Last Updated: May 13, 2019
Blue Note Records – The United Artists Years 1970-79
LJC United Artists Blue Note Cheat Sheet
Around 1968 the ailing Liberty Records – including its Blue Note recordings catalogue – was bought by a San Francisco-based diversified financial conglomerate, Transamerica Corporation. Amongst its other entertainment industry holdings, Transamerica also owned United Artists, which fatefully for Liberty Blue Note staff, had its own record division.
Liberty UA Inc
Initially United Artists and Liberty were run as separate businesses. United Artists Records continued to issue its own recordings, and Liberty UA Inc. was formed in May 1969 as the new face of Liberty Records and its Blue Note catalogue. A new black/ light blue Liberty UA label was introduced , for both new titles and reissues. For mostBlue Note re-issues, original Van Gelder stereo masters were employed, and the audio quality is excellent, prized by collectors on a budget and in the know.
However with both record labels struggling financially, in February 1971, Transamerica consolidated its Liberty Records assets under United Artists management, with “United Artists Records Inc” in command of a Blue Note Records Division. For Liberty execs, a bummer.
No freedom for Liberty: United Artists vies for control
Between 1971 and 1973 there was increasing evidence of turmoil within the merged Liberty and United Artists management, which anyone who has lived through corporate mergers will be familiar with. We’ll do it my way. No, my way. Back in 1966 Liberty had moved management to New York to run its new acquisition, Blue Note. Now power had shifted back to L.A., along with it, a new roster of recording artists producing soul jazz funk. West Coast executives took contol.
Collector Nightmare: Classic White and Blue Label – Black Text
Around 1971, and probably overlapping with the initial UA/Liberty black and light blue label, the classic white and blue Blue Note design with the legend “Blue Note Records – A Division of Liberty Records Inc” label was reborn as “A Division of United Artists Records, Inc.”,
Here a marketing push with Division of United Artists labels, a UA inner sleeve I have never seen before (seen here with 1502 Miles Davis), a blue sticker “Blue Note Hits A New Note”, and a special $2.99 price ticket. Mostly those picture below were a batch of factory sealed records from one seller, so what was within remains unknown, but the Davis is clearly a classic Division of United Artists label and that unique inner says “Blue Note Hits A New Note”, also found on a 1976 UA sampler.
United Artists continuing the BST catalogue numbering series but briefly with black text for all album details. Why Black text? Possibly album details were printed at a different time and place onto “blank” Blue Note stock labels, hence no text colour-matching. Fortuitously one of these labels offers a (p) 1972 date, fixing the approximate date of manufacture.
The battle for supremacy, however, was far from over. In late 1972 it was decided to abandon the long-running Blue Note catalogue numbering system BLP/BST at 4435, and replaced it with a new catalogue numbering series underlining United Artists west coast identity, BN-LA, for all new releases (reissues retaining their original Blue Note catalogue number) . Commencing at BN-LA 006, BN-LA begins to appear on the white and blue Division of United Artists, Inc. label.
The black text however soon disappeared, and thereafter the album detail was printed in the same blue ink colour as the rest of the label i.e. all printed at one and the same time. The significance of label print is that it localises the pressing plant. With geographically distributed manufacture came distributed printing, and different printers had different font supplies for typesetting, so we enter a world of telltale pointers of origin. The one sign of quality that matters more than any other is the presence of VAN GELDER in the runout -source metal, Van Gelder master.
With its own new BN-LA number allocation system under its control, United Artists Records dispensed with the forty-year old white and blue classic Blue Note label, stamp out the last vestiges of the Liberty era. Commencing in 1972 around BN LA040 United Artists Records Inc. introduce a radically different label: all-blue label with a black b/ note symbol, which was to endure for the next eight years.
In the second hand record market, blue label reissues are low value. Sellers say they don’t have time to listen to them, and they are not “Insanely Rare!”or “Original!”. As a result they can be a very satisfactory purchase.
However, even as late as 1973 we find this example BN-LA047 Donald Byrd’s big hit Black Byrd in both old and new Blue Note liveries: a Division of United Artists classic White and Blue label, and the new all-blue black b label, all bearing the copyright date as (p) 1973. (Note: copyright dates are only loosely linked with year of manufacture)
(Note: Enthusiasts uploading pictures to Discogs , colour is affected by the lighting conditions in which the picture was taken and may not reflect true colour.)
The VAN GELDER stamp appears intermittently on reissues on the blue label, as original Van Gelder masters were brought back into service, with mixed results. When Transamerica acquired Liberty Records, along with the Blue Note Catalogue it also acquired in the process the two pressing plants purchased by Liberty – Research Craft, L.A. (in 1965) and All Disc, Roselle Park N.J. (in 1966). Their combined manufacturing capacity now served United Artists Records Inc. but was probably supplemented by other plants, and there is little consistency and variable quality in pressings over this period.
United Artists Music and Records Group (est. 1975)
More restructuring of United Artists led to the creation in 1975 of the United Artists Music and Records Group , subsuming the previous United Artists Records Inc.- the shorter name found on all blue label releases between 1972 and 1974, and the longer group name on all releases from 1975 on. The Music and Records Group remained the official corporate identity for the Blue Note label from 1975 through to the sale to EMI in 1979. Name changes mean little to music consumers, they mean everything to company executives in changing company structures.
Division of United Artists – classic mono reissue series
(Updated December 12, 2016 – now complete series)
Between 1971 and 1975 the Blue Note Records division of United Artists reissued the cream of the Blue Note BLP 1500 series and many gems from the early BLP 4000 series, in mono. This was completely unprecedented. Stereo had, for over a decade, been the format of choice, and domestic ownership of stereo phonograms near universal. If anything, the vogue was to reissue earlier mono recording in stereo through electronic reprocessing. New titles were all being released only in stereo, audiophiles didn’t exist, and the nostalgia/retro industry was still to come, thirty years ahead. The Cuscuna/Ruppli Blue Note Discography omits their existence.
Van Gelder mono masters still existed for these titles, yet UA opted instead to have their own in-house engineers remaster them, presumably from original tapes now housed in Los Angeles, or copy tapes, no one knows. Graced with the classic Blue Note white/blue label – updated with “Blue Note Records – A Division of United Artists, Inc.” thirty four titles have been identified in this UA mono series, facsimile front and back covers exactly like the mono Blue Note original, and the audio quality is very good, though the few I have been able to A:B against originals suggests they are lesser.
A complete labelography of the series is shown below, winnowed from internet sources. The choice of titles points to a guiding mind whose tastes are revealed: no soul jazz, purely classic bop, stopping before modal post-bop. There are some inconsistencies which come to light when you create what are termed in info-graphic design “small multiples” – everything held constant and rendered comparable, which reveals the small differences. A handful of the earliest titles carry a ©1975 reference on the label, suggesting they were manufactured at another time to the others. Most have artists credits after the track listing, some do not.
(Towards the end of the series, 4027 Music From The Connection is found with mono labels but a stereo 84027 cover, sloppy manufacturing improvisation).
Why a mono reissue series?
Who were these mono reissues aimed at? In the early ’70s, “mono” had no traction, it was “old”, the only market for “authentic” classic mono pressings was probably Japan, but these are found almost entirely in the US. Possibly they were a vanity project by someone high up at United Artists, attempting to revive the classic Blue Note brand, but discontinued in the face of commercial reality. Whatever the reason, they are a highly affordable alternative to especially expensive Blue Note originals. The most desirable titles like those by Jutta Hipp are current auctioning at three figures.
Classic Blue Note stereo reissue series – a big mistake
Much like the mono reissue series, UA attempted a similar stereo series of early classic titles, original facsimile covers, remastered by UA engineers, but some fake stereo, many unsuccessful transfers from Van Gelder two track tapes, some spectacularly (the BST 81542 Sonny Rollins is particularly horrid, using metal from an unsuccesful stereo transfer by Liberty), absolutely to be avoided. Always read the label!
More details of the Division of United Artists historic reissues moved to The Gallery:
Label chaos – the blue label/ white b
Alongside the blue label/black b appeared the white b variation, used interchangeably, in some cases for reissues, the double album “two-fer” series but also new releases, with no obvious logic. Commonly found towards the end of the Blue Note United Artists years, 1975-8. There are many examples of the all-blue label which carry a (p) 1973 but whose catalogue number sequence and the UAMRG designation date them several years later. It seems likely that the new United Artists Records Inc organisation filed copyright in bulk on a large volume of recordings on its formation in 1973 (hence (p) 1973), some of which were not manufactured until a few years later, by which time the new UAMRG Inc. label (1975 or later) was in place.
Record Labels tangle with Record Clubs
United Artists Records business woes were deepened by a long-running dispute with the Record Club of America, described as the most acrimonious legal dispute ever seen outside of a divorce court. In the Sixties, Record clubs had become a major distribution channel for many record labels, Columbia and RCA even launching their own, however in the process they became entangled with the business model of the mail-order Record Club, which involved discounting practices, free record sign-up incentives, postal returns, sales tax and royalty headaches, and fulfilment nightmares. Whilst some of the proprietary clubs like Columbia pressed own-label editions for the club, United Artists supplied ordinary pressings, as available in record stores.
The four million members of the Record Club of America were a particular headache. For a $5 joining fee, members of RCOA received free records for signing up and heavily discounted records thereafter, including from the catalogue of United Artists. The label received smaller payment for free records chosen, and onerous fulfilment demands fell on UA’s record manufacturing subsidiary All Disc Records. When All Disc failed to fulfil orders in a timely way, RCOA turned to the courts to rule on its right to manufacture its own records from master tapes, in effect demanding UA hand over Van Gelder’s tapes ( bless ’em, UA rightly refused!)
The lawyers took until 1981 to conclude transfer of assets into EMI-owned Capitol Record Industries, now new owners of the Blue Note catalogue, but the long-running dispute with Record Club of America continued well into the late eighties, as RCOA emerged from the ashes of bankruptcy with yet more legal claims against United Artists and many other labels too. Two attorneys seemingly built their entire careers on suing record companies, all the way to The Supreme Court. (Apparently, it’s the American way)
Michael Cuscuna opens up the Blue Note vaults: the two-fers
Notable amidst this sea of variable quality reissues and a handful of new releases, the Blue Note vaults at this time yielded up many previously undiscovered original recordings from the Blue Note years, including sessions by Andrew Hill, Booker Ervin, Sam Rivers and many other gems discovered by Michael Cuscuna.
Around 1975, United Artists released these for the first time, in light brown gatefold package double album “two-fer” series. The series adopted a variant of the UA blue label, using a white b encircled by “THE BLUE NOTE RE-ISSUE SERIES”, a misnomer, as all the tracks have never previously been issued. The sound quality on some of these two-fers is bright fresh and exciting (Van Gelder recordings), whilst a minority are somewhat lacklustre. Booker Ervin’s Back From The Gig is a stellar recording, essential.
In parallel to the previously unreleased material two-fers, an Artist Twofer compilation series was released, a double album of each main artist like Hubbard (BN-LA356-H2) and Rollins (BN-LA401-H2), album co-ordinator George Butler, with multicoloured “litho print” cover design. These are samplers of previously issued material, remastered by UA engineers for the sampler, and are fairly poor sound quality, categorically not recommended.
Below found on an obscure Japanese collector site featuring samplers, a never-before seen two-fer Reissue Series sampler, with a “Blue Note Hits a New Note” sticker seen on some earlier “Division of United Artists” label releases. The sticker use here on 1976 release is an unexplained anachronism, several years into UMARG branding.
Despite his encyclopaedic Blue Note knowledge, there has never been any indication Cuscuna understood the mechanics of quality vinyl mastering and pressing. He listened to original Blue Note tapes – why would he?
By this stage few if any new recordings or new jazz artists appeared on the United Artist label, and the best Blue Note pressings emerged on the Japanese market, manufactured in Japan by King Record Company, Tokyo, including a number of Japan-only releases of Blue Note recordings.
The last gasp – 1979, the LT series, and Liberty/United Records Inc
Seemingly invented for these 1979 issues from the Blue Note vaults, another corporate identity was created – “LIBERTY/ UNITED RECORDS INC”. Note this is not Liberty UA Inc., nor United Artists Records Inc, nor United Artists Music and Records Group Inc. Never was an organisation more wrongly named “United”.If United is the wrong word, Division must be the right one.
The LT series unearthed amazing recordings then already 15 years lost in the Blue Note vaults. Despite their interesting material, the sonics of the LT series are somewhat variable, many of them are really excellent, pure sparkling unissued Van Gelder recordings as fresh as any released material (Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd) but sometimes disappointing – some of the Mobley material (three albums) are a let down, and the Jimmy Smiths, and there are some non-Blue Note recordings that are not as strong (Art Pepper, Omega). But they are very inexpensive, undervalued, and the material from mid sixties is mostly terrific, just never made it to Blue Notes crowded release schedule, and Alfred Lion’s fear of over-saturating the market for certain artists that were selling well anyway.
United Artists: Audio Quality
“One person who has a website says the quality of these recordings isn’t very good.”
(I wonder who they could be referring to?)
Postscript (December 27, 2013}
More about font colour!
Goldmine Jazz Price Guide (online extract)
Division of United Artists with black print are a known item (last line) though new to me. Below LJC contributor Phil exhibits the “black-font” Division of United Artists, which further research suggests was a short-lived variation around 1971-2, which went on to be replaced with blue font, before the label was “retired” in 1973 and replaced by the all-blue United Artists Records Inc. label.
Picture courtesy of Phil L
(My thanks to Bob Djukic, DG Mono and Phil T for their invaluable input and fiendish tenacity)