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Dore: The Little Studio That Could (Produce Hits)

Phil Spector.
Ace Records
Phil Spector.

Someday, some genius is going to do a Mad Men-type show about the little record labels of the late 1950s. Yes, I'll happily serve as a consultant.

My first suggestion is that the L.A. part be set in what was known as Record Row, a bunch of cheap studios, record-company offices, promotion companies and music publishers essentially bounded by Selma, Sunset, Argyle and Vine in Hollywood. It was here, in 1955, that Era Records opened an office on North Vine. Era was run by Lew Bedell, who'd had a comedy act for some years, and Herb Newman, a younger guy who'd had some experience in the record business. Bedell put up $7,500 of his own money on the suggestion of his Uncle Max, who knew people and thought this would be a good idea.

In fact, it was: Era had a number of hits by people like Gogi Grant and Art & Dotty Todd, artists who performed in local nightclubs, and their promotion folks were canny and effective, which meant that even the non-hits made money. Bedell did well enough to marry his fiancée, Dede Barrymore, from the famous acting family, but it was becoming evident that he and his partner didn't see eye to eye on the rock 'n' roll stuff that seemed to be selling. So in 1958, Bedell started a subsidiary label named after his new son, Doré, and bought a couple of unreleased recordings from a New York producer.

"After School Rock" was one of those records people who didn't understand rock 'n' roll thought was rock 'n' roll, and it tanked. Still, the doors at Doré were always open, and one day a couple of teenagers who called themselves The Teddy Bears walked in with something they'd recorded at Gold Star Studios. Bedell listened to the tape, a song called "Don't You Worry My Little Pet," and liked it enough to put up a few bucks for the group to record a B-side. Philip Spector, the group's songwriter, adapted the words on his father's tombstone for the trio's singer, Annette Kleinbard, and they recorded "To Know Him Is to Love Him."

The more Bedell listened, the more he liked it. Herb Newman was scandalized: It was a demo! You couldn't release a demo. But Bedell released it, and every day after school, Spector would drop in to ask, "How are we doing today, Mr. Bedell?" Bedell would invariably reply, "No word."

/ Ace Records
Ace Records

Then, one day, there was word, from Fargo, N.D., that the distributor there had sold 18,000 copies and needed more. His territory also included Omaha, and from there it spread and spread, topping the charts in September 1958 and becoming Doré's first — and only — million-seller. Soon thereafter, the Welk Music Group approached Era/Doré and offered $180,000 for the copyrights on five of its songs, including The Teddy Bears', and Newman used his part to buy his share of Era from Bedell and move into swankier offices. Bedell knew better: His next hit could walk in off the streets at any minute, and it did.

Jan Berry had already had a hit with local DJ Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsberg, but he and his friend Dean Torrance had rewritten a flop record by someone called The Laurels and had their friends Herb Alpert and Lou Adler take "Baby Talk" around town for them. Dot Records made them an offer, but they wanted a second opinion, and Bedell's opinion was that he wanted it. It scraped into the national Top 10 in 1959, and Bedell bought himself a Jaguar XKE with "LEW B" licence plates. He also spent a lot of time playing golf with his buddy Dean Martin at the Riviera Country Club.

Doré wasn't much into what's now called artist development: Most of the artists who recorded there went elsewhere for their next records. Not John and Judy; a brother-and-sister act, they were being pushed by their mother, and their first record for the label, "Hideout," got them two more, which didn't do as well. They kept going, and eventually John wound up as part of the Walker Brothers.

Occasionally, there was an actual hot record on Doré. Tony Casanova was a Puerto Rican kid whose best friend in high school was Ritchie Valens; the two worked together on the track "Showdown."

Another talent who slipped through Doré's fingers was Little Ray. Ramon Jiminez was only 14 but already a veteran when he recorded "There Is Something on Your Mind," a classic that's still big in East L.A.

The Beatles, though, took Bedell by surprise, just like everyone else. One thing he noticed immediately was that, while his pop acts suddenly weren't selling, the black groups kept going just fine, because the black stations weren't playing the British groups. In 1964, he made the wise business decision to focus on soul. But that's a story for another time.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward
Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.