Art Rupe


With the deaths in recent years of dynamic superstar Little Richard and hidden gem Lloyd Price, 50s music executive Art Rupe outlived virtually all of the pioneers whose careers he helped launch. One of the most integral white figures in propelling black music to mainstream popularity, his upbringing in a multiracial Pennsylvania suburb gave him an early appreciation for the gospel sound that would remain his favourite genre. His initial forays into the music business were unsuccessful, in part due to pursuing mainstream pop that already had a huge market, which inspired him to instead follow the black gospel that he had personal passion for. He set up a new label in 1946, which he named “Specialty Records” in reference to the nicheness of his music at the time.

In addition to gospel music, Specialty featured gospel-influenced secular R&B, with early artists including Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, and Joe Liggins. These early artists offered quality work in an era where much of mainstream pop was utterly dirgelike, underscoring the importance of Rupe’s own taste. Discovering Lloyd Price, spurred by a desire to have a New Orleans, Fats Domino-type sound on the label, proved a valuable coup for two reasons – Price himself provided an impassioned and influential classic in “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, and he suggested who would become Specialty’s jackpot artist should send a demo to Rupe – one Little Richard. Rupe was mesmerized by the enthusiasm in Richard’s voice and how alive he seemed on the piano, and music history was made with “Tutti Frutti” on top of other frenetic, pounding gamechangers. Another giant in Rupe’s repertoire was Sam Cooke, who was under his gospel wing and, in a rare flub for Rupe’s ear, left the label due to Rupe’s belief Cooke shouldn’t have turned to smooth and secular soul.

Though with a keen sense for good music, Rupe’s business model was unscrupulous (if not uncommon among contemporary executives), with him gaining nearly all of the royalties from his artists’ songs. Though Price spoke glowingly of Rupe at the latter’s induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richard held long term bitterness over the paltry royalties he received for his biggest hits. Regardless of any business flaws, Rupe’s musical legacy in bringing some of the best music of the 50s to the forefront and helping reshape the landscape for the better is a sound one.

Rupe winded down his presence in the music industry by 1960 after disillusionment with the dreaded payola. He invested in oil and gas, which was successful enough to allow him to pursue philanthropic endeavours. He was 104 and picked by 7 teams, and continues a trend that at least one name dropped by yours truly dies that year. Though tbf my goal was just to make sure he was a DDP hit rather than specifically my hit, so mission accomplished!

Art Rupe
5 September 1917 – 15 April 2022, aged 104
7 TEAMS (💀💀💀💀 4 POINTS)