As a student fascinated with recording technology, I had the privilege of interviewing for a job at Columbia Records when I was in my mid-twenties. I was asked a lot of questions about production and then asked to critique a recent Columbia release from a technical and creative standpoint. The album was Aretha’s last album for Columbia.
I praised the recording quality and expressed amazement at her vocal capacity but lacked the wisdom to remain silent about how soupy the string and horn arrangements were that somehow whitened her beautiful black voice. I didn’t get a callback.
Meanwhile two Turkish businessmen, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun had started a “roots’ music label called Atlantic Records. In 1967, they persuaded Aretha to join their label and her first album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I love You” struck gold. The sound was completely different.
Unlike Columbia, they let Aretha be herself and “Rhythm and Blues” was the winner – no Mitch Miller-arrangements just Aretha’s own rich voice and sound, not someone else's. Luckily the lion's share of Aretha's recorded output appeared on the Atlantic label. The striking contrast exemplified how easily an A&R – artists and repertoire – producer could distort the natural talent of a singer or group.
Five years later when my brother Mike Couture and I started Philo Records, we simply eliminated the A&R role and gave artists complete control over their choice of material and studio side-personnel. Word of this spread in the music community and we were inundated with artists seeking the opportunity to develop their music as they conceived it.
Philo Records was a critical success, if not a financial one, going on to produce some hundred and forty albums in its decade-long history, many of which are still available today.
My own first solo recording endeavor was at UVM recording a young and very popular group called Talbot’s Bus. It featured the phenomenal singer Betty Smith, now better known for her long association with this broadcast service, and her brilliant guitarist-husband Tony Mastaler, along with cellist Brian Lloyd, and bassist, Billy Parker.
Funny how music brings it all back around.