Born Morton Craft, 19 August 1920, Brockton, Massachusetts
Label owner, arranger, producer, songwriter.
A product of the big band era, Morty Craft learned to arrange while playing saxophone and clarinet in Boston, Massachusetts. After heading for New York, he found an early mentor in Philadelphia disc magnate Dave Miller. During the 1950s and 1960s, Craft owned many record labels, all based in New York City. I will only mention the labels that had at least some commercial impact.
His career as an independent record man started in 1953, as co-owner (with Monte Bruce and Leo Rogers) of Bruce Records. The label's first release, "A Sunday Kind Of Love" by the Harptones sold well on the East Coast, but by mid-1955 the company was history. Craft's next label was Melba Records, which he co-founded with Ray Maxwell. Its only hit was "Church Bells May Ring" by the Willows (# 62 pop, 1956). With Melba still in operation, Craft started the Lance label, scoring with "Alone" by the Shepherd Sisters (# 18 pop, 1957). Co-written with his wife Selma, "Alone" was Morty's biggest success as a songwriter. A British cover by Petula Clark which went to # 8 on the UK charts also contributed to that feat. When the Shephers Sisters were lured away by Mercury, Craft also joined that firm, as an A&R man.
But that lasted only a few months. In December 1957, he received an offer from Arnold Maxin, head of MGM Records. Though MGM was still considered a major label, by the end of 1957, MGM "was a dead company completely" in Craft's own words. With the grandiose title of Recording Chief and Director of Single Record Sales, Craft succeeded in revitalizing the label. Craft knew everybody in the record business and concentrated on promotion rather than production. MGM's first big hit after his appointment was "Who's Sorry Now" by Connie Francis (# 4 US, # 1 UK). Records on MGM topped the Billboard charts for 14 weeks in 1958 : "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley 6 weeks, "It's All In the Game"(Tommy Edwards) also 6 weeks and "It's Only Make Believe" by Conway Twitty 2 weeks.
Suddenly, in January 1959, Craft's tenure at MGM was over. "I was one of the first ones supposed to get a royalty for everything that was put out on MGM and I never got a penny." He was then placed in charge of the newly formed Warwick label with corporate backing from another film company, United Telefilm from Canada. Craft's involvement with Warwick formed part of a trend whereby prominent music directors left their posts with established companies to head up independent operations. Examples are Dave Kapp (Kapp), Archie Bleyer (Cadence), Joe Carlton (Carlton), Bob Shad (Time, Shad, Brent) and Paul Cohen (Todd). Warwick had immediate success with "Crossfire" by Johnny and the Hurricanes (# 23), which had originally been issued on the Twirl label of Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik, who had signed the instrumental rock group to a management contract. According to Craft, the second single by Johnny and the Hurricanes (and their biggest hit, # 5 US, # 3 UK) was not recorded by them : "Then I used the studio group : 'Red River Rock' was performed by a studio orchestra ; it wasn't even the group out of Michigan, never was. Bill Ramal was the arranger and sax player." (From John Broven's "Record Makers And Breakers", page 449). This is news to me and while I have heard other rumours that some tracks by Johnny Hurricanes were recorded by session musicians while the group was touring, I think that Craft's memory is failing him here. Craft didn't get along with Micahnik and Balk and after "Beatnik Fly" (their 4th single), Johnny and the Hurricanes were moved to the Big Top label, following a financial dispute. Craft continued to issue instrumentals in the same style, by a group called the Craftsmen. I own a very strange LP (Bigtop 222), which is credited to Johnny and the Hurricanes (with four pictures of the group on the front and back covers), but contains a mix of Warwick and Bigtop singles by groups like the Craftsmen and The Five Teenbeats.
Against prevailing trends, Craft tried to reignite the careers of several faded R&B stars : Louis Jordan, Roy Milton, Little Esther, Faye Adams, Percy Mayfield and Shirley and Lee. Only the latter team would hit the charts on Warwick : a remake of "Let the Good Times Roll" went to # 48 pop in 1960 and the duo also scored two smaller hits in the same year. The guitar instrumental "Wheels" by the String-A-Longs, acquired from Norman Petty, was Warwick's biggest hit (# 3 in 1961). After United Telefilm changed its name to (or was taken over by) Seven Arts Record Productions in 1961, Warwick set up a subsidiary, 7 Arts Records, on which the Halos had a major hit (# 25) with "Nag". After some 200 singles (including 24 on 7 Arts) and 50 albums released in a timespan of three years, Warwick Records went bankrupt in 1962.
Morty Craft described his generation of record men as "operators", and he certainly fell into that category. "It was a case of knowing everybody", he said to John Broven. "Being able to wine and dine ; everybody was romantic in those days. Wherever you went, people got to you. If it wasn't money, it was sex. [Craft's proudest boast was that he had never dated a woman "over twenty-five".] But there were no drugs, only jazz guys did pot. And only millionnaires did cocaine in the 1950s." Now approaching his 90th birthday, Craft is living in Manhattan, on 58th Street.
Acknowledgements : John Broven, Record Makers And Breakers. Voices Of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2009. (Especially page 445-450 ; this part can be read through Google Books.)
More info on the Warwick label : http://www.bsnpubs.com/nyc/warwick/warwick.html
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