On this, the 30th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival — the event that ushered in the Summer of Love — those old enough to remember, or at least mythologize the times, can summon the fest in all of its flower-power glory via Rhino Records’ four-CD box set.
D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary notwithstanding, the Rhino compilation is the most definitive record of the event to date — no small feat considering Monterey’s significance as the turning point between pop’s tuneful mainstream and the onslaught of psychedelia and guitar rock, not to mention L.A. acts earning their stripes in the San Francisco hippie nation.
Mapping inroads paved on the music landscape defines part of the Rhino Records ethos, the other is a fanatic love for pop culture, pure and simple. Founders Richard Foos and Harold Bronson began 17 years ago with novelty records and began expanding with catalog collections approached from a fan’s perspective. Today, their archival reissues and comprehensive anthologies are the head of the class.
Rhino has partnered and purchased its way into some of the strongest and deepest catalogs in popular music of the past 40 years. Commenting on Rhino’s fruitful pact with Atlantic Records — a partnership that has spawned definitive compilations by such artists as John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding., senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart calls it a “built-for-distance relationship as opposed to what I would call built for speed.” Rhino’s staying power has to do with its push to become what Bronson calls a “brand name” in the record catalog business, a highly specialized task many major labels are loathe to tackle.
“In many ways catalog marketing to a major can be very distracting,” Stewart says. “Even if they create their own division, it’s still not something you can entirely separate. Although we have had some success with new music, like RuPaul, that’s not something that will be our providence. It’s almost like two different industries. If you’re good at one you’re going to have problems in the other.”
Gregg Geller, VP of A&R for Warner Bros. Records, acknowledges Rhino’s ability to take catalog marketing and packaging to the next level. “If you take old material and remaster it carefully and lovingly, and present it in the best possible fashion in the most attractive manner, people are going to respond,” Geller says. “And they’ve done that pretty consistently throughout the years.”
Part of Rhino’s strength in its compilations is its ability to navigate between a Smithsonian course and a record fanatic’s sense of fun. The emphasis will be on the latter approach in its upcoming “Beg, Scream and Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul,” due out Aug. 5. “We’ve already done the historical treatment,” says Stewart, referring to the imprint’s “The R&B Box: 30 Years of Rhythm & Blues” set released in November 1994. “We want to do something about discovering passion and excitement. Otherwise we would be curators, stuffing and mounting things.”
One way of eliciting this sense of discovery on the ’60s soul set — which will feature such artists as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett and James Brown, as well as some brilliant sides from forgotten singers — will be including tracks that haven’t been played to death on radio or reissued ad infinitum on other collections. Another is the way items are programmed and notated.
For example, on “The Heavyweight Champion,” the complete Atlantic recordings set of Coltrane, the cuts are presented in chronological order of the recording dates, as opposed to simply re-creating the original LP playlists. Consequently, the listener discovers that the same year Coltrane was recording classic trad-jazz tracks like “Naima” and “My Favorite Things” in 1960, he also was in the studio with harmolodic pioneer Ornette Colman’s sidemen like Don Cherry laying down tracks that wouldn’t see the light of day until 1966 under the moniker “The Avant Garde.” Nothing could more underscore the depth and breadth of Coltrane’s playing at the time.
The label also is willing to sift through the myriad legal entanglements of cross-licensing, a time-consuming, detail-intensive effort most labels too concerned with their own catalogs and breaking new artists do well to avoid. “(Cross-licensing) is not something we consider a burden; that’s something we consider an asset,” Stewart says. “When a consumer buys a package from us we want them to know that we went to all the labels. When they buy something that says ‘best of’ anthology, they count it as being definitive and they count on us to do the work and they really don’t want to know how hard it was.”
The epitome of the little company that could, Rhino started out 25 years ago as a mom-and-pop style operation on Westwood Boulevard in West L.A., where the first Rhino Records store opened its doors in October 1973. In 1978, the label was officially launched with the release of “Wildmania,” featuring local street singer Wild Man Fischer. The label’s first reissue featured the Turtles, whose entire catalog Rhino eventually would release, and which signaled Rhino’s growing bond with L.A. and its pop heroes like Ritchie Valens, Arthur Lee and Dick Dale.
“In our first few years we actually thought that we were the L.A. record company, with maybe 80%-90% of our releases on L.A.-based artists. So it was something that we were really conscious of then.”
The company since has grown from an upstart label that grossed $60,000 in its first year to a vertically integrated enterprise with revenue topping $70 million last year. Bronson partly attributes Rhino’s success to the solidity of its staff, a jaunty crew of “informed eccentrics,” as its press notes proudly note. “The upper management has been consistent through the years and I think that’s atypical of other record companies,” Bronson says.
In addition to a label that specializes in novelty, pop and soul reissues, spoken word and compilations of all stripes, Rhino has branched out into book publishing, video, a children’s division called Kid Rhino and feature film production.
This month, shooting is scheduled to commence on Rhino’s sophomore movie effort, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinatory, gonzo-journalism classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” with Johnny Depp starring and Hollywood iconoclast Terry Gilliam at the helm. In the meantime, the Rhino Records is touting upcoming comprehensive collections by the likes of Ray Charles, Charles Mingus and Phil Ochs, as well as the first release of the “Casablanca” soundtrack, the result of Rhino’s pact with Turner Entertainment that’s releasing classic soundtracks from the Turner vaults.
And having scrapped such theme-restaurant projects like Club Rhino (at least for now) and taking the movie thing one step at a time, Rhino will keep on doing what it does best. “Our growth stair has always been one step at a time, with no one phase being pronounced,” Bronson says. “By the same token I don’t think anybody could have predicted that we would be doing the kind of business we are doing. If anybody told me this when we started, I would have never believed it.”