First rock record producer Art Rupe dies at 104

Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records who helped pioneer R&B and early rock music with artists like Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Lloyd Price, died Friday at the age of 104.

The Arthur N. Rupe Foundation announced the news in a statement. No immediate cause of death was given.

Born Arthur N. Goldberg on Sept. 5, 1917, group grew up in McKeesport, Penn., just outside of Pittsburgh. In 1939 he traveled to Los Angeles, where he changed his surname upon learning that “Rupe” was the name of his paternal grandfather before immigrating to the United States. He worked in a naval engineering team during World War II and then moved into the record production business, specializing in music then classified as “racing records”.

In 1944 Rupe co-founded Juke Box Records, which was responsible for a regional hit by the Sepia Tones, “Bogie #1.” Two years later, in 1946, he founded his own label, Specialty Records.

While on a reconnaissance trip to New Orleans in 1952, Rupe crossed paths with a teenaged Price, whom he recorded singing his own song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It featured Fats Domino on piano and went on to become the best-selling R&B record of the year. Price also encouraged a friend of his, Little Richard, to send his own demos to Specialty, which helped Richard to redeem himself from a previous contract.

A major success would come a few years later in the mid-1950s with the release of Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, which would be followed by several hit songs including “Good God, Miss Molly,” “Lucile” and “Sally long and tall“, as well as Richard’s 1957 debut album This is little Richardall published via Specialty.

Listen to “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard

Rupe had also signed a young Sam Cooke, then a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, who had a hit with 1950s “Jesus Gave Me Water”. But artistic disagreements between Rupe and Cooke lead the latter to leave the label in 1957, the year he launched his own solo career. Cooke achieved resounding success in 1958 with “You sent me“, which Rupe admitted decades later, he didn’t think he was as successful as he was.

“I honestly didn’t think ‘You Send Me’ was so great,” Rupe Told the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year he received the Ahmet Ertegun Award and was inducted. “I never imagined he would be a multi-millionaire salesman.”

Listen to “Jesus Gave Me Water” by Soul Stirrers

By the early 1960s, Rupe had begun to walk away from the music industry and began investing in his own oil and gas company. In 1990 he sold Specialty’s catalog to Fantasy Records, and in 1991 he established the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, whose goal is to achieve “positive social change by bringing to light the truth about critical and controversial issues” while supporting caregivers of people with dementia.

Price praised Rupe’s groundbreaking vision when he inducted got him into Rock Hall in 2011. “Art recently told me that the combination we had over 60 years ago – my particular talent and his rare record-executive instinct – made this song this that it is,” Price said, “the first rock ‘n’ roll record to dissolve the color barrier between black and white audiences.”

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