A new book chronicles the history of Malaco Records, the oldest continuously run independent record label in America, and one of the biggest gospel labels in the world.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Malaco Records is one of the oldest independent record labels in this country. In the ’70s, it was known for soul hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MR. BIG STUFF”)
JEAN KNIGHT: (Singing) Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?
KING: In the ’80s, Malaco shifted to a hybrid of blues and soul.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MEMBERS ONLY”)
BOBBY BLUE BLAND: (Singing) ‘Cause it’s members only tonight.
KING: And these days, Malaco is a powerhouse of gospel music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HE’LL CARRY YOU”)
THE MISSISSIPPI MASS CHOIR: (Singing) He’ll carry you. He’ll carry you, yes, he will. He’ll carry you.
KING: A new book about Malaco comes out today. It’s called “The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story.” Here’s Ashley Kahn.
ASHLEY KAHN, BYLINE: In 1967, three white men who fell in love with Black music, Tommy Couch, Mitchell Malouf and Wolf Stephenson, opened a recording studio in their hometown of Jackson, Miss.
ROB BOWMAN: It’s a story that, by right, never should have happened. There should be no important record company in Jackson, Miss.
KAHN: Rob Bowman is a music historian known for his definitive account of another great Southern soul label, Stax Records. Bowman has now written a history of the Malaco label, an independent record company still in business and still owned and operated by its original founders.
BOWMAN: It is one of the longest running independent record label in American music history, longer than Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Chess – all of them. It’s also the largest Black gospel company in the world – bar none.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I KNOW I’VE BEEN CHANGED”)
LASHUN PACE: (Singing) I said that I know I’ve been changed.
KAHN: At first, the three founders intend to produce and license recordings to other record companies. Here’s Malaco co-founder Wolf Stephensen.
WOLF STEPHENSON: We started out with soul and blues artists because that’s the kind of music we loved. We knew we had somewhat of a white audience for some of the soul and blues stuff but found out that not a whole lot of folks were making this kind of record for those Black buyers, mostly Black women.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GROOVE ME”)
KING FLOYD: (Singing) You make me feel good inside. Come on and groove me, baby. I need you to groove me.
KAHN: The secret to Malaco’s longevity is the label’s willingness to change and adapt. Again, Rob Bowman.
BOWMAN: The first 15 years, you can say, they’re stumbling around, but in the process, they hit a few records like “Groove Me” by King Floyd, “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight. They have one massive hit on their own label, Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue.” That saved them from bankruptcy at one point.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MISTY BLUE”)
DOROTHY MOORE: (Singing) Oh, I can’t forget you. My whole world turns misty blue.
BOWMAN: Second period takes shape in the early ’80s, where they become the home for soul artists who are considered to be past their prime. Disco, funk and then hip-hop have taken over the Black music market, their anachronisms, their has-beens.
KAHN: Soul singer Z.Z. Hill sparks the soul revival with the bestselling hit “Down Home Blues” that takes over Southern radio in 1982.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)
Z Z HILL: (Singing) She said your party’s jumping and everybody’s having a good time. And you know what’s going through my mind.
STEPHENSON: That particular record was so prevalent. I mean, you couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing it. It was our rebirth as an independent label.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)
HILL: (Singing) She said take off those fast records and let me hear some down home blues.
KAHN: By the late ’80s, Malaco began to shift again, this time from good time music to music that carries good news.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BETTER THAN BLESSED”)
LOUISE CANDY DAVIS: (Singing) I’m blessed, better than blessed. I want to thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord.
DARRELL LUSTER: In the ’70s, when they began the gospel division of Malaco, I was able to hear some of the first recordings.
KAHN: Darrell Luster is Malaco’s current head of gospel production.
LUSTER: When I recognize that Malaco was also doing blues, mixing salt with sugar, I started hearing that same piano that I heard on the gospel recordings. I heard the same drums. I heard the same sound because they were using the exact same engineer, Wolf Stephenson. It was coming out of the same room. And I was like, oh, my God.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LORD, PLEASE REMEMBER ME”)
THE JACKSON SOUTHERNAIRES: (Singing) Lord, remember that, remember that I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying to get (ph)…
KAHN: Malaco soon signed a number of legendary gospel quartets like The Soul Stirrers and the Sensational Nightingales. But in 1988, a new project comes their way that establishes the label as a home for the next generation of gospel stars.
LUSTER: The Mississippi Mass Choir, under the direction of Frank Williams, Frank said, I’m going to incorporate quartet with choir and I’m going to call it choir-tet (ph). And that is the success of The Mississippi Mass Choir.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HOLD ON OLD SOLDIER”)
THE MISSISSIPPI MASS CHOIR: (Singing) Hold on old soldier, no matter what people do to you, hold on old soldier, I know the Lord will see you through.
KAHN: Malaco’s focus on Black gospel continues to grow through the ’90s and into the 21st century. They buy out a number of historic gospel and soul labels to expand their catalogue while signing and producing young artists like Christina Bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GOING”)
CHRISTINA BELL: (Singing) Always mending the broken things inside of me.
KAHN: Christina Bell is one of Malaco’s most recent discoveries. Her introduction to the label was a special song she learned growing up.
BELL: It’s called “It’s Good To Know Jesus” and to have that from the South being heard on radio – I’m from Shreveport, La., but that’s The Mississippi Mass Choir. It’s just like it’s right next door. So, you know (laughter, singing) it’s good to know Jesus. He’s the lily of the valley. He’s the bright and morning star.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “IT’S GOOD TO KNOW JESUS”)
BELL: (Singing) It’s good to know the Lord.
KAHN: Today, Malaco makes most of its money with new gospel releases and music licensing fees from a warehouse full of blues, R&B and soul recordings.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENISE LASALLE’S “BUMP AND GRIND”)
KAHN: Record companies have always been a bit at odds with themselves, not knowing how best to preserve and honor the history they’ve helped create while pursuing the next big hit. Malaco, the last soul company, has found a way to make that balance work for more than 52 years. For NPR News, I’m Ashley Kahn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BUMP AND GRIND”)
DENISE LASALLE: (Singing) I want to bump and grind and get on down, hold your body close to mine…
To dive into the history of gospel music is to dive into a rich, bottomless, soulful goldmine for sampling. In 1962, the leading label for gospel music, Malaco Records, was founded in Jackson, Mississippi. Since then, Malaco Records has become one of the oldest, independently run record labels in America. This label continues to be a trailblazer for African American music and was termed “the last soul company” by Peter Guralnick, well-known music critic and screenwriter.
After graduating, Tommy Couch and brother-in-law Mitchell Malouf started what is now Malaco Records, later adding Wolf Stephenson to the team. Revenue from initial record releases was nominal, so the label took on smaller gigs like creating jingles and renting out studio spaces. Wardell Quezergue made Malaco an offer that they could not resist, sending them artists in return for studio space and backing musicians. This trade resulted in the label releasing “Groove Me” by King Floyd, spiking sales through the roof. After Atlantic picked the track up for distribution, Malaco Records’ musicians became hot commodities. The label continued taking risks, seeing heightened payoff.
Malaco Records has also produced names like Fred McDowell, Bobby “Blue” Band, Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, and James Cleveland. Today, the label’s roster of music can be seen sampled in some of the hip-hop industry’s biggest tracks. For those who may not know what music sampling is, it is when an artist reuses a sample of an already existing song in their own recording. Songs that sample from Malaco Records’ catalogue include “Selah” by Kanye West, “Right Hand 2 God” by Nipsey Hussle, and “Purple Haze” by The Diplomats.
After reaching its 50th anniversary, Malaco Records’ story is broadcasted in a retrospective book entitled The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story. It includes some of Malaco Records’ most influential artists exploring their careers and outputs. It also gives readers a look into the history of Malaco Records’ struggles and comebacks, documenting the very roots the label was founded on. The book documents the sampling history of Malaco Records, going in-depth to describe how the label became one of America’s sampling leaders. It includes never-before seen images that help explain the history of Malaco Records and aid in submerging readers into the experience of those working on the label.
Grammy Award-winning author and screenwriter Rob Bowman previously wrote Soulsville, U.S.A – The Story of Stax Records (2003). As he did in Soulsville, U.S.A – The Story of Stax Records, Bowman gives readers the opportunity to insert themselves in Malaco Records’ history.
The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story is available on March 23rd.