Reprise Records Launched ► Monday Musical Appreciation

On this day in 1961 Frank Sinatra launched Reprise Records, the first record company owned by an artist.

Sinatra started his recording career at Columbia Records, but eventually moved to Capitol. However, after 7 years Sinatra was dissatisfied with his latest contract negotiations with Capitol Records. The sticking point wasn’t money.

Sinatra wanted to own his masters and Capitol was not having it. That’s when he decided to look for a new deal. At first he tried to buy Verve Records, where Frank Zappa later started his recording career. However, Norman Granz wasn’t selling. It wasn’t a total loss. Sinatra was able to steal Mo Ostin, one of the executive directors at Verve, to help him head up the new concern.

Reprise didn’t have a smooth launch. Not only did Sinatra still owe Capitol 2 LPs and a single before he was free, but Capitol exacted other revenge.

“As soon as Frank started Reprise, we began to exploit our whole Sinatra catalog, because we weren’t going to have him anymore,” [Capitol President Alan] Livingston’s quoted as saying in Charles L. Granata’s Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording. “We had so much Sinatra product on the market that Reprise couldn’t get off the ground!”

Forced to discount its new-release prices to compete with the slew of budget Capitol titles, Reprise found it difficult to gain traction, and as Livingston gleefully noted, the label was rumored to be in financial straits not long after its launch. Compounding the problem was that unlike the biggest labels of the day, Reprise didn’t own and operate its own recording studios, adding a major chunk of overhead to an increasingly besieged operation.

Sinatra, meanwhile, remained in demand as a recording artist — and unlike most pop stars, he was also a proven commodity as a movie star, which made obtaining the rights to distribute his work an appealing prospect even for a studio forced to sign over creative control and ultimate ownership of his master recordings. Enter Warner Bros., where top execs enthusiastically pursued a deal that would bring Reprise into the Warners family while making Sinatra a member of their film stable. In the summer of 1963, Warners purchased two-thirds of Sinatra’s Reprise stake.

Years later, when Warners absorbed Reprise, it gave Sinatra a seat at the table. That’s when he got the nickname Chairman of the Board. It also gave him oodles of money, the sale pegged to be around $80 million.

The first Sinatra LP on Reprise was Ring-a-Ding-Ding! and according to the Blog Critics web site:

It would continue his commercial popularity by reaching number four on the Billboard Pop Album Chart.

The original idea was to issue an album without ballads, which was very close to the concept that Capital had used to put together Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session, which they had issued two months previous, after he had left the label.

The music comes very close to returning Sinatra to the big band idiom of the 1940s. It is finger snapping light jazz, with a beat. While Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote the title song specifically for the album, Sinatra mainly recorded older songs from the Great American Songbook.

Sinatra eventually went back to Capitol Records for his Duets albums in 1993 and 1994.

As great as his music, Sinatra’s greatest contribution to the industry may have been his hire of Mo Oston, who eventually went on to run Warners. At both companies, he signed artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Fugs, The Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Prince and many more. Later Ostin went to work for DreamWorks records.

Here is Sinatra’s first Reprise LP, released 56 years ago:

Crank it up and D A N C E ! ! !


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.