A star was born

Special to The Times

WALKING through Capitol Records' headquarters just above Hollywood and Vine is a thoroughly disconcerting experience, not just due to the slow and steady curve of its halls, which bring you abruptly back to where you began, but also for the palpable feel of the building's ghosts.

An enormous, retrospective box set was just released -- 96 tracks and six CDs of music (the deluxe edition also includes a coffee-table book of photographs), which provides an extensive sampling of the label's immense output -- marked the label's 60th anniversary. Completed in 1956, the cylindrical high-rise stands as a distinctive architectural structure -- as symbolic of Hollywood (and the possibility it offers) as the white letters that rise in the hills beyond it.

Rather than relocate its headquarters, Capitol opted last year to revamp and expand the nearby Gogerty building, a neighboring Art Deco office tower which was once home to the Screen Cartoonists Guild.

But the core of the complex remains the structure that resembles a stack of records on a turntable (its stylus needle blinking out the word "Hollywood" in Morse code). The tower was based on the graduate school designs of a young architect named Lou Naidorf, who was working at the L.A. firm of Welton Becket and Associates. "I had no idea at the time who the client was," says Naidorf. "As far as I knew, it was just 'Client X.' "

Constructing the tower for the purpose of housing Capitol's executive offices and recording studios, Welton Becket was also responsible for several local architectural landmarks of the '50s and '60s, among them the futuristic Cinerama Dome, the Beverly Hilton and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. But with the Capitol building, the firm and Naidorf had managed to create something unique at the time: a 13-story column of steel and glass that could lay claim to the title of the "world's first circular office building."

"A lot of critics thought it would go the way of the Tail o' the Pup," says Naidorf, "that it was just another silly L.A. building. So it's ironic that it's become so famous."

"There's was nothing like it at the time," recalls Becket's son, Bruce, "and since then it's become such an important Hollywood landmark."

However, the tower's compelling shape and one-of-a-kind design are not the only reasons for its enduring allure. A great part of that seduction can be found in the remarkable history it shares with its resident -- a fascinating musical legacy that continues to play out within the smooth curve of its walls.

"There's definitely some heavy mojo in the air," says Capitol artist Bonnie Raitt, whose father, Broadway star John Raitt, also recorded there. "It was a thrill to record in the same room as my dad, Nat, Frank, Ella."

Founded in 1942 by singer Johnny Mercer, music store owner Glen Wallichs, and songwriter and Paramount movie producer Buddy De Sylva, Capitol Records was unique, not only in its West Coast location (at the time of its inception, all of its competitors were New York-based), but in the fact that it sprang from the aspirations of two artists and one savvy executive, all of whom had the rather naive hope of combining creative freedom with business acumen. The marvel has been that, for the most part, their plan seems to have worked.

Capitol's roster includes everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to the Beach Boys to the Beastie Boys to Radiohead. These musicians have lent the label its longevity and the building its fame, signing their contracts at Hollywood and Vine and recording at Capitol's in-house studios -- rooms that have become as legendary as Memphis' Sun or Motown's Hitsville.

"Everyone involved was really proud of the recording studios," Bruce Becket says of the tower's construction. "They were absolutely state of the art."

Les Paul, a Capitol artist and innovator of recording technology as well as a guitarist, assisted the elder Becket with the studios' design.

His suggestions led to construction of the concrete echo chambers, which were built beneath the parking lot and which lend Capitol-recorded vocals their distinctive touch. Today these studios are still in use, the rooms remaining much as they were when Sinatra first sang "Come Fly With Me."

Paula Salvatore is the studios' senior director and manager, and over the years her job has brought her face-to-face with artists such as Sinatra ( "He gave me a kiss full on the lips!"), Paul McCartney and Natalie Cole. She has worked in the tower for more than a decade.

"It's a part of history which is still living," she says. "The people who record here now are taking part of an old glory and making it new again."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 431 words Type of Material: Correction Hollywood pioneer's name -- Glenn Wallichs' first name was misspelled as Glen in a Thursday Calendar Weekend story on Capitol Records.
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