Art Rupe, Pioneering Record Executive Who Helped Launch Little Richard’s Career, Dies at 104

Music executive Art Rupe, whose Specialty Records was a premier label during the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll and helped launch the careers of Little Richard, Sam Cooke and many others, has died. He was 104.

Rupe, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died Friday (April 15) at his home in Santa Barbara, California, according to the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation. The foundation did not release his cause of death.

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The Greensburg, Pennsylvania, native was a contemporary of Jerry Wexler, Leonard Chess and other white businessmen-producers who helped bring Black music to a general audience. He founded Specialty in Los Angeles in 1946 and gave early breaks to such artists as Cooke and his gospel group the Soul Stirrers, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, John Lee Hooker and Clifton Chenier.

“Specialty Records’ growth paralleled, and perhaps defined, the evolution of Black popular music, from the ‘race’ music of the 1940s to the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s,” music historian Billy Vera wrote in the liner notes to The Specialty Story, a five-CD set that came out in 1994.

Rupe’s most lucrative and momentous signing was Little Richard, a rhythm and blues and gospel performer since his teens who had struggled to break through commercially. In a 2011 interview for the Rock Hall archives, Rupe explained that Little Richard (the professional name for the late Macon, Georgia, native Richard Penniman) had learned of Specialty through Price, sent a demo and for months called trying to find out if anyone had listened. He finally demanded to speak to Rupe, who dug out his tape from the reject pile.

“There was something in Little Richard’s voice I liked,” Rupe said. “I don’t know — it was so exaggerated, so over emotional. And I said, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance and maybe we can get him to sing like B.B. King.’”

Initial recording sessions were uninspiring, but during a lunch break at a nearby inn Little Richard sat down at a piano and pounded out a song he had performed during club dates: “Tutti Frutti,” with its immortal opening shout, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”

Released in September 1955 and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first major hits, “Tutti Frutti” was a manic, but cleaner version of the raunchy original, which featured such rhymes as “Tutti Frutti/good booty.” Rupe noted that Little Richard’s performance was transformed when he accompanied himself on piano.

“Up to that point Bumps (producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell) was having Little Richard just be a vocalist,” Rupe said. “The neck bone connected to the knee bone or something; his voice and his playing sort of gave it a lift.”

Critic Langdon Winner would liken Little Richard’s Specialty recordings to Elvis Presley’s Sun Records sessions as “models of singing and musicianship that have inspired rock musicians ever since.”

Little Richard’s other hits with Specialty included such rock classics as “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rip it Up” before he abruptly (and temporarily) retired in 1957. Specialty also was home to Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (with Fats Domino on piano); Don and Dewey’s “Farmer John”; Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” which the Beatles later covered; and music by such leading gospel acts as Dorothy Love Coates, the Swan Silvertones and the Pilgrim Travelers.

Rupe was known for how little he paid his artists and engaged in an exploitative practice common among label owners in the early rock era: having performers sign contracts leaving him with much or all of the royalties and publishing rights. Little Richard would sue him in 1959 for back royalties and settled out of court for $11,000.

Around the same time, Rupe grew increasingly frustrated with the “payola” system of bribing broadcasters to get records played and distanced himself from the music business. He sold Specialty to Fantasy Records in the early 1990s, but continued to earn money through oil and gas investments. In recent years, he headed the Art N. Rupe Foundation, which supported education and research to shine “the light of truth on critical and controversial issues.”

Rupe’s survivors include his daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz, and granddaughter, Madeline Kahan.

He was born Arthur Goldberg, a Jewish factory worker’s son whose passion for Black music began through hearing the singers at a nearby Baptist church. He studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, briefly considered a career in movies and decided on music instead, schooling himself by purchasing “race records” and listening with a metronome and stopwatch. He co-founded Juke Box Records in the mid-1940s, but soon left to start Specialty. He also changed his last name to Rupe, the family’s ancestral name.

Rupe’s discerning taste made him a success, but did cost him at least one major hit. In the mid-1950s, Cooke was anxious to expand his appeal beyond gospel and recorded some pop songs at Specialty, including a ballad that became a standard, “You Send Me.” Rupe found the song bland and was appalled by its white backup singers. He let Cooke and Blackwell, who had become Cooke’s manager, purchase the copyright and release “You Send Me” through RCA.

“I did not think ‘You Send Me’ was that great. I knew it would have a certain intrinsic value because Sam was good. I never dreamed it would be multimillion seller,” said Rupe, who added, sarcastically, “A wonderful stroke of genius on my part.”

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