In early 1986, when Time-Life Records launched “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era,” its first series devoted to rock, even company head Paul Stewart admitted to bouts of anxiety over whether it would be successful enough to reach its goal of 15 volumes. Nearly 3 years later, the Virginia-based firm has just issued Volume 25.
Now planned at 35 volumes, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” may be the most comprehensive oldies series ever compiled and, with more than 3.5 million units already sold, the most successful. This is especially remarkable considering that, like other Time-Life products, the series is available only by mail-order subscription.
There is no doubt that “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era,” which covers the years 1954 to 1964, was launched at perhaps the perfect marketing moment. Just settling into middle-age affluence, the baby boomers have proved obsessed with the music of their youth and more than willing to buy it in digitally remastered form.
Not surprisingly, the series provides a year-by-year musical odyssey, an approach that takes advantage of the way rock ‘n’ roll hits became entangled in the lives of their fans. With good annotation, period photos and a savvy selection of hits leaning toward influential R&B; performers, it gives history, as well as nostalgia, its due.
According to Joe Sasfy, the longtime Washington-area music writer who serves as chief consultant and producer for “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era,” the series’ success has allowed for the release of more intriguing, if less chart-busting, hits. These are hits that other oldies series, not to mention oldies radio, have witlessly condemned to the endangered oldies list.
For example, some recent “Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” volumes have scraped the mold off regional smashes such as Bobby Marchan’s “There’s Something on Your Mind,” the Jive Bombers’ “Bad Boy,” Ray Sharpe’s “Linda Lu” and James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody.”
With interest in the popular music of the ‘50s and ‘60s perhaps at a peak, Time-Life has followed “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” with three other series mapping out pieces of America’s musical terrain. Hot on the heels of “Era” came (somewhat predictably) “Classic Rock,” devoted to the rock hits of 1964-69; that series is now up to Volume 10.
Next came “Your Hit Parade,” a year-by-year survey of the pop music of 1945-60, the same music that made rock ‘n’ roll a necessity. This series, which includes hits from the likes of Les Paul and Mary Ford, Nat Cole, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Perry Como, is being produced by Bill Inglot, who has earned an outstanding reputation for his work on all of Rhino Records’ products.
The newest series, “Country USA,” will make available country hits from the 1950-75 period, many of which are either out of print or nearly impossible to find.
For example, Time-Life has managed to license 20 of Buck Owens’ ‘60s hits, all of which are currently unavailable anywhere (thanks to Buck, who owns the rights to them all). Each of the year-by-year volumes provides 24 hits, and the series’ first release, “1961,” is especially impressive. It offers such Nashville Sound classics as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” and Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams,” as well as hits by Owens, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and others.
Time-Life also continues its work in classical music with three series: “The Mozart Collection,” “The Beethoven Collection” and “The Great Composers.” All three draw on the Phillips, Deutsche Grammaphon and London catalogues, which embrace many of the most critically acclaimed performances and performers in the field.
The “Mozart” and “Beethoven” series cover these composers’ best-known works in all genres. “The Great Composers” also includes Mozart and Beethoven, as well as all the classical superstars (Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Handel, etc.), and serves as the basic classical oldies collection.
Information about subscriptions to any of these series is available by calling 1-800-621-7026. Operators are probably standing by.