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.”

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