A sense of community among musicians has long set New Orleans apart from most other cities. Being a component of a greater whole extends beyond the bandstand and includes fans, radio stations, publications, venues and hometown festivals. Boasting an entire catalog of local artists, Basin Street Records, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, definitely stands as a significant member of this city’s musical family.
In the last two decades, the company, owned by Mark Samuels, has released product from some of New Orleans’ most musically representative and recognizable names: Kermit Ruffins, the Rebirth Brass Band, Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford, Irvin Mayfield, Henry Butler and more. That’s an impressive array, yet Basin Street Records earned the embrace of many for its warmly inclusive personality.
Many people’s introduction to the label was at the 1998 French Quarter Festival. Here’s this guy, walking around the riverfront wearing one of those old-fashioned sandwich boards advertising Basin Street’s first releases—Kermit Ruffins’ The Barbecue Swingers Live and Los Hombres Calientes’ self-titled album—and their upcoming concert at the Orpheum Theater. Wearing the hilarious board was none other than Samuels himself.
“I feel very strongly about capturing the attention of music fans while they’re being music fans,” Samuels wisely offers. “Being hands-on is a lot of my nature. During that first Jazz Fest, I was probably out every night putting posters on telephone poles around the Fair Grounds. We used to go up and down Broadway and up and down in the Warehouse District and outside the Maple Leaf and outside Tipitina’s.
“It hasn’t changed a lot over the years,” he continues. “Every year we’re still outside the Fair Grounds handing out postcards and now we put posters on windshields.”
“The reality is, I don’t really like the recording studio; my interest is the music and the distribution and marketing of music,” he continues. “So I count on producers to do the job. I could not have done this without Tracey Freeman who produced both of Rebirth’s records and all but one of Kermit’s and those artists who self-produced recordings.”
Considering his educational and employment background, Samuels seems like a fairly unlikely candidate to jump into the record business. He earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin and headed to New York to work in the world of finance.
In his younger years, however, the musical spark was lit particularly when he attended Benjamin Franklin High School. He played saxophone in the concert band that included both trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, at various times. Later, while working in New York, Samuels would meet up with Wynton for lunch or a game of hoops, solidifying their friendship. “I would go to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers’ shows when Branford and Wynton were in the band,” says Samuels. “I listened to a lot of jazz back then.”
The early Marsalis connection brought Samuels into some of the inner circles of the music world that would lead him, years later, to establish Basin Street Records.
Samuels, who moved to New Orleans at age six, hadn’t anticipated returning to the Crescent City. “I was sitting in my New York office and my father called me and he said that he had a new project in the energy business down in New Orleans and asked me if I was interested in coming back,” he remembers. He took the job.
“When I moved back with my late wife Patti, we were big music fans and we used to go see Davell Crawford, Henry Butler, Kermit Ruffins and Jon Cleary,” Samuels recalls. Looking back, it’s significant that all these artists would one day record on the Basin Street Records label.
The next step in Mark’s inching towards becoming a record label owner was when his brother, Will, who was the manager for the Cutting Edge Music Conference, invited him to put together the jazz showcases. “I did it just for fun,” says Samuels, adding that he used his contacts as a jazz fan and his friendship with Wynton in booking the artists. As he recalls, Kermit, Delfeayo and saxophonist Wess Anderson participated.
Having booked Ruffins, who was then managed by Tom Thompson, Samuels says he began starting conversations with Thompson and telling him he was looking for something else to do—maybe working as a booking agent or manager. The conversations continued for over a year until it was suggested that they record a live Kermit record. It then evolved to “How about we start a record label?”
“We went through a lot of street names,” Samuels recalls, when he and Thompson were deciding what the new label would be called. “It was like St. Charles Avenue Records doesn’t make a lot of sense. When we hit on Basin Street, it was like ‘Bingo, yeah that’s the one.’ A sweet thing about the moniker is that it not only represents a famous New Orleans street but a famous song, “Basin Street Blues,” a tune which Ruffins, Butler and Mayfield have recorded on the label.
In September 1997, while Samuels was still working at his father’s firm, he began devoting nights and weekends to the label. “After we had gone through the first French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest and I signed both Kermit and Los Hombres Calientes, that’s when I said I’m going to go ahead and give this my full time.” He soon bought out Thompson and became the sole proprietor.
Ruffins was the catalyst for forming Basin Street Records and the selection of the other artists who would be signed happened rather organically—Samuels was a fan or somehow connected. “In almost all cases they’d been on my radar for a long time,” says Samuels. For instance, the newly formed Los Hombres Calientes, who would go on to be nominated for a Grammy and will win a Billboard Latin Music Award, were then led by percussionist/vocalist Bill Summers, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis, who Samuels, as a regular visitor to the Marsalis home, met as a youngster. Los Hombres led to Basin Street’s prolific association with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, a Grammy-nominated artist on the label who has appeared on Basin Street Records as leader and heading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Samuels met trumpeter/vocalist Jeremy Davenport while having lunch with Wynton Marsalis in New York. He says in Davenport’s case, like many others’, it would often take years before a talk about making a record with a musician would turn into reality.
“It takes the timing of having money in the bank to do it, having the time and the ability to be helpful to the artist and the artist being ready and willing to sign a deal,” explains Samuels. He then mentions similar lag times in wanting to and actually signing Davell Crawford, Henry Butler and the Rebirth Brass Band, which won the label’s sole Grammy for 2012’s Rebirth of New Orleans.
One of the exceptions to Basin Street’s usual selection process was clarinetist Michael White. “I signed Michael because Jerry Brock [then co-owner of the Louisiana Music Factory] called me and said, ‘I think you will do really well with Michael White even if the only place you sold it is here.’ I signed him on the strength of that recommendation because I wasn’t aware of Michael’s work. Jerry produced A Song for George Lewis.”
“Every year, the Music Factory has been our number one retailer,” Samuels informs. “I hope people continue to buy product from independent music stores and particularly the Louisiana Music Factory. They can use the love. It’s such an important element of our success.”
In a musical family, each member is essential for its prosperity and sense of artistic satisfaction. Basin Street Records’ success is New Orleans’ success.