Art Rupe, an early rock ‘n’ roll music mogul and founder of the influential Specialty Records, died April 15 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 104.
Specialty championed such indelible artists as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, Roy Milton and Percy Mayfield after its launch in Los Angeles in 1946. Rupe was also an oil and gas entrepreneur. He spent his final decades devoted to the work of his Arthur N. Rupe Foundation in Santa Barbara.
Rupe was born Arthur Goldberg to a working-class Jewish family in Pennsylvania. He grew up outside the Pittsburgh area. He developed an interesting blues, gospel and R&B music that he heard growing up in McKeesport, Pa.
According to the foundation, Rupe “attended college at Virginia Tech and Miami University of Ohio, and in 1939 set off for Los Angeles to make his way in the world.” He changed his surname to Rupe after moving West, after learning from his grandfather that it was the family name before Goldberg was adopted at Ellis Island.
During World War II, Rupe worked at Terminal Island testing ships. But he also mixed his interest in music with an entrepreneurial drive. In 1944, with partner Ben Siegert, he formed Juke Box Records and had a regional hit with the release “Boogie No. 1” by the Sepia Tones. But Rupe went his own way with the launch of Specialty in 1946.
As described by the foundation, “Over the next 15 years, Specialty became one of the most prominent independent recording companies, with worldwide distribution. Rupe’s work at Specialty played a key role in the emergence of the new musical genre of rock ‘n ‘ roll.”
Little Richard was Specialty’s biggest hitmaker, starting with the enduring “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. Other Little Richard hits for Specialty included “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rip it Up” — all classics in the R&B and rock canon.
Specialty’s masters were acquired by Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Records in 1990. Today they’re owned and distributed by indie music giant Concord.
At the same time he was blazing trails in pop music, Rupe was also mining a different kind of energy. He began investing in oil and gas production in the 1950s. He had operations in Texas and later in West Virginia and Ohio.
Rupe’s philanthropic focus with his foundation was on grant-making that is designed to “achiev(e) positive social change by shining the light of truth on critical and controversial issues,” according to the foundation’s website. “It pursues this mission through the support of scholarly studies, education, research, and public debate, and by the dissemination of the results via a variety of media to all segments of the public.”
The foundation sponsors debate activity at the high school, college and civic level. It also has a caregiver training program for people dealing with loved ones with dementia.
Rupe’s survivors include a daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz; a son-in-law, Leo Schwarz; and a granddaughter, Madeline Kahan.