Capitol Records’ 75th Anniversary: Ten of the Label’s Early Landmarks

Steven Gaydos
Variety

Any boomer lover of pop music growing up in Southern California felt the impact of Capitol Records, and that’s especially true if you cut your showbiz teeth as an aspiring songwriter pounding the pavements of Hollywood in the shadow of that beautiful platter-stack edifice on Vine.

Here are 10 Capitol records that changed and/or immeasurably enriched my life and made music history.

1. Mean Old World
T-Bone Walker, November 1945


It was the Chicago blues masters of the ’50s who inspired the Rolling Stones of the ’60s, but you can trace the roots of one of Chicago blues maestro Little Walter’s greatest hits back to this original Capitol classic, a seminal entry in the West Coast blues style.

2. Route 66
King Cole Trio, June 1946


You grow up in San Bernardino, you know this song. The Rolling Stones version is great, but Nat King Cole first breathed state-hopping life into the Bobby Troup classic for Capitol.

3. Hurry On Down
Nellie Lutcher, June 1947


Last year, when I interviewed veteran music manager Mort Lewis, who passed away this year, he regaled me with tales of his early career as the East Coast representative for a plethora of Capitol Records’ most important artists of the ’40s and early ’50s. I’d heard the music of all the famous names like Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, et al, but I’d never heard of Nellie Lutcher, whom Mort cited as one of the true greats whose names had faded. Mort was right.

4. Little Blue Riding Hood
Stan Freberg, September 1953


It’s the B-side of the massive, groundbreaking comedy hit “St. George and the Dragonet,” but for my money this mash-up of film noir, cop shows, and fairy tales is even better. Everything the late genius Freberg created was the audio match for my other early worldview-maker, Mad magazine.

5. Be-Bop-a-Lula
Gene Vincent, June 1956


I just heard Van Morrison rave this one up last month in concert in London, so that speaks to the primal rock tune’s durability. Gene Vincent’s sinewy anthem, recorded in Nashville and released by Hollywood’s Capitol Records, came back karmically eight years later when Capitol unleashed Beatlemania on America, a musical phenomenon inspired by early rock maestros like Vincent. I probably heard its jumpin’ live jive on SoCal TV in 1958, broadcasting from the Compton-based “Town Hall Party” country music show, which my Fontana family watched religiously.

6. Fever
Peggy Lee, June 1958


Try to imagine Eisenhower Era pre-adolescence and this bombshell hitting during your first sprouting of hormonal awareness. Big thanks to songwriter Little Willie John and label chiefs Johnny Mercer, Glenn Wallichs and Buddy DeSylva.

7. Only the Lonely
Frank Sinatra, September 1958


Not much Sinatra on the Gaydos family turntable out in the Inland Empire back in the ’50s, but when I moved to Hollywood in the ’70s and my Sinatra-freak friend Monte Hellman played me this monumental album, I knew I’d found the “Sgt. Pepper” of adulthood. Frank and I are now inseparable, as is the Bob Dylan of my late adulthood, Capitol co-founder (and “Only the Lonely” album contributor) Johnny Mercer.

8. Let’s Have a Party
Wanda Jackson, June 1960


Not only is this the single-greatest female rock vocal performance of all time and one of rock music’s foundational masterpieces, in the ’70s, my music-making gang living and recording blocks from Capitol Records cut a pretty decent cover of this with Billy Zoom from X on lead guitar.

9. I Want to Hold Your Hand
The Beatles, December 1964


The record came out in America the day after Christmas in 1963. The Beatles played it live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964. Paul just headlined the “OldChella” Desert Trip festival in 2016. This is the moon landing of rock ‘n’ roll records, one whose immeasurable impact is still being felt across the world.

10. Mama Tried
Merle Haggard, July 1968


Merle Haggard told me in 1999, “They [Capitol Records] were also disappointed in everything but the Beatles. There was nothing in the world selling except Beatle music. Every country act in the entire fucking world had just got fired. And it just so happened that during that really strange Beatlemania I got a goddamn hit.” This one was both a hit and a masterpiece.

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