Art Rupe, the founder of Speciality Records who helped pioneer R&B and early rock music with artists like Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Lloyd Price, died on Friday at the age of 104.
The Arthur N. Rupe Foundation announced the news in a statement. No immediate cause of death was given.
Born Arthur N. Goldberg on Sept. 5, 1917, Rupe grew up in McKeesport, Penn., just outside Pittsburgh. In 1939, he headed to Los Angeles, where he changed his last name upon learning “Rupe” was the name of his paternal grandfather before immigrating to the United States. He worked on a naval engineering crew during World War II and then turned his attention to the record producing business, specializing in music that was then classified as “race records.”
In 1944, Rupe co-founded Juke Box Records, which was responsible for a regional hit by the Sepia Tones, “Boogie #1.” Two years later in 1946, he founded his own label, Specialty Records.
On a scouting trip to New Orleans in 1952, Rupe crossed paths with a teenage Price, whom he recorded singing his own song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” It featured Fats Domino on piano and subsequently became the top-selling R&B record of the year. Price also encouraged a friend of his, Little Richard, to send in his own demos to Speciality, which allowed Richard to buy himself out of a previous contract.
Major success would arrive a few years later in the mid-’50s with the release of Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which was followed by multiple hit songs including “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Long Tall Sally,” plus Richard’s 1957 debut LP Here’s Little Richard, all released via Specialty.
Listen to Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’
Rupe had also signed a young Sam Cooke, then a member of gospel group the Soul Stirrers, which had a hit with 1950’s “Jesus Gave Me Water.” But artistic disagreements between Rupe and Cooke led the latter to leave the label in 1957, the same year he launched his own solo career. Cooke secured a smash hit in 1958 with “You Send Me,” which Rupe admitted decades later he did not think would be as successful as it was.
“In all candor, I did not think ‘You Send Me’ was that great,” Rupe told the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year he received the Ahmet Ertegun Award and was inducted. “I never dreamed it would be a multimillion-seller.”
Listen to the Soul Stirrers’ ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’
By the early ’60s, Rupe had started to move away from the music business and begun investing in his own oil and gas company. In 1990, he sold Specialty’s catalog to Fantasy Records, and in 1991, he established the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, whose goal is to achieve “positive social change by shining the light of truth on critical and controversial issues” while also supporting caregivers of people with dementia.
Price praised Rupe’s groundbreaking vision when he inducted him into the Rock Hall in 2011. “Art recently told me that the combination we had over 60 years ago — my particular talent and his rare instinct of record executive — made that song what it is,” Price said, “the first rock ‘n’ roll record to dissolve the color barrier between Black and white audiences.”
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