Last Updated: February 18, 2018
THE BLUE NOTE LIBERTY YEARS (1966-70): a collector’s view.
Serious collectors often focus on “original Blue Note”, records manufactured prior to the sale of Blue Note Records to Liberty, sought-after first pressings in mono, some of which command prices in four figures. However Liberty still has much to offer the Blue Note collector.
In 1966, Blue Note Records Inc, the iconic record label and greatest catalogue of jazz recordings of all time, was sold to the giant Liberty Records Inc., and “Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc.” was born. 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.
There was a continuing stream of new recordings released during the Liberty years, and many reissues from the Blue Note back catalogue, some sourced from the original Van Gelder masters, which are not as costly as “originals”. However not all “Division of Liberty” pressings are equal: reissues pressed on the West Coast were mostly re-mastered locally from copy tapes, not from the Van Gelder masters, so it is important to be aware of the different ways in which Blue Note Records were manufactured during the Liberty years, and learn to recognise their origin.
Liberty announced its expansion plans to the industry thus:
New Owners, new suppliers
The first visible change following Liberty ownership was the end of the relationship with Plastylite, which went back to the 1940’s . Vinyl pressing transferred to Liberty’s two recently acquired pressing plants, All-Disc, Roselle, N.J. and Research Craft L.A., acquired the preceding year, and subsequently to a variety of third parties, as tight industry capacity dictated.
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. Little is known of what became of Plastylite. The Cash Box 1969 Industry Directory still has Plastylite listed under “Record Pressers”.
The Blue Note release backlog: 35 titles first issued by Liberty
At the time of the sale, thirty five Blue Note titles were awaiting release. Those titles, recorded and mastered by Van Gelder and allocated a chronological Blue Note catalogue numbers (Full listing here) included important titles by Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and others. These were released for the first time in the second half of 1966, many in both mono and stereo format. All-Disc took delivery of any old stock Blue Note labels and covers bearing the earlier 43 West 61st Blue Note addresses. The final “27 Years” inner sleeve accompanied many of them. The recordings bear the VAN GELDER stamp in the run-out, everything says “Blue Note” but the Plastylite ear, which was applied during pressing, is absent.
Blue Note recordings issued in stereo for the first time
In addition to the 35 titles awaiting release, Liberty began to release the first stereo edition of titles previously issued only in mono. This included some recordings electronically reprocessed for stereo from single track tape (early 1500 series), others sourced from Van Gelder’s two-track tapes intended for mono, “hard-panning primitive stereo”. It is not unusual to find a title whose mono edition is with Plastylite ear and its stereo edition without.
New artists and new Liberty recordings
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 with Liberty, moved to Europe, or became deceased. The Liberty artist roster veered towards the West Coast, and soul-jazz genre.
Reissue of the Blue Note back catalogue by Liberty.
Liberty reissues outnumber original Blue Note copies many times over in the second hand market, but there is a historical lack of information for collectors on how to identify different kinds of Liberty pressings. Many sellers seem to assume they are all the same, which they are not.
Blue Note Records Inc. had been an New York-centered operation. Suppliers, recording studios, pressing plant, label print, distribution and A&R, were all based on the East Coast. Liberty was West Coast in origin, a different animal. A few executives were despatched to New York, but manufacture was in future to be organised around nation-wide distribution, which meant several places of manufacture, using a completely different supply chain for each.
Liberty acquired all the historical Blue Note assets – an inventory of tape recordings, metal parts and old stock labels and covers. Of importance to the collector, Liberty first used up any old stock of labels including even 767 Lexington Ave and 47 West 63rd St labels, even pre-registration without ®. Some of these reissues appear “original” in every respect, including van Gelder master stamp, except for the missing “ear”.
LJC Collectors Note: there is no obligation on record sellers to describe what is not there – no ear, and in some cases, no Van Gelder stamp. If not mentioned, always ask! Be wary of claims I have seen like “original Blue Note NY label!” without mention of “the ear”, or failure to mention presence or absence of Van Gelder run-out stamp.
Once old stock Blue Note labels were used up, Liberty’s own new “Blue Note Records, a Division of Liberty Records Inc.” label was introduced. The basic white and blue design continued in use until 1970, however, stylistic variations in typesetting and variations in colour hue are noted on the record detail, as printing and manufacturing extended to include other suppliers.
Liberty’s initial reissue of Blue Note recordings
Liberty was now owner of around 450 Blue Note titles already released, and an unknown number of other recording sessions which never made it to the release schedules. They allocated the task of manufacture of reissues to at least three, likely four plants, probably simultaneously. Plants located on the East Coast were supplied with original metal parts which we can assume were initially located in New York. Thus pressings by All Disc and some others East Coast plants like Keel Mfg., are generally pressed from Van Gelder masters, with Van Gelder’s stamp, and have labels printed by Blue Note’s original local printer, Keystone Printed Specialties.
The method of manufacture of reissues on the West Coast however differed in several important respects. It looks like instead of shipping Van Gelder metal West, Liberty shipped copy tape to Research Craft, who’s engineers re-mastered the Van Gelder recordings for their own use. Side by side disc comparison shows different groove width setting from Van Gelder’s Scully pattern, and different diameter of run-out groove. Though the music is technically the same, tweaks and salient engineering equipment differences employed by Van Gelder to create “The Blue Note Sound” fell by the wayside. West Coast pressings manufactured in this fashion can be identified by their labels, printed locally by Hollywood giant Bert-Co, and the missing Van Gelder stamp.
Bert-Co employed a number of compositer/typesetters, so slightly different layouts and font-choices occur on from one batch of titles to the next. The printing inks in use drift away from the original Blue Note pure colour Reflex Blue. This contrasts with the more uniform approach of Keystone in the way variable items such as album title, artist, song title information are set out. The two examples below are typical but other variations are found among Bert-Co labels.
Third Party Pressing
Given the 1966 vinyl pressing industry was operating at near full capacity, reissue pressing was also contracted out to third parties, which I believe includes the Nashville pressing plant, Southern Plastics, who had then recently extended their singles manufacturing capacity to press 12″ LPs. Southern Plastics also had a nearby plant Dixie Pressing, which had a history of pressing LPs for labels like Veejay. SP pressings are generally from Van Gelder masters with Keystone printed labels.
There are also Liberty pressings which have label-print associated with Columbia plants – Pitman and Santa Barbara (Erbar Condensed font)
Worked Example: The Sidewinder
Using the Liberty reissue of the popular title The Sidewinder as a worked example, three different pressing plants can be identified below. Importantly, the East Coast and SP pressing (large central 1.18″ pressing die impression) are from the Van Gelder master, the West Coast pressing (far right) is not Van Gelder, but re-mastered.
Most reissues can be found as East Coast, West Coast and Southern pressings, plus some where the provenance is less clear. The most easily observed characteristic of West Coast pressings is the printed centre label font of on Bert-Co labels, in which the side information is always capitalised – SIDE – with a serif 1 , and the mal-formed registration mark ®
Below, Keystone mid-1968 changed their regular font for Catalogue Number and Side information to a slightly smaller font whose character set numeral 1 has a serif, similar to but not identical to that of Bert-Co. Up to this change this date the sans-serif I is an easy identifier. After the change, both are with serif but Keystone continued to set “Side” in upper and lower case, Bert-Co always in capitals.
A close-up of the new Keystone font reveals that it is in fact a different, more compact font, not just a smaller point size of the old font. (compare the letter “d” shorter upright riser which slightly narrows in the centre, sort of bone-like shape.)
Font-recognition software assigns the new font to the Futura font family, actua; or imitation.
Fonts designs could be adapted to avoid paying licensing fees, and all the main linecasting machine manufacturers – Linotype, Intertype, Monotype, introduced near copies of the most popular font family designs – Vogue, Spartan, Futura, for their own machines. This is likely at the reason for the change in fonts at Keystone in 1968. Though Vogue and Futura are very similar, they are also sufficiently different for licensing and proprietary manufacture. The most visible differences are the number 1 and the letter M.The fonts illustrated below are a good but not perfect match, changes made over time.
These are typical character differences which distinguish West Coast printing and manufacture associated with non-Van Gelder mastering, though as with most of these things, there are rare and unexplained exceptions. Bert-Co label reissue is sometimes found with Van Gelder stamp, though most are not.
The West Coast practice of re-mastering from copy tape occurred only with back-catalogue reissues. In contrast, new titles – certainly those around and upwards of BST 8300, are from a Van Gelder master on both East Coast and West Coast pressings. Eventually, Blue Note assets were moved to Los Angeles, with original metal available for future use, including later after 1970 by Liberty/United and United Artists.
Anomalies will be found, because no-one can ever account for every possible event or circumstance. That Van Gelder/ Bert-Co exception could have been pressed after the metal assets were relocated to LA, who knows? In this case exceptions do not disprove the rule.
Plants used by Liberty to press Blue Note
- All Disc Records Inc., 625 W First Ave. Roselle, N.J.,
All Disc manufactured high quality Blue Note pressings for Liberty Records. A tell-tale vinyl weight.(as found in my collection, of course, ymmv) 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) Blue note range from 140 to 220 grams, with an average around 180 grams, older (1956-7) skewed towards the heavier end. Liberty are much thinner/lighter, range between 125 and 175 grams, with an average of around 145 grams
2. Research Craft, LA
Pictures of the plant are not found, and it left no trace on records it pressed for Liberty. The only way of identifying Research Craft Reissues is through the its close association with Bert-Co labels, and absence of Van Gelder stamp.
3. Southern Plastics, TN
Trade press confirms Liberty was an SP client, among others, and the pressing die impression found on about 10% of my Liberty reissues matches those found on other labels known to use SP, like Chess and Veejay. Circumstantial, but little else to go on.
4. Keel Mfg, Hauppage, LI
East Coast plant which is believed to be the source of serrated edge pressings, which account for about 5% of Liberty manufactured reissues.
Bestway is found, though only on one title, and quite possibly other contract pressings occurred.
Part II: Transition From Liberty Records to Transamerica Corporation
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. .
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 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, possibly indistinguishable. 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, are more variable in sound quality. Some are excellent, some less so. Some still with benefit of van Gelder mastering,
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 the best of the Japanese pressings, though still not as strong as the Liberty US pressings. The later Toshiba are good, but not quite as good as King Records, which are often to be preferred.
I have both a Japanese and a Division of Liberty edition for comparison, the US Liberty is the more enjoyable experience, with more punch and immediacy. Vintage Japanese pressings are generally more restrained, and “soft”, though invariably near-silent vinyl in top condition. 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.
Original vinyl is generally superior to CD and most so-called audiophile vinyl editions. The reason is its 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 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. 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. they are not “fake stereo”, just “bad stereo”.
Reissue Sound Quality
Sonically, the best are those sourced from an “RVG” stamped master, Van Gelder recorded AND mastered, which sound as fresh as originals, which effectively they are. The worst sounding records are those Blue Note reissues which do not have a Van Gelder source master. That includes West Coast Liberty reissues, Japanese and European reissues and modern audiophile.
Rudy had been present in the original recording session, knew what the real thing sounded like, knew what needed to be done in mastering, it is the Blue Note bloodline. Later engineers have managed to create a richer more modern tonal range, extract more detail, but sound to me like what “lip-filler and bottox” does to improve on natures’s gifts, it sounds fake and inauthentic. You are welcome to form your own views.
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