Black Owned Record Labels


Black Swan Records was founded by Harry Pace in 1921 in Harlem, New York City and was the first black owned record label whose target market were black Americans. The label released recordings of blues and jazz music. Blues and jazz music had a big impact on rock musicians. Black Swan Records was bought out in 1924 by Paramount Records (nothing to do with the movie studio). The record label was defunct by the late 20s and was resurrected in the 90s with rereleases of blues and jazz music on compact disc.

Vee Jay Records was founded in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C Bracken, husband and wife. Before Motown was founded, it was the largest black owned record label according to Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter. It was started in Chicago, same city where Soul Train started.

Like Stax (came from the names of the founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton – brother and sister), their record label came from the two names of the founders.

Like Stax, Motown, and Philadelphia International Records, they had their own house band with a guitarist, a bassist, a piano player, drummers, and a brass section. The music released on that label were from the following genres: blues, R&B (which was rising in popularity in the 50s), jazz, and rock and roll.

The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler were a member of this band) were signed to this label before they released music on Curtom Records. Their best known song from this very early era was “For Your Precious Love” from 1958.

Some of The Beatles’ music was released on Vee Jay in the United States. Sadly, the record label went bankrupt for the first time in 1966. Musicians who were signed to this record label include John Lee Hooker, Dee Clark, Memphis Slim, The Dells, The Four Seasons, and The Standells. Here are some songs by these musicians:

There were many other famous record labels that have had much success amongst black Americans and people from all ethnic groups from around the world. For example, music from the Motown/Tamla Motown label was popular in the English Northern Soul subculture. Music from the Motown and Philadelphia International record labels was featured on the popular American TV programme, Soul Train, which was created by Don Cornelius. Soul Train was known as one of the first youth oriented shows that was geared toward a black American audience. It was known as “The hippest trip in America.” Soul Train was also a hit amongst white Americans, and quite a few non-black musicians appeared on the show such as David Bowie, Elton John, Average White Band, and Frankie Valli.

Let’s explore!


Founded in 1959 in Detroit by Berry Gordy. The name is a portmanteau of motor and town. Detroit was a big centre for the auto industry. The first headquarters of Motown was called Hitsville USA. Motown is one of the best known Soul and R&B labels, and has even become a synonym for the music genres since it was influential in creating that sound we know and love. The label turned to a more disco sound in the late 70s. Musicians that weren’t even signed to the label even mimicked that sound. Many Motown singles have had chart success and rock bands would even cover Motown songs. Motown songs were in the Top 40 along with rock and roll and pop. Like many soul and R&B record labels, Motown had its own studio band – The Funk Brothers. Within Motown there were successful songwriting teams such as Holland-Dozier-Holland, Whitfield & Strong, and Ashford & Simpson. Berry Gordy wrote songs as well. Musicians Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Eddie Kendricks wrote songs as well.

Here are 10 Motown songs from the 60s and 70s that were chart toppers:

1. “My Girl” by The Temptations (1964)

2. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by The Four Tops (1966)

3. “Stop! In The Name Of Love” by The Supremes (1965)

4. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye (1968)

5. “Fingertips” by Stevie Wonder (1963) – Stevie Wonder was only 12 when this song was released!

6. “I Want You Back by The Jackson 5 (Released in 1969, #1 in 1970) – Michael Jackson was only 11 when this song was released.

7. “War” by Edwin Starr (1970)

8. “The Tears of A a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Originally released in 1967, #1 in 1970)

9. “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross (1976)

10. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston (Released in 1976, #1 in 1977) – Interestingly enough, this was a cover of a Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes song written by Gamble & Huff (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were signed to the rival record label, Philadelphia International). I love both versions!

One-derful Records: Founded by George and Ernie Leaner in 1962 in Chicago. The music released on this record label had a “harder” sound to it. A very young Michael Jackson with the Jackson Five recorded a song in 1967 (that was lost for a while) “Big Boy”.

Here’s an interesting article from the Washington Post about it. Another crossover hit from that label is “Shake a Tailfeather” by The Five Du-Tones. If “Shake a Tailfeather” sounds familiar because of The Blues Brothers and Ray Charles’ cover version of it (I really like this version), you’re right! This song was covered many times.Otis Clay had a hit with the song “That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love)” in 1967. Many musicians who were signed to this label were from St. Louis such as Alvin Cash and The Sharpees.

Constellation Records: Founded by former partial owner of Vee Jay Records, Ewart Abner in 1963. After he left the label he started Constellation Records. The record label went defunct after 3 years. The biggest success for the label was Gene Chandler “The Duke of Earl”. “Just Be True” and “What Now” were other big hits besides his #1 for Vee Jay with “The Duke of Earl”. Dee Clark got a few hits with the songs “Crossfire Time” and “Come Closer”. The reason the record label ultimately failed according to Robert Pruter is that there were few artists signed to the label and Gene Chandler getting a few hits wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat. Gene Chandler’s contract was sold to Chess Records, another famous label from Chicago.

T-Neck Records: Founded by The Isley Brothers in 1964 and named after Teaneck, New Jersey. Notably, they released the first recordings of Jimi Hendrix all over the United States. That recording was the Isley Brothers’ single, “Testify”, released in June 1964.

The Isley Brothers released their own music on the label, such as the famous funky single “It’s Your Thing”. The record label had a bit of trouble picking up at first in the mid 60s and temporarily went out of business, but they picked up again in 1969, having success throughout the 70s.

Curtom: Founded by musician Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas in 1968. The name was a portmanteau of their two names. This was not Curtis Mayfield’s first time starting a record label. He tried before with the “Mayfield” and “Windy C” labels. He was from Chicago, The Windy City, as you can tell from the name one of the record labels.

Curtis Mayfield also wrote songs for other musicians such as Jerry Butler “He Will Break Your Heart”, The Fascinations “Girls Are Out to Get You”, Major Lance “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, and Billy Butler & The Chanters – “Nevertheless” (Billy Butler passed away at the age of 69 on 1 April 2015, just a few months before his 70th birthday. RIP).

Curtom is notable for being one of the first record labels to be founded by a black musician. Curtis Mayfield released his own music on the label. His best-selling album was Super Fly, the soundtrack to the 1972 movie of the same name. Other musicians who were signed to the label include Baby Huey, LeRoy Hutson, and the Staple Singers. Here’s some great music released on Curtom Records by both Curtis Mayfield and other musicians.

1. “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield (1970)

2. “Get Down” by Curtis Mayfield (1971)

3. “The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story” by The Impressions (1969)

4. “No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)” by Curtis Mayfield (1972) – Super Fly is one of my favourite albums of all time. I highly recommend it

5. “What It Is/Preacher Man” by The Impressions (1973)

6. “Feel The Spirit” by LeRoy Hutson (1976)

7. “Blackberry Jam” by LeRoy Hutson (1976)

8. “Hard Times” by Baby Huey (1971)

9. “Funky Love” by The Staple Singers (1975)

10. “Don’t Give it Up” by Linda Clifford (1979)

Sussex: Founded by Clarence Avant in 1969. Sadly, it went defunct in 1975. Billy Withers was the most famous artist signed to the label. He was best known for the songs “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me”.

Other musicians who were signed to the label include Rodriguez, Dennis Coffey, The Presidents, and The Soul Searchers.

Philadelphia International (The Sound of Philadelphia): Founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia in 1971 to rival Motown. Similar to Motown and Stax, they had studio musicians, MFSB.

This label had a different sound to Motown and Stax and it was the Philly Sound. It had a produced sound to it and was highly focussed on arrangement. Some say that this label was pioneering in disco with early attempts at it by The O’Jays.

They surpassed Motown in popularity by the late 70s. Gamble and Huff were known as the people to work with in soul music, however were not as remembered as Motown according to this opinion article from The Grio by Ronda Racha Penrice. Their best known musicians include The O’Jays, MFSB, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, The Trammps, Archie Bell & the Drells, and McFadden & Whitehead. Here are my 10 favourite songs from this record label:

1. “Love Train” by The O’Jays (1972)

2. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead (1979)

3. “Let’s Groove” by Archie Bell & the Drells (1976)

4. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB – Soul Train Theme (1974)

5. “Get Up, Get Down, Get Funky, Get Loose” by Teddy Pendergrass (1978)

6. “Livin’ For The Weekend” by The O’Jays (1976)

7. “To Be Free to Be Who We Are” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (1975)

8. “Philly Jump” by Instant Funk (1976)

9. “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” by The Philadelphia International All Stars (1977)

10. “Jam Jam Jam All Night Long” by People’s Choice (1976)

James Brown’s various record labels: James Brown was known as “The Godfather of Soul.” He was a songwriter, singer, bandleader, and even started his own record labels. He started his first record label in 1963, Try Me Records. James Brown even had a song called “Try Me”. Tammy Terrell was signed to the record label before she went on to be famous as Tammy Terrell. After a year, Try Me Records was defunct. James Brown then started Brownstone Records in 1970, which was a predecessor to People Records. Third time was the charm for James Brown and People Records was a success. Sadly, People Records closed in 1976. Here are couple of songs released on James Brown’s record labels:

Paisley Park Records: Founded by Prince in 1985, and was based near his hometown of Minneapolis. The record label was named after one of his songs.  Prince released some albums on that label until 1993, when the label went out of business. Other musicians who recorded albums under the Paisley Park label include The Family, Madhouse, The Three O’Clock, George Clinton, Mavis Staples, and The Time.

TryAngle Records: Founded by The Hackney Brothers of the punk band Death. The band started their own record label because no major label would release their music. They self-released two singles, “Politicians in My Eyes” and “Where Do We Go From Here”. If you watch the documentary about them, A Band Called Death, you’ll see that the number three and the shape of a triangle has a lot of significance. In the documentary, surviving band members Bobby and Dannis said that their brother David came up with the concept after their father died, the fact that death is real and is what comes after life, it’s not a good or bad thing, it’s like birth. One day in their backyard, David took a picture of the sky and there was a triangle and he said he saw the face of God in the picture looking over at the triangle. The Death Triangle is their logo: the three points stand for the three elements of life: Spiritual, Mental, and Physical. There is a fourth dot in their logo, which stands for the guiding spirit. Decades after Death released two singles, that sadly faded into obscurity, the original pressings became collector’s items, with an original pressing of “Politicians in My Eyes” selling for $800. We can say that Death came back to life and so did their label TryAngle. So if you couldn’t get your hands on an original pressing, no worries! You can buy their albums hereFor The Whole World To See is absolutely worth listening to.