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Inside Malaco Records, 'The Last Soul Company'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: As a small, mostly unheard of independent record label based --not in New York or Los Angeles -- but in Jackson, Mississippi; Malaco Records has managed to outlast major record label competitors like Motown, Stax and Chess records. Referred to as "the last soul company," it's been home to multiple recording artists and songwriters and has a catalog of original recordings and music copyrights, numbering into the thousands.

Newshour weekend's Christopher Booker brings us the unlikely and long-lasting story of Malaco Records.

Christopher Booker: From soul to blues to gospel, Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco Music Group has seen and done it all. Now after over 50 years, the story of one of America's oldest, surviving independent music companies is being told.

Christopher Booker: Do you think the general population, the general music fan knows of and by extension appreciates Malaco's contribution?

Rob Bowman: No, absolutely not.

Christopher Booker: Rob Bowman is the author of 'The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story."

Rob Bowman: Mainstream America doesn't have a clue what Malaco is, but for older Black soul-blues fans, Malaco is associated with an incredible run.

Christopher Booker: A run that started in the 1960's. Tommy Couch was one of the founders.

Tommy Couch Sr: In the early stages, we would try to make a record like a lot of other independent producers and studios, and we would rush to New York or L.A. Or somewhere and try to lease it to a major. In a way, we really started was after several trips, we could get nobody interested, so we had to put these records at ourselves.

Christopher Booker: Malaco's early days were lean, but early in the 1970s their studio recorded two big songs -- King Floyd's 'Groove me' -- released on Malaco's Chimneyville label, and Jean Knight's 'Mr. Big stuff,' released by nearby on Stax. Rather unbelievably given Malaco's longevity, the company and their labels never produced a number one radio hit in the pop music world. Only three of their songs cracked the top 50, the last one came from Dorothy Moore in 1976. But year after year Malaco has survived - even as so many shut their doors.

Rob Bowman: I mean everyone thinks of Motown, Chess, Atlantic, Stax, glorious labels, every one of them to, you know, many more hit records and Malaco, but none of them survived as long. They all ceased to be living entities and they all stopped being independent, Malaco is independent, 52 years straight.

Christopher Booker: Integral to their survival, has been an ability to adapt. While it may have started with a quest for hits on the pop charts, this is not where the label ended up. Their move to a genre known as Soul Blues and more importantly, Gospel is why Malaco is still here. In the world of Gospel music, there is nothing larger than Malaco - whether through their own recordings or acquisitions. Their 1986 acquisition of the Savoy catalog making Malaco the largest gospel label in the world.

Tommy Couch Sr.: When you think about the Black church, you got to think about the music of the black church and we're right at the top of that list when you look at the music. I mean, Reverend James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, so there's a lot of history throughout the years that, you know, we have and we're very proud of.

Rob Bowman: Malaco has blown the roof off gospel sales a few times, Mississippi Mass Choir's first album may have been the largest selling gospel album in history.

Christopher Booker: Released in 1989, the Mississippi Mass Choir's debut became the number 1 spiritual album in the country and spent 45 weeks on the Billboard charts, but like every other corner of the music industry, the market for gospel music has changed. Much of Malaco's business is now conducted online and through streaming platforms. They have spent recent years digitizing and uploading all of their recordings.

Rob Bowman: From the most obscure track that sold virtually nothing whenever it was released, and the idea was even if it generated $20 in streaming royalties in the year, you multiply that by tens of thousands of tracks, you can survive.

Christopher Booker: This archive created another benefit. Its increased the number of licensing and sampling deals. In recent years Malaco recordings have been sampled on songs by Kanye West, Drake, DJ Khaled, Snoop Dogg and Cardi B. But Malaco has been sampled for years, starting with started where so much of hip-hop started with Grandmaster flash.

Rob Bowman: They had to sue to get paid on that. But Grandmaster Flash recorded a song that he called "Freedom" and actually erotically sampled a song by a Malaco group called Freedom.

Rob Bowman: And of course, that was back in the wild west days of sampling in the early Eighties where nobody cleared anything and if you got sued, maybe you paid something and Malaco was right on top of it, but that was the first sample later on. People like Celine Dion sample Reverend James Cleveland songs. Pusha T has sampled Malaco stuff and one of the really great ones was Shaggy Boombastic, one of the biggest hits the Nineties and he's sampling a King Floyd song, "Baby, Let Me Kiss You."

Christopher Booker: What do you think the story of Malaco and its longevity says about the music industry?

Rob Bowman: Well, it says the music industry is much like capitalism in general. There are multi-levels, multi-tiers that which one can play the game. It operates the way companies operated 40, 50, 60 years ago. And I'm talking about small companies. But it's not like these old geezers who don't know what's going on. They're incredibly smart and have adapted to the industry, but they never sold to anybody, they are completely independent. They have nobody's expectations except their own.

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