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'Last Soul Company' Details The Story Of Malaco Records

NOEL KING, HOST:

Malaco Records is one of the oldest independent record labels in this country. In the '70s, it was known for soul hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BIG STUFF")

JEAN KNIGHT: (Singing) Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?

KING: In the '80s, Malaco shifted to a hybrid of blues and soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMBERS ONLY")

BOBBY BLUE BLAND: (Singing) 'Cause it's members only tonight.

KING: And these days, Malaco is a powerhouse of gospel music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'LL CARRY YOU")

THE MISSISSIPPI MASS CHOIR: (Singing) He'll carry you. He'll carry you, yes, he will. He'll carry you.

KING: A new book about Malaco comes out today. It's called "The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story." Here's Ashley Kahn.

ASHLEY KAHN, BYLINE: In 1967, three white men who fell in love with Black music, Tommy Couch, Mitchell Malouf and Wolf Stephenson, opened a recording studio in their hometown of Jackson, Miss.

ROB BOWMAN: It's a story that, by right, never should have happened. There should be no important record company in Jackson, Miss.

KAHN: Rob Bowman is a music historian known for his definitive account of another great Southern soul label, Stax Records. Bowman has now written a history of the Malaco label, an independent record company still in business and still owned and operated by its original founders.

BOWMAN: It is one of the longest running independent record label in American music history, longer than Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Chess - all of them. It's also the largest Black gospel company in the world - bar none.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW I'VE BEEN CHANGED")

LASHUN PACE: (Singing) I said that I know I've been changed.

KAHN: At first, the three founders intend to produce and license recordings to other record companies. Here's Malaco co-founder Wolf Stephensen.

WOLF STEPHENSON: We started out with soul and blues artists because that's the kind of music we loved. We knew we had somewhat of a white audience for some of the soul and blues stuff but found out that not a whole lot of folks were making this kind of record for those Black buyers, mostly Black women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROOVE ME")

KING FLOYD: (Singing) You make me feel good inside. Come on and groove me, baby. I need you to groove me.

KAHN: The secret to Malaco's longevity is the label's willingness to change and adapt. Again, Rob Bowman.

BOWMAN: The first 15 years, you can say, they're stumbling around, but in the process, they hit a few records like "Groove Me" by King Floyd, "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight. They have one massive hit on their own label, Dorothy Moore's "Misty Blue." That saved them from bankruptcy at one point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY BLUE")

DOROTHY MOORE: (Singing) Oh, I can't forget you. My whole world turns misty blue.

BOWMAN: Second period takes shape in the early '80s, where they become the home for soul artists who are considered to be past their prime. Disco, funk and then hip-hop have taken over the Black music market, their anachronisms, their has-beens.

KAHN: Soul singer Z.Z. Hill sparks the soul revival with the bestselling hit "Down Home Blues" that takes over Southern radio in 1982.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME BLUES")

Z Z HILL: (Singing) She said your party's jumping and everybody's having a good time. And you know what's going through my mind.

STEPHENSON: That particular record was so prevalent. I mean, you couldn't turn the radio on without hearing it. It was our rebirth as an independent label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME BLUES")

HILL: (Singing) She said take off those fast records and let me hear some down home blues.

KAHN: By the late '80s, Malaco began to shift again, this time from good time music to music that carries good news.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER THAN BLESSED")

LOUISE CANDY DAVIS: (Singing) I'm blessed, better than blessed. I want to thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord.

DARRELL LUSTER: In the '70s, when they began the gospel division of Malaco, I was able to hear some of the first recordings.

KAHN: Darrell Luster is Malaco's current head of gospel production.

LUSTER: When I recognize that Malaco was also doing blues, mixing salt with sugar, I started hearing that same piano that I heard on the gospel recordings. I heard the same drums. I heard the same sound because they were using the exact same engineer, Wolf Stephenson. It was coming out of the same room. And I was like, oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD, PLEASE REMEMBER ME")

THE JACKSON SOUTHERNAIRES: (Singing) Lord, remember that, remember that I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying to get (ph)...

KAHN: Malaco soon signed a number of legendary gospel quartets like The Soul Stirrers and the Sensational Nightingales. But in 1988, a new project comes their way that establishes the label as a home for the next generation of gospel stars.

LUSTER: The Mississippi Mass Choir, under the direction of Frank Williams, Frank said, I'm going to incorporate quartet with choir and I'm going to call it choir-tet (ph). And that is the success of The Mississippi Mass Choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON OLD SOLDIER")

THE MISSISSIPPI MASS CHOIR: (Singing) Hold on old soldier, no matter what people do to you, hold on old soldier, I know the Lord will see you through.

KAHN: Malaco's focus on Black gospel continues to grow through the '90s and into the 21st century. They buy out a number of historic gospel and soul labels to expand their catalogue while signing and producing young artists like Christina Bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING")

CHRISTINA BELL: (Singing) Always mending the broken things inside of me.

KAHN: Christina Bell is one of Malaco's most recent discoveries. Her introduction to the label was a special song she learned growing up.

BELL: It's called "It's Good To Know Jesus" and to have that from the South being heard on radio - I'm from Shreveport, La., but that's The Mississippi Mass Choir. It's just like it's right next door. So, you know (laughter, singing) it's good to know Jesus. He's the lily of the valley. He's the bright and morning star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S GOOD TO KNOW JESUS")

BELL: (Singing) It's good to know the Lord.

KAHN: Today, Malaco makes most of its money with new gospel releases and music licensing fees from a warehouse full of blues, R&B and soul recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENISE LASALLE'S "BUMP AND GRIND")

KAHN: Record companies have always been a bit at odds with themselves, not knowing how best to preserve and honor the history they've helped create while pursuing the next big hit. Malaco, the last soul company, has found a way to make that balance work for more than 52 years. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Kahn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUMP AND GRIND")

DENISE LASALLE: (Singing) I want to bump and grind and get on down, hold your body close to mine... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 22, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous Web introduction to this report incorrectly said that Malaco Records is the oldest continuously run independent record label in America. In fact, it's one of the oldest.
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