Obituary: Lew Chudd

Pierre Perrone
Sunday 02 August 1998 23:02 BST

FIFTIES ROCK 'n' roll was torn between the rootsy rhythm 'n' blues of the original black performers and the watered-down teen-idol variety of white middle America. The record company mogul Lew Chudd worked in both these strands and played a major role in the career of leading exponents of both genres.

As the founder and president of the legendary Imperial Records label, he launched the New Orleans boogie- woogie pianist Fats Domino and later struck gold with the teen idol Ricky Nelson. Chudd also discovered the country star Slim Whitman (who, until Bryan Adams's "Everything I Do" came along, had the longest-running British No 1 - 11 weeks - with the yodelling Rose Marie, from Rudolf Friml's operetta of the same title) and gave early exposure to many artists who went on to mainstream success in the Sixties. Over the course of 20 years, releases on Chudd's label ran from novelty records to the doo-wop of the Pelicans, the Dukes, the Barons, the Bees and the Turbans.

Chudd developed his wide-ranging musical tastes and interests while working as an advance promotion man - sticking up posters and drumming up business - for big bands. During the Thirties, he joined the NBC radio network, where he devised the Let's Dance show featuring Benny Goodman. He rose through the ranks to head the Los Angeles bureau and in the early Forties worked for the Office of War Information.

In 1946, he started Imperial Records and first concentrated on issuing 78s, 10-inch LPs and four-track EPs aimed at the Mexican and folk music markets around the Los Angeles area. Lalo Guerrero, one of the label's original artists, recalls that "the whole thing started with us Chicanos in a little hole on Western Avenue. But, after they got the black groups, they dropped all the Latinos and Chicanos. Those guys made a fortune and then sold the label to Liberty for a million dollars."

Having branched out into square-dancing records, wedding albums, gypsy music and Dixieland jazz, Chudd began to look further afield into the emerging rhythm 'n' blues market. In 1947, while on a trip to Houston, he met the New Orleans bandleader and arranger Dave Bartholomew, who became his A&R (artists and repertoire) man. The musician was at the hub of a very vibrant scene and introduced the Imperial boss to Fats Domino, a 22-year-old New Orleans piano player who sang with a Creole accent.

Under the stewardship of Chudd and Bartholomew, the rolling boogie-woogie of Fats Domino became one of the characteristic sounds of Fifties rock 'n' roll. "Blueberry Hill", "Blue Monday" and "Walking To New Orleans" conveyed a unique bonhomie and joie de vivre and defined a whole genre. He went on to sell more than 65 million records. To add to the excitement of Fats Domino's early singles, Chudd got his engineer to speed up the master tapes.

Fats Domino's success acted as a catalyst for the whole New Orleans community while Lew Chudd and Dave Bartholomew promoted the music of the Big Easy to the rest of the world. Jewel King, Jesse Allen, Smilin' Joe, the Spiders, Smiley Lewis (whose rendition of "I Hear You Knockin' " was revived by Dave Edmunds for a UK No 1 in 1970), among dozens of artists, released sides on Imperial and Chudd also recorded the bluesmen T-Bone Walker, Smokey Hogg and Lightnin' Hopkins.

In 1957, the cute Ricky Nelson was looking to capitalise on the television exposure he received in his parents' sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. To milk the teenage market, Nelson cut a version of "I'm Walkin' " which came out on Verve, coupled with "A Teenager's Romance" and became a big hit.

Chudd decided he wanted a piece of that crossover action and lured Nelson to Imperial with a $250,000 offer. Verve Records sued, but didn't have much of a leg to stand on since Nelson had not signed a contract with the label. Over the next six years, Ricky Nelson scored 20 American Top Forty hits (including No 1s with "Poor Little Fool" and "Travellin' Man/Hello Mary Lou") on Imperial.

In 1958, the Teddy Bears, a quartet led by Phil Spector, reached No 1 with the haunting "To Know Him is To Love Him" on the Dore label. Once again, Chudd stepped in with a better offer. The Teddy Bears' three follow- up singles and their only album all flopped, though Phil Spector went on to become a producer and to create the famous "Wall of Sound" behind the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

The following year, Chudd performed the same chequebook trick, signing the drummer Sandy Nelson, who had just had a US hit with "Teen Beat", a one-off single on Original Sound. At his new Imperial home, the instrumentalist scored again with the thumping "Let There Be Drums", a Top Ten smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

Always a shrewd and astute businessman, Chudd made sure Imperial was one of the first labels to issue stereo albums, from the late Fifties onward. Even now, oddities like Alfred Hitchcock's Music To Be Murdered By, by Jeff Alexander's Orchestra, are much sought after by collectors.

Still in an acquisitive mood, the entrepreneur bought the Aladdin rhythm 'n' blues label in 1961. Founded by Leo, Edward and Ida Mesner in 1946, the West Coast-based record company had established itself with doo-wop groups like the Five Keys, the Velvetones and the Squires and novelty artists such as Shirley & Lee (whose saucy "Let the Good Times Roll" was banned by some DJs) and Thurston Harris (of "Little Bitty Pretty One" fame).

Two years later, Chudd purchased the Minit label he already distributed, from the New Orleans producer Joe Banashak, thus adding Irma Thomas (the soul voice of the heartbreaking "It's Raining") and Ernie K-Doe (the creator of the hilarious "Mother-In-Law") to his Imperial roster.

Years before other record companies got the consolidating bug, Chudd saw the financial sense in merging the operation of three or four labels of a similar nature and appeal. However, in 1964, he cashed in his chips and sold Imperial and all related imprints to Liberty Records. The label was eventually discontinued in 1970 and absorbed, with Liberty, into United Artists.

Pierre Perrone

Lewis Chudd, record company executive; born 1 July 1911; married (two sons); died Los Angeles 15 June 1998.

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