Malaco Records: Goin’ with the Flow

Mississippi is famous as home to many of the most celebrated musical artists of the last century, but few know that Mississippi—and more specifically Jackson—was home to at least three  renowned recording companies: Trumpet, Ace and Malaco Records. The Trumpet and Ace labels have long since passed into legend, but Malaco Records, founded by Tommy Couch, Mitchell Malouf, and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson, is still making music on Northside Drive in Jackson.

“The basic story for Malaco was that we loved R&B music,” Wolf said. “Tommy is from the Muscle Shoals area, and he grew up with all those guys who became big in the recording industry there. When he came to Ole Miss, he started booking bands for the fraternity parties to make extra money. He graduated the semester ahead of me, moved to Jackson and talked his brother-in-law Mitch Malouf into continuing the booking agency. The name Campus Attractions was what he had used, but someone else was using that name, so he and Mitch tossed various names around until his mother-in-law suggested they combine the two names Malouf and Couch into Malaco.”

“I moved to Jackson and we continued our friendship,” Wolf said. “Tommy wanted to open a recording studio, so it started out here in 1967. The first success that we had was with Groove Me by King Floyd out of New Orleans in 1970. The next thing we had was Misty Blue with Dorothy Moore in 1976. In the early 80s, we were the beneficiary of a big downturn in the music business; Stax went out of business, Columbia Records pared back their artist roster,” Wolf said. “TK Distributors in Miami, who distributed our products, went out of business and all of a sudden we had to become an independent record company to get our records out. At the same time, lots of other labels cut back their roster. The artists who were doing blues and R&B didn’t have anywhere else to go, so they showed up here. We could record a record, get it manufactured and get it out, and they could call up anytime day or night. We were a small, close-knit group, so it worked.”

“Z.Z. Hill was our first big hit with Down Home Blues (1982). That was probably the biggest blues/soul album that had ever been released to that date, and here we were, a little bitty company and it cost us $8,000 to do the whole project. That song just exploded. That was like a magnet to all those other folks who were out there. His success brought Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Latimore (stage name of Benny Latimore), Bobby “Blue” Bland, Tyrone Davis and Denise LaSalle. We were at the right place when everybody else was cutting back.”

“We started with gospel in 1975,” Wolf said. “The Jackson Southernaires were a very hot group nationally. The thing about gospel groups back then and now, too, is that they had to be able to take some of their records when they went out on the road to sell them off the stage. And for the Southernaires, being with ABC Records, headquartered at that time in LA, it was hard for them to get the records on a timely basis. Again, they got caught in the cut-backs, too, and we were close by, they showed up, and that put us on the road to being successful in gospel music for a number of years.” But a dramatic downturn followed. “I never expected the record industry to get this bad,” Wolf said. “Piracy and counterfeiting have destroyed the industry. The computer has been a double-edged sword; we’re able to do so many things we couldn’t do before, but it also allows people to devastate your intellectual property rights.”

Burton Doss, Director of Information Technology at Malaco, said, “We had a bad time with the bootleggers; not so much the downloaders, who have hurt us some, but the bootleggers, in our industry, are really hurting us, but Malaco is adapting. Instead of fighting change, we have to embrace it by reaching out with new ventures, anything we can possibly do to reach our audience. We are signing a lot of P&D (pressing and distribution) deals in which the artists themselves do all the marketing and promotion, and we manufacture the product and place it in the major chains. A lot of the larger record labels won’t sign these artists who might only sell 250,000 to 500,000 units; well, we’ll have a party if we sell that much. So we’re signing these P&D deals in urban music,” Burton said. “We also have a lot of gospel artists who are unhappy with their labels who are coming to us to manufacture their product and get it out for them.”

“We have just signed a deal with Heavy D, from Heavy D & the Boyz, who was a big rapper in the 80s and 90s. He has a new album out called Vibes, a reggae album that was nominated for a Grammy Award this year. Lionel Ridenour, who has come to us from Arista Records, knew Heavy D and has a lot of good connections in the music industry. He called up Heavy D, who told him he wasn’t happy where he was at and wanted to look into something else, so Lionel said why don’t you come over to Malaco? We’ve also signed this guy named Ludy out of St. Louis, a rapper in the 90s. And we’ve signed a deal with B-Hamp. He’s got this song called Do the Ricky Bobby which was written up by Entertainment Weekly. When you think of Malaco, you think of the Mississippi Mass Choir, Johnny Taylor, Bobby Bland, so this is different, it’s new territory for us, but we’re excited.”

“We have the largest gospel music catalogue in the world, very good traditional gospel and new artists as well,” Burton said. “We have the Mississippi Mass Choir, Dorothy Norwood, the Georgia Mass Choir, a lot of quartets; we just did an album on the Soul Stirrers, who back in the day were the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. Our catalogue business, meaning our repertoire of copyrighted songs, is very strong. We license a lot of songs to movies and other venues. We continue to grow the new business into new avenues. One avenue that we’ve started is that we’ve started an online radio station. Chances are, if you were to turn on the radio, you’re not going to hear blues or Southern soul. So we’ve started our own station, which is 24 hours a day, world-wide, southernsoulradio.com.  You can hear the song, download it from iTunes and click to buy the album from our Malaco website. We want to make Malaco the one-stop shop when you think of blues, gospel or Southern soul.”

The Ground and the Fury

Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery where words of loss and remonstrance faded and food offered redemption and reward.

Though ostensibly polite pastoral get-togethers, dinners on the grounds were more often platforms for social clambering of the pettiest and most vicious sort. Despite the communal reason for the food, there was always an underlying competitive element to the affair. Food Network competitions pale in comparison to those rural stages of venomous culinary put-downs; knocking a recent wok wonder off prime time seems trivial when you’re dealing with decades of spite. Every square foot of splintered table space was contested and every element of a good “spread” subjected to off-stage critique. Transgressors were damned for such cardinal sins as using Jell-O pudding mix instead of homemade custard, and if you brought fried chicken in that red-and-white cardboard bucket, you would not get any sympathy when your high heels got stuck in an ant bed.

The queens of these community catfights took inordinate pride in lording over the lesser. My distant Cousin Dora’s angel food cake was a marvel to see. She displayed it on her grandmother’s cut-glass (not crystal; her crystal did not travel) cake stand beside a bowl of macerated strawberries and sweetened cream that she had her husband Harvey whip on site after he had driven 50 miles wearing a tie the whole way. The cake, flanked by a vase with a fistful of her show-quality roses and fortified by something along the lines of a fudge divinity she just “threw together at the last minute”, was displayed on a creaseless, delicately-patterned white cloth. Dora sliced it with a wooden-handled sponge cake cutter and served it on Classic White Chinet. Everyone hated her airs, but took malicious comfort in knowing that Harvey had been slipping around with the choir director for at least fifteen years. Rumor had it that her sister-in-law, tired of her high-and-mightiness, snuck into her house one day while the cake was in the oven and slammed the door so it would fall. That, they said with a knowing look, was the year Dora broke a toe before the church homecoming.

Adversity is a dynamic portal for new ideas, especially when it comes to recipes, and if it were a big occasion, the range of variations in a single dish was astounding. Staples such as fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad always proliferated, and those cooks who specialized in these dishes had their adherents and detractors, usually in equal numbers. You had those who preferred double-dipped or battered fried chicken and those who liked a much lighter crust. The dividing line with baked beans involved the use of brown sugar or molasses and with potato salad, creamed or chunky.

I attended these gatherings with my grandmother Monette, who was not a cook herself (history and genealogy were her interests: according to her I was related to everyone between New Albany and Grenada). Monette stayed out of the fray, but she was a discriminating eater who from past experience knew the tables well.  “Be sure and get one of Alice Edmond’s fried pies,” she’d say, or, “Jane Early has that 8-layer caramel cake recipe from her mother Eugenia, a Hardin, my first cousin Dudley’s second cousin on his mother’s side, before she married Jane’s father, who gambled away the family farm in a lop-sided mule race. He had a glass eye that he used to take out and put in his iced tea when their preacher came over.”

Nowadays, store-bought collapsible tables have replaced the long lines of sagging and splintered pine boards beneath the blackjack oaks and sweet gums, but anyone who brings Stouffer’s to a church social in Mississippi is going to get talked about. And not in a good way.

A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965
A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965