Billy Vera, Rip It Up—The Specialty Records Story (BMG)

Part of the RPM series of recent books documenting the history of U.S. independent record labels from the mid- 1940s to the late-1950s, Specialty Records was one of the most successful and important labels that recorded Black music during the era. Founded by Art Rupe, the son of Polish immigrants who grew up in Pittsburgh, he developed a knack for business, moving to Hollywood where he set up a record label. His early releases by West Coast R&B artists like Percy Mayfield, Joe Liggins and Roy Milton proved to be very successful. In addition he maintained a roster of stable of dependable and important gospel groups that generated steady sales. Within a few years, Specialty was well established in the Black community. By 1952, and despite much success, Rupe was no longer “feeling it” upon listening to his latest Specialty releases. Rupe felt his business needed a lift. Despite initially being hesitant, Rupe decided to make a trip to New Orleans, primarily because of Fats Domino’s new sound. Rupe held an audition at J&M’s which brought him Lloyd Price. The release of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” would immediately point Specialty in a whole new direction. New Orleans would become the primary source of Specialty’s repertoire, which was only magnified by Guitar Slim and Little Richard’s J&M output. Briefly, Rupe created a Specialty branch office located on Claiborne Avenue. Despite tremendous success during the 1950s, Rupe didn’t want to compete with the major labels. After 1959 the label pretty much became dormant and he looked for an alternative business. Much of Specialty’s comings-and-goings during that decade and-a-half are detailed in these pages, as are the subsequent destinies of the Specialty catalog. However, when compared to the previous volume in this series—Scratch My Back, the Excello Story—Rip It Up is not nearly as good a read. First of all, and it’s not a criticism, but Rupe doesn’t come off as a very “colorful” character. Secondly, upon flipping through the book initially, I couldn’t help but comment, “Didn’t I read this before?” I guess a lot of us had, as the source of most of this book were distilled from liner notes contained in Specialty box sets and reissue CDs that Vera wrote 25 years ago. Granted, there is certainly merit to Rip It Up, but there’s really no heavy lifting here. Vera’s alarming lack of sources, references and outside insights makes this book a lazy effort. It’ll make a good read for those just being introduced to the sounds of Specialty, but not so much for us who’ve been around for a while.