• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.
Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.
In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”
To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:
In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.
All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.