Columbia Records Profile and History

Columbia Records
Columbia Records logo. Courtesy Columbia Records

The Beginnings for Columbia Records

Columbia Records derives its name origin from the District of Columbia. It was originally the Columbia Phonograph Company and distributed Edison phonographs and recorded cylinders throughout the Washington, D.C. area. In 1894 the company ended its ties with Edison and began selling its own manufactured recordings. Columbia began selling disc records in 1901. The two main competitors for Columbia in recorded music sales just after the turn of the century were Edison with its cylinders and the Victor Company with disc records.

By 1912, Columbia was selling exclusively disc records.

Columbia Records became a leader in jazz and blues after purchasing the Okeh record company in 1926. The purchase added Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams to a roster of artists that already included Bessie Smith. Due to financial woes in the Great Depression, Columbia Records nearly became defunct. However, a fortuitous signing of country gospel group The Chuck Wagon Gang in 1936 helped the label survive, and in 1938 Columbia Records was purchased by the Columbia Broadcasting System or CBS beginning a long collaboration between the broadcasting and recording companies.

Development of the LP and 45

Columbia Records became a leader in pop music in the 1940s with the popularity of Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s Columbia Records also began experimenting with longer playing, higher fidelity discs to replace 78 rpm records. The first pop LP officially released was a reissue of Frank Sinatra's The Voice Of Frank Sinatra in 1946.

The single 10 inch disc replaced four 78 rpm records. In 1948 Columbia Records introduced the standard 33 1/3 rpm LP that would become a music industry standard for nearly 50 years.

In 1951 Columbia Records began issuing 45 rpm records. The format had been introduced by RCA two years earlier. It became the standard way to issue recordings of individual hit songs.

for decades to come.

Mitch Miller and a Non-Rock Label

Singer and composer Mitch Miller was lured away from Mercury Records in 1950. He became head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R) and soon became responsible for signing key recording artists to the label. Legends such as Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and Johnny Mathis soon became Columbia Records stars. The label earned a reputation as the most commercially successful of non-rock labels. Columbia Records did not make a significant impact in rock music until the late 1960s. However, Columbia Records did bid to purchase the contract of Elvis Presley from Sun Records. However, they were turned down in favor of RCA.

Stereo

Columbia Records began recording music in stereo in 1956, but the first stereo LPs were not introduced until 1958. Most of the early stereo recordings were of classical music. In the summer of 1958, Columbia Records began releasing pop stereo albums. The first few were stereo versions of previously released mono recordings. In September 1958, Columbia Records began released mono and stereo versions of the same albums simultaneously.

The 1960s at Columbia Records

Mitch Miller personally disliked rock music, and he made no secret of his taste.

Columbia Records did move into the growing folk music market. Bob Dylan was signed to the label and released his first album in 1962. Simon and Garfunkel was added to the artist lineup soon after. Barbra Streisand became a pop mainstay for the company when she was signed in 1963. Mitch Miller left Columbia Records for MCA in 1965, and it was not long before rock became a key part of the Columbia Records story. Clive Davis was appointed president in 1967. He signaled a strong venture into rock music when he signed Janis Joplin after attending the Monterey International Pop Festival.

Recording Studios

Columbia Records owned and operated some of the most respected recording studios of all time. They housed their first studio in the Woolworth Building in New York City. It opened in 1913 and was the site of the recording of some of the earliest jazz records.

The Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York was nicknamed "The Church" because it originally housed the Adams-Parkhurst Memorial Presbyterian Church. It was operated from 1948 to 1981. Among the legendary recordings created there were Miles Davis' 1959 jazz landmark Kind of Blue, Leonard Bernstein's 1957 Broadway cast recording of West Side Story, and Pink Floyd's 1979 masterpiece The Wall. The location of Columbia Records' headquarters and studios of the late 1970s are immortalized in the title of Billy Joel's landmark album 52nd Street.

The Clive Davis Era

Under Clive Davis, Columbia Records positioned itself as a label at the vanguard of pop and rock music. Electric Light Orchestra, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Pink Floyd are just a few of the artists that soon became stars for Columbia Records. Bob Dylan continued to prosper, and Barbra Streisand led pop artists in the early 1970s. Clive Davis exited the company under a legal cloud in the mid 1970s and was replaced by Walter Yetnikoff. He led Columbia, now named CBS Records, to the $1 billion sales mark for the first time.

Columbia Records Artists

  • Adele
  • Beyonce
  • Daft Punk
  • Celine Dion
  • Bob Dylan
  • Calvin Harris
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Pharrell Williams

Move To Sony

In 1988 the CBS Records Group which included Columbia Records was purchased by Sony. The CBS Records Group was officially renamed Columbia Records in 1991. Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, and Will Smith are among the artists that provided hits for the label during this period.

Adele, Glee, and Columbia Records Today

In recent years Columbia Records has seen a resurgence as a major force in mainstream pop music. The current chairman is Rob Stringer and co-presidents are producer Rick Rubin and Steve Barnett. A major reorganization of Sony Music Entertainment in 2009 made Columbia Records one of three main labels in the conglomerate. The other two are RCA and Epic. Columbia Records has sold over 10 million albums and 33 million songs recorded by the cast of the TV show Glee. In addition the label has seen its investment in Adele result in sales of over six million copies of her album 21 in its first year of release in 2011-2012 and sales of more than three million copies of her follow up 25 in just one week.

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Lamb, Bill. "Columbia Records Profile and History." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2016, thoughtco.com/columbia-records-history-3247121. Lamb, Bill. (2016, October 31). Columbia Records Profile and History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/columbia-records-history-3247121 Lamb, Bill. "Columbia Records Profile and History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/columbia-records-history-3247121 (accessed November 21, 2017).