Born Shelby Sumpter Singleton, Jr., 16 December 1931, Waskom, Texas
Although Shelby Singleton had a long, distinguished career in other avenues of the music industry, rock n roll fans will know him as the man who purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips in 1969.
Singleton graduated from Byrd High School in Shreveport, Louisiana, at the age of 15. In 1949 he married his first wife Margaret Ebey, who would score nine country hits between 1959 and 1967, the biggest of which was "Keeping Up With the Joneses" (# 5, 1964). Shelby got his start in the music business when he began promoting his wife's singing and songwriting career in the mid-1950s. She made her first records for Starday in early 1957 (produced by Shelby) and when that label started operating as a joint imprint with Mercury, Singleton joined Mercury- Starday as south eastern United States promotion man. He was always on the lookout for local talent and this resulted in Mercury acquiring hit records such as "Chantilly Lace" (The Big Bopper), "Sea Of Love" (Phil Phillips) and "Running Bear" (Johnny Preston). His rise to the status of producer happened more or less accidentally when Mercury's A&R man David Carroll failed to show up for a Rusty Draper session in April 1960. Singleton's first big success as a producer was "The Bollweevil Song" by Brook Benton (# 2 in 1961), followed by other Top 10 hits like "Wooden Heart" (Joe Dowell), "Walk On By" (Leroy Vandyke), and "Ahab the Arab" (Ray Stevens). By the end of 1961 he was heading the A&R depart- ment in New York City as well as Nashville and held an executive position on Mercury's board. He split his time between the two cities, and brought many of the label's pop and R&B artists, such as Brook Benton and Clyde McPhatter, to Nashville to record. Singleton also hired Shreveport guitarist Jerry Kennedy as his number two man in Nashville and eventual successor.
In 1961 Singleton founded the Smash label as a subsidiary of Mercury and ran the new imprint with Charlie Fach, who took over after Singleton left Mercury in 1966. Artists on Smash included Joe Dowell, Bruce Channel, Roger Miller, Bill Justis, Charlie Rich and, from 1963 onwards, Jerry Lee Lewis, who had no real success on Smash until he switched to country music in 1968. Also in 1961, Mercury signed an exchange agreement with Philips, a Dutch electronics company. Thus the Philips label became part of the Mercury stable and scored a # 1 hit in early 1963 with "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula ; Singleton bought the master from Major Bill Smith, who produced the record. One year earlier, he had purchased "Hey! Baby" by Bruce Channel from the Major's LeCam label, another number one. After leaving Mercury, Singleton created the Shelby Singleton Corporation and set up his independent operation at 3106 Belmont Boulevard in Nash- ville. By the end of the decade, the building (to which a studio was added in 1969) housed a bewildering array of Singleton-owned publishing businesses and two record labels : Plantation for country music and SSS International for soul/blues artists (with Johnny Adams from New Orleans as its most successful artist). Released on Plantation, Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A.", was a # 1 pop and country hit in 1968 and put Singleton in a strong enough position financially to purchase the Sun catalogue in July 1969.
Once he owned the Sun masters, Singleton flooded the market with low- budget LP's featuring the Sun recordings of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. Usually, these albums contained a mix of unissued material and previously released recordings, a smart marketing move. Sun was not just a reissue label in the 1970s ; they also released new recordings by contemporary artists, in particular Orion (real name Jimmy Ellis). The acquisition of Sun became even more valuable when a rockabilly revival scene began to develop, first of all in the UK, where Singleton had licensed the Sun catalogue to Charly Records. No end of Sun sessions became available and Singleton must have been pinching himself when people wanted him to start leasing stuff from the likes of Sonny Burgess and Warren Smith and even obscure artists who had never even had a release on Sun in the 1950s. In 1977, though, when Singleton issued some of Elvis Presley's Sun material, RCA sued him, eventually winning a $45,000 settlement.
By the late 1970s he had left the recording studio for good to focus on the business side of the industry. Singleton saw the value in the Sun logo and its use in merchandise and it is now seen on T-shirts and other memorabilia with artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1997 he merged Sun with the Brave Entertainment Corporation. Shelby Singleton died in October 2009, following a battle with brain cancer, at the age of 77. The purchase of Sun Records was the biggest coup of his career and we should be grateful to him for organizing such an extensive reissue programme, thus not only keeping the Sun legacy alive, but expanding on it as well. Almost all of the unissued material in the vaults has now been released. Shelby's brother John Singleton now oversees the business affairs of the Sun Entertainment Corporation.
Acknowledgements : Daniel Cooper, Shaun Mather, Wikipedia.
Dik, December 2012
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