POP MUSIC : At Last, a Record Label for Rock Fanatics

Jerry Lee Lewis was such an incandescent figure in '50s rock that no one--least of all the arrogant Lewis himself--was surprised two years ago when he became one of the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Yet most rock fans today probably only know this wild man of the keyboards through about seven minutes of music: the landmark singles "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On," "Breathless" and "Great Balls of Fire."

So, it would take a real fanatic to put out a 12-record boxed set featuring 206 (!!) other recordings that Lewis made between 1956 and 1963 for Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis. Right?

Meet Jean Luc Young, chairman of London-based Charly Records.

A Frenchman who broke into the music business by booking rock tours in Europe while still in his teens, Young also ran a chain of record stores and a politically conscious magazine in France before opening a record company in 1974 that specialized in his pet passions: early American rock, R&B; and jazz.

Though U.S. record companies now have ambitious reissue programs, hundreds of classic '40s and '50s recordings were either out of print or carelessly packaged and poorly distributed a decade ago.

Young, now 40, felt there was a sizable audience eager for this neglected music and he set out to prove the point with Charly Records.

Not long after starting in France, Young moved the Charly headquarters to "seedy offices in a dilapidated" area of London, but the company quickly became known for both the quality of its pressings and its attention to detail.

Rather than "greatest-hits" sets in cheaply designed packages, Young took pride in releasing anything he felt would be of historical interest--and in making sure the album covers were colorful and the liner notes complete.

As its reputation and sales grew, Charly moved to a more comfortable and efficient red-brick building in London. But the label is still far removed from the city's fashionable West End record-business center.

In fact, the Charly headquarters are in such a remote section of Southeast London that it often takes either some persuasive talking or the promise of a hefty tip to get London's normally accommodating cabbies to take you there.

There is, however, a certain appropriateness in Young's distance from the trendy 1988 pop world. He is dealing with history. Not every artist on the nearly 700 Charly reissues played an essential part in the development of contemporary pop music, but the the catalogue is filled with some of the greatest and most influential music ever recorded. (See box below).

Despite Charly's high profile in Europe, the label had only limited distribution in this country--until recently. Street Level, a Gardena-based company, has made a deal with Young to be the exclusive distributor in the United States of Charly product, and has launched an aggressive marketing and promotion campaign.

The Street Level office, fittingly, is as far removed from the heart of the Los Angeles record business as Charly is from London's. There isn't even a sign on the front of the building in an industrial section of Gardena. The only way you can tell there is a record warehouse there is the parade of delivery trucks that pull up to the back door.

Jacques Hubert, another Frenchman with tastes similar to Young's, started the record distribution company in 1985, but it was slow in building a profile.

With help from veteran record promotion man Lanny Lee, who is now vice president and general manager of Street Level, things are moving rapidly. Estimated 1987 sales were $4 million and Lee said the company still has only reached about 35% of its potential sales market in this country. The bulk of the sales are in the rock and R&B; genres.

"The fascinating thing to me is thinking back to the '50s, when I was working in radio and none of us had any idea that people would still be buying these records five years later, much less 30 years later," Lee said, sitting in an office decorated with campy movie posters and picture discs.

"We loved the music, but no one felt they were dealing with history . That's why the artists made those lousy deals (with record companies). You took what you could get."

The most important step in the development of Charly Records was acquiring the rights in England and France to virtually everything ever released by Sun Records, arguably the most influential label in the birth of rock.

Four of the first 25 members inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got their start on Sun: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Lewis. Among the black artists recorded by Phillips before he began concentrating on white rockabilly: B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton and Junior Parker.

Charly's connection with Sun Records came up almost by accident.

"I was visiting a friend in Chicago and talking the reissue business when he suggested I call (Nashville recording figure) Shelby Singleton, who owned the Sun catalogue," Young said during an interview in his office in London. "I had always loved Sun Records, but I had never dreamed I could get the rights to them.

"So my friend picks up the phone and calls Shelby and Shelby tells him that he had just re-signed with Phonogram . . . that the contract was on his desk, all ready to mail. So my friend says, 'Don't sign it. Wait until Jean Luc talks to you.' "

Young flew to Nashville where the first thing he saw in Singleton's office was the contract with Phonogram, the European recording conglomerate.

"I literally ripped it out of his hands and said, 'You've got to sign with me,' " Young recalled.

Singleton was sufficiently impressed by Young that he set aside the Phonogram contract and agreed to give the French and British rights to Charly.

Young went back to France and initiated an ambitious schedule of Sun releases. He sent a representative to Nashville to go through Singleton's warehouse and catalogue the thousands of hours of tapes. Eventually, Young promised himself, everything would be released.

The Jerry Lee Lewis box, which was released in England in 1984, was one of the most dramatic--and successful--steps toward that goal. The project, which took a year to put together, may have appeared a bit indulgent, but international sales of the box (which retails for approximately $90) are past the 20,000 mark, Lee estimated.

About the launching of Charly, Young said: "I didn't start (Charly) as a (public service) for lovers of this music. I saw there was a future (business) in this historic music.

"One of the first things I saw (when I got into the record business) was that most companies weren't doing anything about their great catalogues. They were just sitting on all that great old music because they were just interested in hyping up the new stuff. That's where they saw the most money. That left a gap, but not many people saw it.

"Even before Charly, I had a company in France that reissued a lot of great (blues and jazz) stuff from Savoy, Riverside, Prestige. Most people just freaked out. They said to us, 'Why bother? How can you survive?' They didn't understand what we were doing at all. They didn't understand that lots of people loved this music.

"I think the U.S. record industry was slow getting the message about this kind of record. But now you see a (flood) of releases. They have begun to realize all the great stuff they had just sitting on shelves in their vaults."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World