The Original Rock & Roll Record Labels

Back in 1940s America, when the cultural seeds of rock & roll were first beginning their growth, the musical landscape was dominated by just three major labels:

  • Decca
  • RCA Victor
  • Columbia

These labels owned all the means of production, all the licences and all the distribution channels. Through their contacts in the media, they (for the most part) were essentially in control of the popular music that was played across the USA.

Rock & Roll’s emergence changed all that. These new musicians, producers and distributors were not beholden to the wishes of the majors. Their pioneering desire was to encourage a new, raucous and very Black-American style of music that went against cultural sensibilities of the time. In the end, they helped bring about a new musical era that still resonates over our global musical horizons today.

Here are just a few of the independent labels that contributed to the revolution, along with their key facts and biggest stars. In an ironic twist, many of their most famous back catalogue tunes are now sadly owned by today’s major labels.

Atlantic Records

Associated Acts: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding

Turkish brothers Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in Washington DC in 1947, along with then dentistry student Herb Abramson. The brothers were the sons of the first Turkish ambassador to the US, and both decided to carry on living in Washington after their father’s death.

Nesuhi Ertegun would oversee Atlantic’s rise over the next 56 years, until his death aged 83 in in 2006. By then Atlantic would be wholly owned by the major label Warner Music Group but also one of the most famous labels in the world in their own right.

Sun Records

Acts: Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis

Founded in Memphis, Tennessee, by businessman Sam Philips, Sun Records would prove a huge talent factory for the burgeoning rock & roll scene. Some of the biggest stars of the era, many still worldwide names today, first cut their musical chops in Sam’s self-built studio. In fact, Cash, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins had an impromptu quartet jam session in the Sun studios building, which has since become the stuff of legend.

Philip’s sold Sun Records in 1969, but the no-small amount of money he had made of the adventure allowed him to become one of the earliest investors in the Holiday Inn hotel chain franchise. Which, as you probably know, proved highly successful.

Chess Records

Associated Acts: Bo Didley, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters

Founded in Chicago by Leonard and Phil Chess in 1950, this eponymous label is today owned by Universal Music Group. Chess Records, in collaboration with Sam Phillips of Sun Records, released one of the earliest rock & roll singles in March 1951. Written by Jackie Brenston, the recording was played by an 18-year-old Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band. The brother’s sold the label in 1969 and their back catalogue was eventually bought by MCA Records, which would eventually fall under the Universal Music imprint.