Last Updated: December 13, 2016
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.
Collectors focus on “original Blue Note”, records manufactured prior to the sale Of Blue Note and its catalogue of recordings to Liberty Records Inc. in 1966. Some seek only the most sought-after first pressing, in mono. 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.
Exit Plastylite, Enter All Disc Records
The first visible change following Liberty ownership was the end of Plastylite pressing, a relationship which went back to the ’50s or even earlier . Vinyl pressing transferred to Liberty’s newly acquired pressing plant, All-Disc, Roselle, N.J.. The current “All Disc Records, Inc”. was at one time “Liberty Records Mfg. Co.”. Note the All Disc first company filing date – June 1st, 1966.
Plastylite Corporation, 333 North Drive, North Plainfield, NJ 07060. The Plastyite “ear”, an inverted cursive letter “P”, disappeared from the run-out of all subsequent pressings for Liberty-owned Blue Note. Little is known of what became of Plastylite. The Cash Box 1969 Industry Directory still has Plastylite listed under “Record Pressers”.
Records first-released 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 by van Gelder and allocated a chronological Blue Note catalogue numbers (Full listing here) included important titles by Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and others. These were released for the first time by Liberty in 1966. All-Disc took delivery of labels and covers printed earlier, bearing the earlier Blue Note addresses. Recordings mastered by Van Gelder bear his stamp in the run-out, from the original metal, but the Plastylite ear, which was applied during pressing, disappeared.
First stereo editions
In addition to first issues, Liberty also went back to the catalogue to release the first stereo edition of titles previously issued only in mono. Hence it is not uncommon to find a mono album with ear and its stereo equivalent without.
New Artists, new releases
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”. Sadly, a good number of Blue Note’s original artists fell out of favour.
Blue Note re-issues by Liberty
Liberty set about leveraging the Blue Note back catalogue, re-issuing popular earlier titles. Of importance to the collector, Liberty first used up any old stock of labels and covers, including even 767 Lexington Ave and 47 West 63rd St addresses. Hence these reissues appear “original” in every respect, including van Gelder master stamp, except for the missing “ear”.
Liberty reissues continue to be a grey area on Ebay. Sellers argue there is no obligation to describe what is not there – no ear – despite it being evidence of original status. No mention of “ear” generally means it is absent, though not always.
Once old Blue Note labels were used up, Liberty’s own new “Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc.” label was introduced. That label design continued in use until 1970, however, over time, there are label print variations, in colour and font, which indicated the decentralisation of pressing and printing to other plants, not all to the high standard of All-Disc.
Liberty record pressing
All Disc Records Inc., 625 W First Ave. Roselle, N.J., manufactured high quality Blue Note pressings for Liberty Records. Apart from the missing “ear”, what distinguishes Liberty pressings from “genuine” Blue Note originals is the tell-tale vinyl weight.(as found in my collection, of course, ymmv) Early Liberty/ All Disc pressings, 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)
Early Liberty vs later Liberty
Two years into ownership of Blue Note, Liberty Records was swallowed up by the conglomerate Transamerica, who increasingly called the shots, and which marks the second phase of Blue Note under Liberty.
The Liberty relationship with Blue Note’s original print supplier, Keystone printed Specialties, was broadened to a variety of local printers, as pressing became further decentralised to cut distribution costs. The visible sign was the loss of fidelity of the classic blue and white label.
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 P. A.
Watch for the ®
The distinguishing characteristic of Keystone (and original Blue Note ) is the clearly-formed circle around the Registered trademark: ®. This identifies these early high quality Liberty pressings from later variable quality pressings using other plants and other print services. Below illustrates the common origin of a true original Blue Note label (BST 84126) and an original Division of Liberty label (BST 84283) , both printed by Keystone.
Later, Liberty pressing was distributed to other plants, including Capitol-owned facilities, and Liberty’s own West Coast plant, Research Craft L.A., purchased in 1965.
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 un-calibrated monitor)
Close up detail of the Keystone/Scranton printed label trademark symbol compared with other print variations shows that at this time only Keystone were able to print a clear circled ® symbol. Labels printed by Bert-co on the West Coast and others have a small malformed R with only the faintest trace of circle. Perhaps their metal font-sets did not include the relatively new ® mark, merely a small font “R”, or their paper and ink qualities differed. 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. Look for that rich royal blue and the well-formed ®. Note also with other pressings the die pressing ring just clips the E in NOTE, but is a slightly smaller diameter and clears it with keystone/All Disc.
Liberty “contract pressing”?
LJC reader Ivan uncovered this anomaly, a blank mono Liberty label over-printed with recording details.
This kind of interim label has been seen with Division of United Artists titles during the period of transition to the blue label, but the first encountered with Liberty stock.
Liberty sale to Transamerica.
In 1968, Liberty Records was sold for $38m, to the financial conglomerate Transamerica, who were 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 conglomerate, which included United Artists Pictures, the Transamerica airline, and Budget Rent A Car among other interests. “Division of Liberty Records Inc” continued in use.
Below, a last gasp, circa 1970, Liberty Records Inc recording licensed to U.A. Records Ltd, UK, manufactured in the UK for export to Europe/Germany. No mention of Blue Note, despite production by Duke Pearson and a Blue Note catalogue number BST 84349
(Label find courtesy of Kieran G)
Significantly for the future of Liberty Records, United Artists Pictures had its own separate records division, United Artists. Their separate identities were destined not to last.
“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 the United Artists years of Blue Note, timed with the evolution of jazz in many new and different directions.
Liberty/UA, Inc. 1969 advertisement indicating the labels under Transamerica ownership, including Imperial, Pacific Jazz, Liberty, United Artists and Blue Note.
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 Blue Note issues
Original Blue Note records are generally the best edition for collectors, but can be prohibitively expensive. The next best alternative is often a vintage reissue. The obvious question for the price-conscious collector is how do these 50 year old Division of Liberty reissues compare sonically with similarly priced vintage Japanese reissues? Both sit in the $40 to $50 range.
The quality of Japan’s King and Toshiba engineering and manufacture is highly regarded, but first, be aware there were two distinct Toshiba reissues – those manufactured for the Japanese market during the Liberty era (LNJ series, Division of Liberty label), and those manufactured from 1983 onwards, after the King Records era, distinguished by facsimile Blue Note labels with US address and regular BN/BNST catalogue numbers.
The first Toshiba series (LNJ) are outstanding, the equivalent of Liberty originals. The later Toshiba are good, but not quite as good as King Records, which are often to be preferred to later Toshiba.
I have both a Japanese and a Division of Liberty edition for comparison, the Liberty is the more enjoyable experience, with more punch and immediacy, whilst the vintage Japanese pressing is generally more restrained, and “soft”. Whilst King are usually very acceptable, they are inconsistent, varying in strength from one title to the next. That variation may just be due to the quality of the copy tape supplied from the US, we can not know why.
Neither are as good in my view as original Blue Note/ Plastylite. All are generally superior to CD and some modern so-called audiophile editions. The key I believe is their all-analogue production process, which was rendered obsolete by the digital revolution of the ’90s. This taints Japanese, European and US manufacture over the last two decades, further complicated by the technical ability of sound engineers to re-master original tapes to their own sonic preferences.
Be very wary of Toshiba Blue Note pressings after about 1992 and definitely avoid anything manufactured in the last 10-15 years. Even so-called “RVG re-mastered” were re-mastered by RVG for CD, not re-mastered for vinyl. Toshiba merely transferred digital CD onto vinyl, resulting in wooden presentation with a cut-off top-end.
The main black mark against Liberty was their effort to climb on the Stereo bandwagon by electronically reprocessing early Blue Note mono recordings for stereo effect. Reprocessing generally destroys the coherence and quality of the music, to no good effect, and “electronically reprocessed for Stereo” titles should be avoided. However, not everything is always as it appears.
Some records labelled as “reprocessed for stereo” are not, they are straight original mono, merely labelled “stereo”. Some genuine stereo editions – stereo recordings between 1959 and 1961 -use Van Gelder’s two-track tapes intended to generate a mono fold-down, and go on to master them in stereo. These have hard-panning left right or centre, with instruments in unnatural positions on an unbalanced soundstage, for example, the lead instruments on far left channel, and holes where no instrument is playing.
Reissue Sound Quality
Sonically, the worst sounding records are those Blue Note reissues which do not have a Van Gelder source master.The best are those sourced from an “RVG” stamped master, which can sound as 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.
UPDATE: October 10, 2017
Blue Note Liberty – Canada
Eagle-eyed reader spots Canadian Liberty Blue Note