The Capitol offices above Wallichs Music City at Sunset and Vine, before the Tower was built in 1956.
Many thanks to Mark Heimback-Nielsen for providing this photo.

Further Details on Capitol History
Recorded Father's Day June 21, 2009

Nori: Let's roll it. Okay, our Capitol correspondent Steve Webb sent this interesting email on June 20th, 2009, and now we're sitting here with Don Hassler, Paula Hassler, Tim Stroud, and me. We're going to ask Don some questions about the information that Steve Webb sent.

Editor's Note: Here is Steve Webb's original letter:

On Jun 20, 2009, at 9:27 AM, S.W. wrote:

I really enjoy your Capitol stuff. I've been researching the label myself for some fourteen years as part of my work trying to write something about The Beach Boys, I must say you've given me a better sense for its corporate culture than I am getting anywhere else.

A couple of points.

Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for many great songs, but Mitchell Parrish did the lyrics for Carmichael's "Stardust." I'm sure your source is confusing it with the similar-sounding "Skylark," which he also mentions. Also, he and Carmichael co-wrote something for Paul Whiteman around 1930. "Lazy" something or other.

Mercer's writing partner when he had the biggest creative role of the three in founding Capitol was Harold Arlen, who had three years before written the Wizard of Oz music with Yip Harburg for film. Mercer and Arlen wrote many great songs, and I'd say that the biggest single reason Mercer could consider investing in Capitol was that their 1942 collaboration "Blues in the Night" (the song that opens with the line "My mama done told me . . .") had three hit versions spawned by its inclusion in an RKO picture. One, by Dinah Shore, sold two million copies, which was really, really a big deal in 1942.

DeSylva by then wasn't writing lyrics. His lyrics were almost entirely during the 1920s and he was one of the top lyricists of that period. He caught Al Jolson's attention leading a ukulele band in the Teens at a point when that was a big thing. He was part of the songwriting trio DeSylva, Henderson and Brown. I'm trying to remember song titles. I think "California Here I Come" is his.

Wallichs was a radio repairman who started Music City because he saw a niche for it in the LA area. Radios and record players, musical instruments, sheet music, recording booths that served to make Music city an after-hours place for various jazzers (his music of preference) and as gas rationing cut down on nightclubbing and created a niche for home entertainment, records. His contribution to the mission of Capitol was that you could make records by a lot of the nightclub musicians - in particular the country musicians - for their fans. Mercer's was that you could record people who worked in the film industry, and use the film industry's techniques of recording that were at that point considerably better than what was being done in NYC.

DeSylva was there for money. He was a VP at Paramount, the executive producer for the Shirley Temple films, among other things.

Hope this is of interest.
Steve Webb

A recent photo of Don and Paula Hassler, interviewed on the history of Capitol Records in the 1950s.

Nori: In the letter, Steve Webb says:

Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for many great songs, but Mitchell Parrish did the lyrics for Carmichael's "Stardust." I'm sure your source is confusing it with the similar-sounding "Skylark," which he also mentions. Also, he and Carmichael co-wrote something for Paul Whiteman around 1930. "Lazy" something or other.

So what does all that mean?

Don: First of all your source for the Stardust is probably me, and he's right it was Mitchell Parrish, it wasn't Mercer. Mercer did write the Skylark thing with Hoagy. And also, the tune called Lazy Bones, which he mentions here, was Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and they wrote it in 1933. But Johnny Mercer was one of the three founding partners of Capitol Records. That's one of the things that he mentions here, Mercer having a big creative role in the founding. Well, that's probably true, but I wasn't very much in contact with Mercer or Buddy DeSylva, who was the second partner. The third partner was Glenn Wallichs, who was president of the company, and really the inspiration and the business guy that was behind the whole thing. The other two, especially Mercer, were the more or less the artistic people, and they really didn't do much with the label. They didn't even have records on the label. Mercer could have sung or had an album, or various other things. Maybe the fact that Mercer and Arlin had, or did some - well, Steve Webb talks about Blues in the Night here. I don't think that has much to do with Capitol. Buddy DeSylva did other stuff. He's mentioned here. And as far as I know, all that information is correct.

Glenn Wallichs was a radio repairman, but his main gig was putting car radios in cars. In the 1930s and the early forties, car radios weren't nearly as common, or as expected - you didn't buy a car with a radio already in it. You had to have one installed. Glenn Wallichs did that, and eventually he got involved in records and musical instruments, and so forth, when he started Music City. So Music City was a place for people to buy records. It was right at the corner of Sunset and Vine, and I think all of that is in your documents already.

Glenn and Mercer and DeSylva in the mid-forties decided they should start a record company because there were things they could do with West Coast musicians that the other companies weren't doing. So they started Capitol and they took offices right above Music City, right on the second floor, above, 1507 Vine Street was the address, the original address of Capitol. Wallichs essentially was the business guy behind the whole thing right from the top.

It's not mentioned here in this letter from Steve Webb, but Wallichs had access to a lot of extra scrap records that had shellac in them. During the war years you couldn't make a lot of phonograph records because there was a shortage of shellac to press them with. Well, Wallichs had access to a lot of shellac, so he was able to press records in almost any quantity that other companies weren't necessarily able to do. That was one of the contributions that came from him in terms of what he could do for the company.

My only other comment is that this Steve Webb is apparently very informed and knowledgeable, and that probably he would be a resource for a lot of other Capitol material if you want to query him on certain things. He may know some of the inside stuff, like he mentions here, about the early days, say in the mid- to lake-forties, that even those of us who joined in the mid-fifties didn't have.

Nori: Maybe I should ask him to write something for the website.

Don: You might do that, or you might send him a list of questions, things you might want to know.

Nori: What kind of questions would you ask about the forties?

Don: Mostly how the early artists happened to get on the label, Martha Tilton, for example. Does he know anything about how Stan Kenton got signed? Does he know the background of Nat King Cole? I think the answer to the Nat Cole question would be that I think Nat Cole was playing at a club in Los Angeles and somebody from Capitol heard him and decided he should be on a major label. He was such a talented singer and pianist. He started out as a trio, he played piano and had a bass and guitar, and occasionally sang, but that wasn't his main gig. His main gig was playing piano. That's probably how Nat Cole started. But there were other people who came on the label who were primarily West Coast people, and Steve Webb might be able to give you some insights on that.

Paula: I have a question. You mentioned that Wallichs had access to shellac during the war. Didn't he get it from old albums he would melt down?

Don: Yeah, absolutely.

Paula: That's how he got shellac, because he had a record store, and the bum records or returns, could be melted down to make new records.

Don: I seem to remember about 1944, if you wanted to buy a new record, you had to take an old one in and trade for it, so they could scrap old one to make new ones out of it. They would scrape the paper label off, then melt them down or somehow turn the shellac back into something they could press. As Paula says, that was the way Wallichs got access to a lot of shellac, a lot of old records that were recycled.

Tim: The green movement, but what year was that? What year did Capitol start?

Don: Forty-four or forty-three.

Paula: Middle of the war.

Don: Well that was the start, and then of course after the war, when the shortages eased up, and they had good artists. They had very smart people in the company. Another thing Capitol had that the other companies did not have, even up to the time I was there, and I don't know if this was in the original material, Capitol had its own sales force. It had its own distribution branches in all the major cities. The other companies RCA Victor, Decca, Columbia, did not have owned and operated distributor outlets. They had to deal with independent distribution points, most of them were appliance distributors selling washers and stoves and sinks, and things like that. The record business wasn't their main thing.

Nori: I'm surprised they didn't go through book sellers. But there were no bookstores(?)

Don: Bookstores didn't have distribution, they bought direct from the publisher. In the case of the record industry at that time, it was a two step business. The record company sold to a distributor and then the distributor sold to a retailer. Two-step distribution is what you would call it. Capitol owned its own distribution, the other companies didn't. So that gave Capitol a huge benefit. If you were a Capitol salesman, that is all you sold. You didn't sell Frigidare and Kenmore and Norge, and all those other labels, those other things that were part of that distributor's business. So it gave Capitol a big edge. When you joined Capitol as a salesman, and I was, you had Capitol branded right across your forehead. That's all you did 24/7.

Tim: So was Capitol the first major label on the West Coast?

Don: Yes. But certainly not the last, because from Capitol, things really expanded - Dial Records started out there, I can't even think of all the labels.

Paula: Wasn't there a jazz label? Pacific Jazz.

Don: Yes, Pacific Jazz, that was out of San Francisco. There were some, at least one rock 'n roll, blues type company in L.A. I can't think of the name of it offhand.

Nori: Reprise?

Don: Reprise, as I recall, was the company that Frank Sinatra started. When Frank left Capitol, he started his own label, basically. That was it, Reprise was what it was called. In fact, one of the Capitol executives left Capitol, Mike Maitland, you've probably heard of him, left Capitol and became the president of Reprise. They started out just selling Frank Sinatra records.

Tim: If you're going to have just one guy, he would be the one to have.

Don: It was really sad to lose Sinatra.

Tim: How did you lose him?

Don: Well, he could have his own company. If he was a Capitol artist, he was just one of many, even though he got a major share of the action.

Paula: Was the contract over, or something, with Capitol?

Don: I don't know the details. I can tell you though, Frank's ego, he probably thought hey, I want to have my own label and have my records and albums come out under my own label. That's what he did. He could have probably negotiated a much better deal, anyway. He could take anything he wanted off the top, anything like that. He hired some Capitol people to back it up, so that was great.

Nori: Wasn't Reprise, their log was a little steamboat?

Editor's note: here is the logo, thanks

Don: I don't remember, I can't tell you. There are historians, people who study that, like at universities, who probably have that information. There's a guy down at the University of Arizona teaching a class on popular music history, who wanted information on Capitol. They have, in their archives at the University of Arizona, they have a bunch of Les Paul and Mary Ford stuff. They have Nelson Riddle, almost all the charts he wrote, and they have one other artist who was pretty big on Capitol. All the stuff that those artists had was bequeathed to the University out of the estate.

Tim: Is Capitol still in existence?

Don: Oh yeah, it is part of EMI, a big, huge worldwide conglomerate out of England. In fact, EMI bought Capitol when I was still working there in 1957, right after they built the Tower.

Nori: That was how the Beatles, they came through EMI.

Don: They came through EMI, yep, you bet. And that was fine. Makes up for not getting Elvis Presley.

Nori: That was the big fish that got away.

Don: Yeah, Capitol did have some pretty good Country artists too. Steve Webb infers something here about Country singers, let me see what does he say about it, talks about gas rationing, "you could make records by a lot of the nightclub musicians - in particular the country musicians." Well I don't feel that Capitol had any edge in the Country field. RCA had a very good bunch of Country artists, but Capitol did have some good ones. They were neck and neck with RCA, but not necessarily because of being on the West Coast. Just because they made an effort to. So that's the story.

Nori: That's awesome.

Paula: Don remembers order numbers of different records.

Nori: Yeah.

Don: Hey listen, that paid my salary for a couple of years, so I was happy to do that.

Tim: A friend of mine, Gina, her grandmother worked at Capitol, from the beginning and for about twenty years, and she made clocks.

Don: She made clocks out of big old records like that, that were no good anymore, they could make a clock out of them. That wasn't her main job though, her main job was quality control, probably.

Tim: She was a listener.

Don: She was listening for quality to make sure the masters were correct. The ones that weren't she could throw out, so maybe she thought she could do something with these.

Tim: Yeah, that's one of the things she did on the side.

Nori: I have one of those clocks. Only that one is from Muzak.

Don: Yeah, it was a fun time. I met some really famous people when I was there. I took Duke Ellington around Chicago one time when he was there with his band. I had to get up and get to the hotel room in the morning and get him going so we could go see the disk jockeys and make the calls. I had lunch with Maria Callas and her manager at the Pump Room on the near East Side in Chicago. Maria Callas was one of the most famous opera singers of the twentieth century.

Tim: So Chicago, was that your sales area?

Don: It was when I did that kind of promotion.

Nori: He worked for Capitol in Chicago first, then moved to L.A.

Tim: Oh, I see.

Don: In the Chicago area I did disk jockey promotion for a couple of years before we moved to L.A. I had met and worked with most of the artists who came through there who wanted to go on the radio and get interviewed by disk jockeys. That's what we did.

Paula: Did you do payola?

Don: Capitol had no interest in that and never did it. It was a little bit tough because we were competing with some guys who did pay.

Paula: A lot of guys.

Don: If we had any R&B artists, we didn't have many artists there, but if you wanted to get to the black disk jockeys in the race market - that's what they would call it - you had to have a few extra bucks to lay down along with the demo record.

Tim: Really!

Nori: Did Motown pay payola?

Don: Motown, sure. That's how they got started. Cadillac Records, he was paying guys all over the place.

Tim: Who was that, I just saw a movie about that.

Paula: We saw a movie about that.

Tim: He gave everyone a Cadillac, that's how it became Cadillac Records. He owned a Cadillac dealership.

Don: He was in the Chicago area at the time. Leonard Chess, that's who ran Cadillac Records. He also had Chess Records and a couple of others. He made all of his records on the South Side of Chicago and he had that market sewed up.

Tim: I have a friend who has a vinyl pressing plant, he just moved it to Denmark. Believe it or not, you just can't get the quality on CD, and there's just a huge, huge calling for it.

Paula: Do you think vinyl has better quality, Don?

Tim: It has more of a frequency response.

Don: No, I don't think so. It has a different sound, but I don't think it is the frequency response. It's more the mix of overtones is different. CD records have a broader frequency range and a more accurate reproduction of all the frequencies, I think it's measurable. But vinyl has a little different sound and people prefer that. There is a group of so-called experts, esoteric guys, tweekers we call them, who will only listen to records through tube equipment, and they want magnetic pickups, and they want vinyl records because it's the most pure sound.

Tim: I know some guys who record concerts and they record off the board. They run it through an old tube amp before they record it on their DAT.

Don: That's why they do that. They put it through the tube amp to essentially create the overtone sound. A tube amp itself adds or changes or reduces or does something - I can't tell you want, I don't know if anybody's ever tried to figure out what it is - but it changes the character of the sound a little bit. For one thing, it does not allow [slap - he claps his hands loudly] if you hear [slap - again] if you [slap] look at that sound on the oscilloscope, you see it's a peak, then a gradual coming down. That's called a transient. Tube amps, just by the character of them, don't always reproduce a transient the way it was intended to be because they don't react quickly enough.

Tim: They're slower, yeah.

Don: And if you look at a transient and listen to music A and B, between tube amps and CDs, the transients are one of the main reasons the two sound different. Some people prefer sound without a lot of transients, you know, nice and kind of even, and mellow, and there are a lot of adjectives you can use. Like your mom likes, she likes it nice and quiet and not too noisy, stuff like that. That's tube amp stuff. The perfect reproduction is what you get from CDs. Some people don't like to hear that, it sounds too harsh.

Nori: What about when you listen to music live?

Don: You're listening to it live, you hear it all. If you like live music, especially loud live music, chances are you will prefer CDs.

Paula: Chances are their hearing's gone anyway.

Don: But if live music bothers you, and it's too loud, like it does with her, chances are you prefer a tube amp sound.

Tim: You don't even need a recording studio anymore.

Don: That's right. Yeah, well, we did a demo with my trio last week in a guy's living room. He's got some stuff in there, a big control panel and a bunch of stuff. But all that stuff, he can put right in his living room without a whole lot of acoustical material.

Nori: You know the echo chambers underneath the Capitol Tower? What do those do to the recording?

Don: They're used to add reverberation, to add echo to the records. The idea, especially in those days when Capitol was built, to make the records, you added as little as possible from the room. All you wanted was just the pure sound. No reverberation, no extra overtones, no nothing, no outside interference of any kind. Then, if you wanted it to sound like reverb, or a little echo, you could add it separately when you do the final production. Those big old chambers down there were very realistic reverb chambers. Thank god they were able to save them.

Tim: What's the deal with that building now, what's housed in there?

Don: They still must use the studios all the time. Those are great studios. They have a lot of good equipment there. It would be fun to go there sometime.

Paula: Yeah!

Nori: I went in the lobby one time.

Don: Did you tell them you were there before?

Nori: Yeah, like I came here when I was born!

Don: Too bad.

Nori: Yeah, bye! I walked around in the lobby, but there's not much there. Just a reception desk and elevator.

Paula: When was it they started adding tracks?

Don: Everybody was doing that back in early fifties, the late-forties. Les Paul was doing that. Les Paul would re-record, he would get a tape with three or four tracks to be recorded at one time, and he would just add like a layer cake. He would stack them up. His record, Via con Dios, probably has eight or ten channels on it, all done by him and Mary just in the studio. The final version had all those channels just mixed together. But that was started by Les Paul, probably in about 1948.

Nori: And what was Les Paul, was he part of the company?

Don: No, he was a jazz guitarist who liked to fool with electronics. He was one of the great, original electric guitar players.

Paula: Weren't they folk music, or more like country?

Don: Well, they were semi folk, semi-country, but it sold in the pop line. Mary Ford did a record of How High the Moon, which is basically a jazz tune. She did that before Via con Dios. It was a good seller, too.

Tim: Did he come up with the pickup?

Don: He improved on the pickup. He did a lot of stuff with that. He took a Gibson - Gibson was the company that was working with him - he took a Gibson small acoustic guitar and he added electrical pickups and everything to it. He was always fooling around. He had his own studio, and everything in New Jersey. He did a lot of that stuff himself. He just sent the master tape to Capitol and said here, this is my next record. Les Paul was the inventor of that. You look on the Web, Wickipedia has a great bio on him. It was right around 1950 and by 1953 he was a huge seller, but he was also a helluva a musician. He still plays jazz in New York. He goes to some club once a week, bunch of old guys get together, old farts my age and older, and they get together and he plays jazz on his guitar. [Editor's Note: Iridium Jazz Club, 1650 Broadway, Manhattan, any Monday night, as Les greets all of his fans after his second show.]

Tim: That would be great to watch.

Don: Oh yeah!

Paula: Mary Ford?

Don: Mary Ford, no she died about ten years ago. Les is still doing it. When I was a kid, a sophomore in college, Les Paul was in a road accident in Oklahoma that almost destroyed his right arm. He got put in a hospital in Oklahoma City and I heard about it and I went down to visit him. I had never met him, and didn't know much about him, but I knew there was a famous jazz musician in Oklahoma City in a hospital and he would never remember that, but I went to visit him. I said how ya doin' and that I hoped everything would be okay.

Tim: He's still playing!

Nori: He must have taken it to heart. How old were you?

Don: I was about eighteen, I guess, eighteen or nineteen. I was a serious player, and of course he was. He was a pretty famous player. Well, we got off the beaten track. I guess you have enough material for another book now.

Nori: Yeah, I will add twenty more pages to my website!

Notes and housekeeping - further input from Steve Webb on Capitol Records history . . .
(Editor's Note: We are grateful to Steve Webb for prompting this interview, and for his thoughtful further comments and recollections posted here.)

On Jul 9, 2009, at 11:27 PM, S.W. wrote:

I don't have a lot of inside knowledge of Capitol into the 40s, but have researched the topic to death. Don doesn't remember Mercer because he was ousted in 1948 as - I've seen this listed both ways - as either president or vice president of the label. (If the former, Wallichs early on had the title of Chairman, but I think actually DeSylva held that title and it was vp and de facto head of A&R for Mercer.) During World War II, Mercer was one of the label's top sellers. He had at least one number one hit ("Candy") and outsold his friend but clear rival Crosby with his version of "Ac-Cen-tu-Ate the Positive." The first release in the album line (AD-1) was a Johnny Mercer album. He quit recording shortly after World War II, correctly I think assuming that his run on the charts as a singer was over.

I would in particular recommend perusing various books by Gene Lees, a jazz and pop journalist (and lyricist) who has interviewed a lot of individuals in the early history. People like Pete Rugolo, who brought Miles Davis to the label in I think 1949. Lees is cranky, but for that reason tells stories others gloss over. For instance, that Les Baxter used ghost arrangers who might have had a greater hand in writing his music than is credited. Lees clearly greatly admired Mercer, and wrote a pretty good bio on him. I think I've read three Mercer bios, don't know which I'd say was best. Lees got the story on where Wallichs got his shellac, from a warehouse in San Diego in exchange for releasing piano recordings by the owner's son.

Margaret Whiting's autobiography has some good stuff on early Capitol. As a teen, she was pretty much taken under Mercer's wing before starting her own singing career.

Jan Howard's autobiography is one of several places where you get a picture of Dave Dexter.

I can't remember if Kay Starr has an autobiography, but there is an account on her web page ( of Red Nichols' informal role as her sonb-finder early on as a Capitol artist. I know I read it first in a book, but have no idea where.

Dexter's autobiography is the closest thing there is to a published label history. I don't know how best to put this: His personality makes Lees' look downright benign. But it is a useful reference. For instance, what Peter Bartok in an I think 1955 article in Saturday Review refers to as "Sinatra miking" Dexter correctly attributes to originating with Gordon MacRae sessions and attributes to MacRae's wife Shiela.

I've seen five different accounts of who brought Cole to Capitol. Choose one: Wallichs, Les Paul, Lee Gillette, Stan Kenton, and I can't remember the other. It sure looks to me like the initial "signing" was in fact licensing some masters during the first of the two Petrillo boycotts.

Kenton was one of several artists on Decca (Mercer and Tex Ritter were two others) who migrated to Capitol very early on.

I am unsure about writing you something on the 40s. I have something written I've always figured at some point I'd sell. But of course I haven't.

Oh, also. Where did Don go to college? He refers to visiting Les Paul in an OKC hospital. I'm from OK and went to the U of Oklahoma (BA in journalism, 1976) so I'm really more personally interested in this than anything.

Other Oklahoma Capitol ties:
Kay Starr, born there
Wanda Jackson, born there
Hank Thompson, hosted TV show on WKY
Jimmy Wakely, born in Arkansas but worked in OK w/Gene Autry before they struck out to Hollywood.

I'm likely forgetting many others.

On Jul 10, 2009, at 2:10 AM, S.W. wrote:

What I was saying re country musicians is that in the 40s Capitol tapped into the local "western" sound, the Pasadena sound that was a precursor for the Bakersfield sound it pioneered in the late 50s and 60s. Cliffie Stone had an early TV show that featured several people who ended up recording for Capitol - Mary Ford, Ferlin Husky, Stan Freberg. Stone himself. I think Merle Travis was on the show as well.

But in addition, and this was more the case in the 50s, Capitol recorded the various Dixieland acts that played at Disneyland and Knotts's Berry Farm. Their records didn't sell much outside of greater LA, but every one of them turned a profit just on local sales. My gut is that Wallichs had a sense for which local artists could sell records nationally, but which could make a profit selling under radar locally.

My Visit with Les Paul
In Memorial of Les Paul June 9, 1915 - August 13, 2009
By Don Hassler

It was January 1948 and I was eighteen years old, a sophomore in college, studying music and spending most of my time thinking about, listening to and playing music of all kinds: opera, classics, wind music and (most of all) swing/jazz/pops.

I opened the newspaper on a cold January morning and was shocked to read the news story about a famous jazz guitarist, Les Paul, who had been in a serious road accident and was hospitalized at St. Anthony Hospital right there in Oklahoma City, my hometown and where I was going to school.

It occurred to me that any musician who is on the road and marooned (!) in a strange town would be plenty bummed out and in serious need of friendly support. So I found out that he was able to have visitors and the next day went to the hospital for a visit and chat with the famous musician.

We had a really friendly visit. I discovered that his right arm and hand were seriously injured and that there were questions about how well he would be able to play. But the injury was repaired and I have since learned that Les Paul after that always had to play with his right arm somewhat impaired. But that hardly seemed to matter and the world knows that his contributions to guitar design and to advanced, multiple recording techniques have been legendary.

In 1953, when I joined Capitol Records, Les Paul & Mary Ford's hits were booming nationwide. And after that, until his recent death, Les played on.

I'll always feel that a visit from me, an unknown kid, a striving musician from "off-the-beaten-path," gave encouragement and help to a wonderfully talented musician to further his career.

So bless you, Lester, up there in front of the Celestial Choir, just "a-pickin' and a-grinnin' "!

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