Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman's Visionary Record Label By Mick Houghton Jawbone Press, 304 pp., $29.95
While most of today's major record companies are run by men in suits answering to a corporation rather than men of vision answering to their whims, there was a time in the 1950s-'70s when a company could become synonymous with its owner. So was Jac Holzman to the quirky Elektra Records.
In 1950, when the then-19-year-old Holzman began the label, he was simply looking for a cool way to combine his interests in folk music and audio engineering. For the next 23 years, his little label that could not only released efforts by folkies (Jean Ritchie, Josh White, Theodore Bikel), but albums of just about everything else from Israeli folk songs, bawdy Renaissance ballads and even sound effects. Before the term was invented, Elektra was definitely a "world music" label.
But Elektra really came of age in the late '60s, offering seminal releases by artists like the Butterfield Blues Band, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Carly Simon, Tom Paxton, Love (with mercurial frontman Arthur Lee) and their biggest signing, the Doors. In fact, Jim Morrison's band of gypsies has become so synonymous with the label that Holzman - now 80 - jokes in one of the many original interviews done for this book that the first line of his obituary will undoubtedly mention the group.
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Music journalist Houghton does a detailed job tracking the label's progress and artists, and the generous illustrations include company memos, rare photos and the cover of every Elektra release. And while the writing style is a bit too much "And then this happened...and then this happened" without fuller anecdotes and zing, you can't really blame the guy since there's so much material to work with.
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Toward the end of the decade, Elektra scored critical (if not commercial) cred by signing both MC5 and the Stooges in one weekend, and the opposite with releases from soft-rock kings Bread and even early Queen. But by 1973, when Elektra was bought out by Warner Bros., Holzman saw the writing on the wall (and the curly-headed visage of industry shark David Geffen) and got out.
However, Holzman's accomplishments in the music, film and electronic business since then, Houghton says, "could fill another book."
After lying dormant for awhile, Elektra has come back - at least in name - as a current label with offerings from Cee Lo, Bruno Mars, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the soundtrack to True Blood. Thankfully, reissue companies have kept a portion of the label's back catalogue in print - and we can bask in the Iggy-fied glory that is the 7-CD set The Complete Fun House Sessions.