conclusion Part 1 of the Collectors Guide to the Contemporary Record label, First Draft, Provisional work in Progress. Some things we know, others we know we don’t know, some we may  have completely wrong, but can make an educated guess at.  I may have it all wrong, needs tearing up and starting again, but if it is I might cry.

Still to follow, cover detail ( ie back liner notes with title in red or green highlighted text, company addresses, all that stuff) .

The only real evidence is collectors who bought these titles new at the time of issue, and were prescient enough to note the date at the time. And read this blog. I’m inviting anyone who can to add anything, new knowledge.

Floor is yours if anyone wants to chip in, correct anything. Happy 2016.


UPDATE (1)  Which Twin has The Toni?


Rudolph throws the first spanner in the works, asserting the green as a later reissue label. Certainly some green are non-deep groove, but some are DG. What status does that leave the black?  In this example, S7562, there are three labels found and that still leaves open the possibility that black is 1st, yellow is 2nd green is 3rd, all by Contemporary.

No wonder people are confused.

7562 seller confusion


So the authority now is Discogs? Someone thinks the yellow is the 1st 1959 release. Why is the black a reissue? In most Discogs entries and Japanese sellers, the black label is considered the 1st/earliest/original release of a title. (Appeal to authority, I know)

How to account for all the glossy black labels and almost all of the glossy green labels being deep groove? Deep groove pressing dies fell out of use in the very early ’60s industry-wide, as every record collector knows. It is the yellow stereo label that transitions smoothly to no deep groove.

Here is another example of the collector’s dilemma, S7568. Art Pepper Plus Eleven, recorded March 14, 1959, and falling within the life of STEREO RECORDS but not issued by them, but issued in stereo by Contemporary Records.


Whilst in the C3500/ M3500 series a yellow DG is the original, when it comes to S7500 stereo series, the groove-less yellow label is the more modern. In this case, the DG black/gold label is the first stereo, issued 1959. The green, I think a second pressing, after the black, and the yellow the third pressing.

I’m beginning to get a headache again.


Working my way through the issue of covers, I realise I have walked into a trap. C3532 Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section has two covers, each of whose followers claim first pressing original status. It is The Matrix choice – the red pill or the blue pill?


Which to choose? The big money ($700!) is on the red, if that means anything:

3532Ccv redtext 4but there is a promo on the blue.

3532 blue title cv PROMO-1

I am now pretty certain that my copy with Green title and box is not an original.


Wrong address – operating out of a PO Box and not  8481 Melrose Place. If only I had known then…


47 thoughts on “Collector’s Guide to Contemporary Records Part I (updated)

  1. During the late 70s … 78 or 79 , I recut the whole contemporary records catalog…… Lester called me at RCA during the last week before studio closed and offered me the job of cutting all his best selling albums… mothers and stampers no longer in condition to press records so I recut almost the entire catalog before he passed away.. Richard Simpson


    • Thanks for this titbit. Were these remasters actually used to press anything? How can anything pressed with them be identified? By 1980 we were on the verge of the CD, and collector’s shelves were full of the pressings from the previous twenty years. Lester’s son John Koenig seemed to be in charge of events. He made some corrections to my account of Contemporary, and never replied to any follow up questions.

      Custody of the original tapes would seem more fruitful, which I guess are in the hands of Concord Music Group (Craft). They seem notably absent from the current crop of premium quality audiophile reissues, some great recordings, Rollins, Pepper, many others, a lost opportunity.


  2. I have just created a discogs listing for Art Pepper +11, deep groove green and gold labels
    Cover identical to the black and gold label 1959 Stereo Version, it has a H scratched into the dead wax on both sides, and has exactly the same Matrix number LKS 89- D7, for both sides of the Matrix run out, which if Aaron’s contention about the H, is correct indicates that the thesis of LJC as i understand it that green and gold labels can be stereo 1st pressings is indeed correct.


    • What you posted doesn’t make sense to me and the only green label I can find on Discogs is not DG, can you post a link? The “H” shouldn’t be scratched but machine stamped, later represses from the original plates scratched out the “H”. The original DG black label has D4 for both sides so these D7 cuts on the green label would be later.


  3. I didn’t see this mentioned here but I might have missed it. Most original Contemporary pressings were done by RCA Hollywood, evidenced by the small H stamped in the deadwax away from the matrix. The later 70’s non-DG represses we mostly manufactured by Monarch with the circled MR in the deadwax and the original plates RCA Hollywood “H” scratched out.


    • You didn’t miss it, I handn’t got around to writing the run-out part yet. I’m relying on my own copies as it seems hardly anyone on the internet understands the stamps – apart from folk around here. But your comment is most timely and helpful – I’ve just been puzzling over the H stamp, and you have answered it. Teamwork. Great!


    • RCA studios close 1977.. I had been cutting records for the past 10 years when the studio closed I got a call from Lester K asking if I would be interested in remastering many of the labels great jazz records.. wondered how he heard of me it have been because my dad recorded and mixed many great jazz records never did ask and to this day know why he chose me..the next year or two I spent every day cutting master lacquers for the making of new mother and stampers … my dad Bob Simpson recorded a live album at the village vanguard and I mastered the lacquers not long before Lester passed away.. I stayed on for awhile helping his son John keep the label going until he decided to sell the label.. I had a great experience cutting great sounding jazz records… Lester had lots of stories to tell during my time working with him.the late seventies I cut a lot of new masters to produce new mothers and stampers during this time the records were being pressed at cbs in Santa Maria.


      • Richard, your experience is unique. The later years of the Contemporary catalogue are very cloudy, with the absence of reliable information in identifying reissue dates, repressing, remastering, nothing on the covers to clarify origin, it is in desperate need of information. Mostly we collectors have to turn to US Postcode clues on the cover address. Anything you can expand on from your experience would be very welcome.


  4. So John Koenigs contribution amounts to what Americans call a threadcrap. Come in, say its rubbish, offer no evidence to the contrary. Lets hope he can improve on that. For my own contribution, I wanted to add that the UK Decca masterings and pressings are absolutely superb sounding in mono and stereo, with quiet backgrounds from the less noisy vinyl used over here. LJC must have some, no?


    • My Contemporary bodycount:

      UK Contemporary Vogue: 25 titles, all mono, Decca didn’t want to do stereo, or Contemporary sent them only mono tapes. All superb, of course, and smell of New Malden in the ’50s. Decca mastering and engineering is superb, but they were starting with great recordings from DuNann and Holzer.

      US Contemporary: 10 titles, all but one later reissues, but mostly stereo, and all with original LKL or LKS matrix stampers. I’ve overpaid for some, now I understand better the variations.

      I’ve got all my US Contemporary out and going over them with a microscope. There some significant items like dates that link to label types, more discovery to come, like Aarons point about pressing plants.


      • Hi LJC, just a point about UK Contemporary Vogue being all mono – I have several stereo copies, for example “Double Play” by Russ Freeman & Andre Previn. Its Vogue catalogue number SCA 5004, with the legend “Contemporary Stereo SCA 5004” all contained within an oval on the front cover where the “Stereo Records” logo appears on the USA version. The deep groove label says “contemporary Stereo – Vogue”, and is black with silver lettering…I also have the Art Pepper’s “Getting Together” & “Intensity” in SCA versions (and “My Son the Jazz Drummer”, but maybe better not admit to that…)


    • There are more red only ones in circulation than blue and red.
      CR’s practice in the beginning was to have the title and tune box on the rear in another colour. Let’s assume this to be the rule. So, all red for Pepper to start with (same for Way out West). Any deviation then is bound to be a exception to the initial rule, thus a later (second) edition.
      Throughout an album’s lifetime sales were boosted every now and then with a round of promos. So the promo stamp is no proof, only a beginning of proof.


      • Rudolf, your timing is exquisite, as is your analysis. Just completed a forensic analysis of Contemporary back covers (3500 series), posted for first time here:

        As you speculate, there is a run of red text titles, into which Pepper sits naturally. The blue looks like a second run. Other colours are discernible in other covers, some purple, some green, others cinnamon but many are found only in black text. There was a little fun being had with the design, it is an attractive nuance.


        • Are we suggesting that the Art Pepper is the only one with the dual colors that is not original? Pub Crawling C3529 as well as Shelly Manne C3533 (nearby in catalog number and released around the same time) also have the blue and red and we think those are original but not the Pepper? I don’t own 3532, so I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak. Just curious.


          • My Pub Crawling is titled in red and a blue tune box. I don’t have 3533.
            Of course, the blue and red Pepper are both originals in the proper sense. For me, personally, it is without importance whether the blue or the red were issued first. I have the red and the catalogue which came with it is the green one, which still features the CR’s 10″ albums. So it is way back in CR’s history and that, for me, is enough, FPFs objections notwithstanding.


            • In the late 90’s before there were any real web based database’s I was told to look for a colored box border on back that referenced a correlating color from the front layout. Jack BeaBopa said that’s what the Japanese Dealers were looking for when evaluating first pressings on Contemporary Records. 20 years later we’re still trying to verify so many of these little details. I’m a record geek and proud of it.


              • I am the first to acknowledge our friends in Tokyo are the best vinyl detectives. Work in progress, but that is essentially the way it is beginning to work out.

                The difference between now and then is, as you infer, we are “evidence based” rather than “take someone’s word for it”. There are other clues coming to the fore, like the appearance of postal zip-codes in the Contemporary Records California address: Melrose Place stays the same, but Los Angeles 45 Calif, or Los Angeles, California 90069?

                There is a lot still to be uncovered.


                • Two-digit zip codes, like Los Angeles 45 (or New York 23), we used up until July 1, 1963 when five-digit zip codes, like 90069, were introduced.


    • The cover of the Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section should have a blue heading and and pink line around the tracks (3 color back) to be the 1st art cover. As well, a frame on the bottom or the top. I asked two of the best and most knowledgeable dealers in the world about the colors before I bought my copy.


      • This is what I had always heard as well. I would love to know what the evidence is for both sides. I’ll admit having sought out the blue heading copy I do hope you’re correct Fredrik.


    • Thanks for joining us John! Please help clear up any inaccuracies, information straight from someone in the Contemporary family is always appreciated.


  5. Roy Duann got a fantastic, natural piano sound for Contemporary. Steve Hoffman speaks very highly of Dunann’s work; indeed it is exceptional. As great as Van Gelder’s stuff is, Dunann came out ahead with his piano sound.


  6. Work in progress. Bravo. One omission which can be easily repaired: Lester has had two alto players under contract Lennie Niehaus and thereafter Art Pepper. The former deserves to be mentioned in LJC’s introductory paragraph. He is as closely associated with the label as Shelly Manne and Barney Kessel.
    The first 10″ and the first 12″ issues (2501/3501), both by Howard Rumsey, were also issued in red wax.
    The 10″ labels were in DG and non DG fashion. The non DG had a small circle around the spindle hole, with a diametre of the old 1 penny coin. The covers of the non DG versions were at least half a centimetre smaller. I don’t know which is more original. But does it matter?
    No clue re the two- or three-tone rear of 3532. The Stereo Record issues were all printed in black only


  7. A very nice way to start the year. Great label and classic music. Thank you LJC.
    One quick, preliminary, remark: the green labels only appeared in the very late sixties or even the seventies, not the late fifties. They were used though from the outset in the popular 5000-series.


    • Great, thanks for that insight. Since most of the green classic label still bears the CR logo – and that logo ceased to be used around the time of the Fantasy move, late ’60 seems the more likely. However I am updating the post with further thoughts as we go. Kindly see example of S7562. It’s the “deep groove” on all black and many green that is nagging me. With almost every label, DG dies are a mark of early provenance, but not Contemporary?


      • The sequence you describe for S7562 seems correct, whereas the Cecil Taylor one should be black first, then the green, thereafter the yellow. I suspect the yellow was introduced only when the monaural version was sold out.
        Lester sent me catalogue # 16 in Jan 1971. Way Out West is already listed under S 7530 and Art Pepper listed S 7532, but Stereo Records # 7007, 7009, 7011, 7003, 7012, 7026, 7027, 7028, 7030 and 7025 are still available. So the transition was gradual.
        I ordered directly from CR between 1966 and 1975. On those occasions I may have gotten the first green labels and I was not amused. It is a long time ago that I have ditched them for yellow and black originals. I remember that the All Night Session was not available anymore in mono, so Lester sent me the stereo version and they were black.
        Regarding Stereo Records: I have had two label versions of Way out West, one shiny and one mat, the former with gold letter type and the latter with greenish/yellow letter type. From the texture of the cover I could conclude that the shiny one is the original, and the mat the second print.


  8. Excited to go through my collection of 50-some Contemporary records and see which aren’t first press! Couple of things I know from the start: my copy of C3501 has red vinyl and the correct label design, do we know if that was standard on all copies? Also, there was a Contemporary “Popular Series” starting with C5001 Mel Henke’s “Dig” in 1955, and I believe this series used the black DG label exclusively, despite that it was only issued in Mono. Is that series outside your scope?


  9. I don’t have many Contemporary US issues but I had understood (and happy to be proved wrong) that if a US record had the CR in a black box (top or bottom) that it wasn’t a first pressing (even if it had a deep groove too). I guess thats why I buy the UK pressings…at least you can tell (mostly!).


  10. Do you have any info on the first state of covers? I know some had colored writing and line work on the back in the first press, but I’m not sure when this occurs. Also, if you’re ever in the mood to do another round of Prestige for the NJ press I’m happy to contribute.


  11. That is the best start to 2016 for me. I am a longtime West Coast jazz fan and the label Contemporary belongs to the high lights in my collection.
    This new blog about the label and its variations will give me plenty stuff to investigate in my Lps again and see what I really have probably even an original.
    Thank you so much for this great effort to clear many open questions re this label.
    Thanks again and na happy 2016.


    • I’d second Willie’s comments – wonderful stuff! Really look forward to part 2 on the covers, and am already looking out my ( fairly meagre) Stereo Records/Contemporary collection in anticipation…


      • Hello, i have a question about my us copy from Ornette Coleman ” tomorow is The question “. It s a yellow label deep groove m3569. In the deadwax i have the matrix number with D2 on side one and D3 on side 2, and have no H in the deadwax. Have your more infos about this? Thank you and have a nice day


        • 1959 recording, deep groove, mono,yellow label, early LKL stampers, the absence of “H” is a bit of a wild card. Without corroborating information on detail of the cover, it is difficult to date manufacture more precisely. It takes all points of the compass to triangulate its position. Contemporary were particularly bad at information as to date of manufacture, perhaps it was thought not important, or some other reason. The cover might add more clues.

          For clarity:
          Most  Contemporary records were pressed at the RCA Hollywood plant, indicated by stamped letter “H” in the run-out.The stamp is found on both early ’50s pressings through to the  early ’70s – even light weight reissues with no deep groove and high value stamper codes.
          Not every Contemporary record was pressed at RCA – a small proportion have no H stamp, and were pressed elsewhere. In 1976 the RCA plant was replaced by Monarch

          Full story on stamper codes here:

          Cover addresses: here


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