Label follows grammy wins with jazz, adult pop staples

Following the phenomenal success of Ray Charles’ final recording, Concord Records is getting back to business as usual.

Label resumes its role as a jazz and adult pop house, working a slate of 23 new albums that will be released between now and the end of August. It includes an intriguing confluence of female singers — Mary Haskell, Keely Smith and Debby Boone — with new albums hitting retail within the next five weeks.

“The first thing we look for is quality plus a reason to do something,” says Gene Rumsey, general manager of Concord. “The consistent thing across all three records is the quality of the recording.”

For the Smith record, titled “Vegas ’58 Today” and filled with the repertoire she and Louis Prima performed in Las Vegas, Concord has “a story that should be retold and one that coincides with the 100th birthday of Las Vegas.”

As for Boone, Rumsey noted: “It’s ironic that Rosie’s daughter-in-law comes to us right about the same age as when Rosie came to us. After hearing the music, we had a great reason to do this.” Boone will be part of the Rosemary Clooney remembrance June 20 at Carnegie Hall.

Haskell, a former Miss Mississippi who gave up her showbiz career after she married former William Morris exec Sam Haskell and started a family, is going a unique route: recording well-known songs that work on a spiritual as well as musical level.

Titled “Inspired: Standards Good for the Soul,” Haskell’s disc attempts to cross between the jazz world and the contempo Christian market. Discovered singing with Concord associate Michael Feinstein, she opened a show for Sandi Patty, made TV appearances and will play Feinstein’s in New York as well as opening for Tony Danza on March 28.

Haskell hopes to be booked into larger church venues, where she will sing standards such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” along with songs from the tuners “Wicked” and “Under the Bridge” plus a number by Dolly Parton. As she puts it: “timeless melodies with a timely message.”

“One young guy in our international division came into my office and asked me, ‘How do I make the world a better place?’ ” Rumsey relates, noting he was taken aback by the question. “As you listen to the music, you hear a desire on her part to make a difference, to help people get through difficult periods.

“It presents a bit of a challenge because it’s tough to market to inspirational radio and Christian bookstores. But there is a message, and we have to show how it fits nicely in the cracks.”

After the releases from the femme warblers hit retail, Concord — which switched distribution to Universal from Ryko this month — will issue new recordings from jazzsters Gary Burton and Scott Hamilton, Eric Clapton’s drummer Jamie Oldaker and singers Dianne Schuur, Curtis Stigers and Nnenna Freelon.

Subsid labels Peak, Stretch and Picante will issue discs by Dave Weckl, Eddie Palmieri, David Benoit, “American Idol” finalist LaToya London, the Rippingtons and Poncho Sanchez. Also on tap are archival releases by Bobby Darin, Marian McPartland and Tony Bennett.

That gets the label through August, by which time it is expected to have a plan in place for Fantasy Records, which the label acquired late last year for some $80 million.

Fantasy, which includes Stax, Milestone, Prestige, Pablo and other imprints, is one of the largest jazz catalogs in the U.S., also boasts many of the finest soul sides to come out of Memphis in the 1960s and all of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s albums.

(An olive branch has been extended to CCR’s John Fogerty, who had a contentious and litigious relationship with Fantasy and owner Saul Zaentz for three decades).

Fantasy is based in Berkeley, Calif., where it has kept a low profile releasing thousands of older albums on CD while new recordings from the likes of Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Scott are kept to a minimum.

Rumsey says no decision has been made on whether the label should remain based in Northern California or if the operations should be combined.

“Fantasy execs know the restrictions and they’ve run a really good business,” Rumsey observes. “There’s no reason to radically change that. We have to do it in a measured way.”

One part of the puzzle in the success of Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” was the involvement of Starbucks and its label Hear Music. Rumsey and Concord execs are finding more willing partners, among them FTD and Hallmark, but the two worlds are operating on different time schedules.

“It’s better to take your product to where the consumer is, but we’re dealing with people whose planning is well into 2006. And we’re asking, ‘How about Mother’s Day?’ “

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