The Philadelphia record label: As a concept, it has a legendary aura on par with cream cheese and the Broad Street Bullies.
For most people, the definition of a “Philly label” begins with Cameo (started in 1956) and its partner Parkway (1958) and ends with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR), founded in 1971.
But Frank Lipsius wants you to know that his family’s collection of labels currently housed under the name Jamie predates those giants. The Lipsius labels even dropped classic soul sides before those well-known local icons.
“My father used to joke that we had the first music conglomerate,” says Lipsius about his family’s klatch of labels — Guyden, Jamie, Arctic, Phil-L.A. of Soul — that were owned or co-owned and distributed by Universal Record Distributing, a company his dad, Harold Lipsius, took over in 1955. Now Frank Lipsius has a mission: to ensure that the music his father helped bring into existence lives on and gets its due credit.
The first step is a newly released box set, Cooler Than Ice: The Arctic Records Story, featuring six CDs, six vinyl singles and a 48-page booklet. A planned second collection and a redesigned, information-packed Jamie/Guyden website are signs of Frank Lipsius’ intentions: He wants people to know about his labels’ accomplishments.
There are many. Between the silken soul of Arctic and the innovative, echo-laden techniques of acclaimed producer Lee Hazlewood at Jamie — to say nothing of Harold Lipsius’ partnership with eccentric arranger and producer Phil Spector in the Philles label — not enough recognition has ever been given to several of Philly’s earliest record-makers.
That should change with Cooler Than Ice.
Rather than the singular personalities that drove other classic Philadelphia labels (Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann at Cameo-Parkway, Gamble and Huff at PIR), most of Lipsius’ affiliated companies were fueled by a wide-ranging confluence of producers, including Hazlewood. Only the Lipsius-fronted Arctic label stemmed from a single source, onetime WDAS jock Jimmy Bishop. “There was certainly a definitive vibe at Arctic: those rhythms and the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings,” says Lipsius.
Another distinguishing feature: “That family was always good people, and fair — something you never found in the music industry when I started,” says John Ellison, one of the first artists on Phil-L.A. of Soul, who continues his affiliation with the Jamie label to this day.
Other artists who got their start here include Texas blues-soul guitarist/vocalist Barbara Lynn, who released her first albums through Jamie. Temple University student Daryl Hall’s first singles as a member of the Temptones were on Arctic. “I have to say, for a kid, they’re pretty good songs,” says Hall of his four songs on Cooler Than Ice. Pianist Leon Huff wrote and played on the B-side of Jamie’s 1963 “Soul City” single. Vocalist Kenny Gamble dropped several singles on Arctic. Pretty much every great Philly R&B musician of the ’50s and ’60s played on these sessions.
“It’s fair to say that between Jamie, Guyden, Arctic and Phil-L.A. of Soul, they were responsible for the Sound of Philadelphia,” says Bobby Eli, the Strawberry Mansion-born guitarist who cut his chops on sides for Lipsius’ various labels. So did bassist Ronnie Baker, who, with Eli, was a founding member of PIR’s studio-session ensemble, MFSB. “Those collective labels weren’t the entire story of how PIR started and sounded,” says Eli, “but it was definitely a major factor.”
Jamie’s offices near Broad and Pine streets are lined with gold albums and photos of Philly’s musical personalities. The low-lit space is tastefully appointed, with dark wood and handsome leather furniture. It looks like the office of a lawyer — which was, in fact, Harold Lipsius’ initial profession.
“My dad was very much a lawyer, authoritative but nice and truly funny,” says Frank Lipsius, 65. “He told a good joke and liked spending time with people despite the fact that some found him standoffish.”
Frank Lipsius had an early interest in the music business. As a high-schooler, he ran coffee to WIBG-AM morning jocks while pumping new releases. As a kid he drove around the city with that station’s Joe Niagara, listening to the DJ’s tales of music and mayhem. “I used to be amazed at first, hearing Joe on the radio while sitting and talking with him in his car until I realized that Joe pretaped so many of his spots,” laughs Lipsius.
Regarding his father, who passed away in 2007, Lipsius speaks with soft respect: “My dad was drawn to the music and had an instinct that something was happening with it, that music was turning from one generation — his — to the next, that it was becoming a true force, and in some way would offer Philadelphia its salvation. Not that there was anything to save, mind you. My dad thought music would truly put us on the map.”
According to his son, Harold Lipsius considered Dave Miller one of the unrecognized geniuses of the music biz. Miller started Universal Distributing (not to be confused with Universal Studios, the giant entertainment conglomerate) in 1955. Distributing was a vital link in the music-business chain, and the local ones made Philly a musical force at a time when ensuring a record’s delivery to the public was crucial to its hit-making capacity.
Miller had vision: He owned Essex Records and two record-pressing plants — one in West Philly, another in Eastwick — and put out pre-rock ’n’ roll country records by Bill Haley’s Saddlemen. “It was Dave who convinced Haley to record Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88,’ stating that if a white person recorded it, the song would be an even bigger hit than it was,” says Lipsius, talking about the then-popular concept of race-switching. “Haley did it, had a smash, and followed that up with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ on Decca.”
Eventually Miller wanted out of Universal, and by that time Guyden — founded by Bob Cordell in 1952 — had already folded into Universal. (“For a label to do that was no big deal at the time,” says Lipsius. “Before Dick Clark came here and pushed the agenda of the independent label, they didn’t mean much.”) So Harold Lipsius took over Universal, almost as a business write-off. “He knew a lot of the people who worked there and just wanted to keep them employed,” says his son.
Harold Lipsius got the fever for the record business fast. Within a year of taking over Universal, he started his own label, Jamie. Though Jamie had an in-house studio with a few in-house producers, it relied on a steady stream of independent producers of records already made and looking for homes. Early doo-wop, R&B and pop sides came courtesy of left-handed blues guitarist Barbara Lynn, jazz guy Ernie Fields, easy-soul singer Jesse Belvin and twang-bar king Duane Eddy, whose reverby track “Rebel Rouser” was Jamie’s first smash hit.
Lee Hazlewood’s production of Eddy is what, in part, lured Phil Spector to the Lipsius family door. Hazlewood business partner Lester Sill became a mentor to the young Spector, who in turn pestered the hell out of Hazlewood to learn his sonic secrets. Hazlewood and Sill split, and Sill went with Spector. Spector became a constant visitor to Harold Lipsius’ office and formed Philles Records out of his and Sill’s first names. “My dad used to say that Phil cut quite a figure,” notes Frank Lipsius, “due to his eccentricities.”
“Prior to all this with Guyden and Jamie, Philly was a pop town,” says Eli, a self-professed “white-boy guitarist” who started doing sessions at Guyden’s studios at the dawn of the ’60s. “I mean, Cameo, Chancellor and Swan were principally pop and teen-idol labels at first. For a long time they really didn’t have the same love of black music that Jamie had.”
Lipsius’ next label had even greater meaning to Philly’s African-American community and soul lovers everywhere. In 1964, Jimmy Bishop was the program director of Philadelphia’s WDAS-AM, the city’s leading R&B radio station. His afternoon-drive shift, “The Jimmy Bishop Go Show,” was a daily must-listen. Weldon A. McDougal III knew that. A singer with Guyden artists the Larks, as well as a producer of the Volcanos and other bands, McDougal had just created DynoDynamics Productions with several other Philly producers and brought Bishop into the fold. When Bishop wanted a label to go with his production company, he formed Arctic, an oceanic name to reflect his love of New York City’s Atlantic Records.
Where Harold Lipsius was concerned, Arctic was created out of the roots of Jamie and Guyden, only guided by a single charismatic personality rather than multiple scouts and producers. “Harold was the partner who took care of the business side while Jimmy did the creative — and boy, Jimmy had some ear,” says Frank Lipsius, recalling the allure of 1965’s “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason, Arctic’s first hit.
“Jerry Wexler at Atlantic rejected that song, you know,” laughs Eli, who played on the track. “Not only did that tune put Arctic on the map, it’s where the MSFB rhythm section took flight. Between that rhythm and the strings that we got from the Philly Orchestra, that became our sound.”
Though Pottstown’s Daryl Hohl — later Hall — had just started at Temple University, the singer and songwriter already had a leg into Philly’s soul scene, Arctic in particular. “I would hang at the Uptown Theater and WDAS studios, where I got to know Jimmy Bishop, Butterball, all the jocks,” says Hall. “I even think we won this big talent show at the Uptown. All I can remember was that we suddenly found ourselves at Virtue Studios recording our first songs.” The “we” was the Temptones, a street-corner-soul foursome formed at Temple. “I was an out-of-towner, you know, so I had to meet people. I jumped into whatever musical scene there was at Temple at the time. These were the guys I met, the sorts that spent time singing on the corner.” Guys such as Paul Fogel and Brian Utain became Temptones (sadly, Utain died on the day Hall was interviewed for this story) and recorded songs that Hall wrote in the studio.
The liner notes to the Arctic box set Cooler Than Ice say that Fogel brought Hall into their fold, but that claim irks John Oates’ future partner: “No. Paul Fogel didn’t bring me into shit. If anything, I brought him in. We were just on the corner singing. No one brought anyone anywhere.” Hall also dispels a rumor that one of the acts he competed against in that Uptown contest was Philly’s legendary vocal outfit the Delfonics. “Nah. I knew the Delfonics from West Philly. Once that first Temptones single, ‘Girl I Love You,’ started getting play, the Delfonics and us hit the same circuit.” Several other Hall-penned A- and B-sides followed on Arctic — all while he was trying to hook up with other labels, arrangers and producers. “Arctic was cool, but in those days, you looked around and tried to get a deal anywhere and everywhere.”
As Arctic began to thaw and wane, another Lipsius label was on the rise, one that showed off R&B’s evolution into funk. The Phil-L.A. of Soul label was started by Larry Cohen, Jamie’s promotions guy. “By 1967, a lot of R&B radio stations were keener to play records on R&B labels rather than the majors,” says Lipsius, pointing out the substantial hits that artists Cliff Nobles had with “The Horse” and Fantastic Johnny C had with “Boogaloo Down Broadway.”
John Ellison, the front man of Soul Brothers Six and the author of their epic hit “Some Kind of Wonderful,” had just left Atlantic Records when he signed to Phil-L.A. of Soul as a solo artist. “Harold was a straight shooter,” says Ellison, a native of 33rd Street and Columbia Avenue. “They respected me as much for my songwriting and producing as they did my singing and wanted me to become part of the company. They were fair. And I knew the difference. Back then, the business was nothing but crooks, to be blunt about it.”
After a slew of Phil-L.A. sides such as “Lost the Will to Live,” Ellison showed off additional aspects of his musical personality for Lipsius’ Jamie label, performing, producing and writing gospel music with Spiritual Gifts and the Can I Get a Witness? album. Ellison’s next Jamie album, due this summer, will be a surprise. “It’s something that you’ve never heard me do before,” he says.
The Guyden/Jamie/Arctic/Phil-L.A. of Soul musical axis existed solidly between 1955 and 1976, but by the late ’70s, the majors were the only place to be for African-American artists, and the independent-label ideal fell by the wayside. “We just couldn’t compete when it came to signing artists,” says Lipsius.
In the ensuing years, Jamie records were licensed for compilations or release by oldies labels like Rhino. Frank’s sister Julie promoted those songs for other artists and recordings for sync uses — for example, Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” was the instrumental in the scene in Forrest Gump where Tom Hanks’ character runs and sheds his leg braces. The distribution business changed, too, and Universal went out of business in 2004, three years before Harold Lipsius died.
But Frank Lipsius’ new mission has picked up steam. Last year, Lipsius got tapes from the basement of state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, the widow of Jimmy Bishop, for the Cooler Than Ice box. Along with remastering his labels’ albums and singles for the CD market, Lipsius and his small staff began the arduous process of turning thousands of 10- and 7-inch tapes into MP3s for the download-centric public. The redesigned JamGuy website offers better access to Lipsius’ stable of more than 200 artists and thousands of songs. “We wanted it done properly, as there are countless artists that we still send royalties to,” he says.
Lipsius’s next project is a Phil-L.A. of Soul box, provisionally titled Catch and Release and hopefully ready this year, and he’s been thinking about how to chop up the Jamie and Guyden fare into their own box sets. “Completeness is difficult with material so rare and precious,” Lipsius says with a smile. “But I’m a steward of amazing music that has been buried for a while, and I’m here to excavate it.” Lipsius thinks himself fortunate to have the opportunity for the ultimate in record-crate digging, and is grateful that it’s part of his heritage: “These labels all but disappeared. My job is to make sure that the music doesn’t.”
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