Columbia Records is an American record label founded in 1888.
Columbia is the oldest surviving brand name in pre-recorded sound, being the first record company to produce pre-recorded records as opposed to blank cylinders. Columbia Records went on to release records by an array of notable singers, instrumentalists and groups. Today it is a premier subsidiary label of Sony Music Entertainment. Rick Rubin is the co-head of Columbia Records.
Columbia began selling disc records and phonographs in addition to the cylinder system in 1901, preceded only by their "Toy Graphophone" of 1899, which used small, vertically-cut records. For a decade, Columbia competed with both the Edison Phonograph Company cylinders and the Victor Talking Machine Company disc records as one of the top three names in recorded sound. In 1908 Columbia introduced mass production of "Double Sided" disc records, with recordings stamped into both sides of the disc.
During this early period, Columbia used the famous "Magic Notes" logo--a pair of sixteenth notes in a circle—both in the United States and overseas (where this logo would never substantially change).
In July 1912, Columbia decided to concentrate exclusively on disc records and stopped recording new cylinder records and manufacturing cylinder phonographs although they continued pressing and selling cylinder records from their back catalogue for a year or two more.
On February 25, 1925, Columbia began recording with the new electric recording process licensed from Western Electric. The new "Viva-tonal" records set a benchmark in tone and clarity unequalled during the 78 era. The first electrical recordings were made by Art Gillham, the popular "Whispering Pianist." In a secret agreement with Victor, both companies did not make the new recording technology public knowledge for some months, in order not to hurt sales of their existing acoustically recorded catalogue while a new electrically recorded catalogue was being built.
In 1926, Columbia acquired Okeh Records and its growing stable of jazz and blues artists including Louis Armstrong. In 1928, Paul Whiteman, the nation's most popular orchestra leader, left Victor to record for Columbia. That same year, Columbia executive Frank Buckley Walker pioneered some of the first country music or "hillbilly" genre recordings in Johnson City, Tennessee including artists such as Clarence Greene and the legendary fiddler and entertainer, "Fiddlin" Charlie Bowman. 1929 saw industry legend Ben Selvin signing on as house bandleader and A. & R. director. Other favorites in the Viva-tonal era included Ruth Etting, Fletcher Henderson and Ted Lewis. Columbia kept using acoustic recording for "budget label" pop product well into 1929 on the Harmony, Velvet Tone and Diva labels. 1929 was also the year that Columbia's older rival and former affiliate Edison Records folded to make Columbia the oldest surviving record label.
But with the Great Depression's tightened economic stranglehold on the country, in a day when the phonograph itself had become a passé luxury, nothing slowed Columbia's decline. Yet, despite this, it was still producing some of the most remarkable records of the day. Grigsby-Grunow went under In 1934, and was forced to sell Columbia for a mere $75,000 to the American Record Corporation (ARC). This combine already included Brunswick as its premium label, and Columbia was relegated to slower sellers such as the Hawaiian music of Andy Iona, and the still unknown Benny Goodman. By late 1936, pop releases were discontinued, leaving the label essentially defunct.
Then, in 1935, Herbert M. Greenspon, an 18-year-old shipping clerk, led a committee to organize the first trade union shop at the main manufacturing factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Elected as president of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) local, Greenspon negotiated the first contract between factory workers and Columbia management. In a career with Columbia that lasted 30 years, Greenspon retired after achieving the position of executive vice president of the company.
In 1938 ARC, including the Columbia label in the USA, was bought by William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System for US$750,000. (Columbia Records had originally co-founded CBS, but soon cashed out leaving only the name.) CBS revived the Columbia label in the place of Brunswick and the Okeh label in the place of Vocalion. The Columbia trademark from this point until the late 1950s was two overlapping circles with the Magic Notes in the left circle and a CBS microphone in the right circle. The Royal Blue labels now disappeared in favor of a deep red, which caused RCA Victor to claim infringement on its "Red Seal" trademark. (RCA lost the case.) The blue Columbia label was kept for its classical music Columbia Masterworks Records line until it was later changed to a green label before switching to a gray label in the late 1950s, and then to the bronze that is familiar to owners of its classical and Broadway albums. Columbia Phonograph Company of Canada did not survive the Great Depression, so CBS made a distribution deal with Sparton Records in 1939 to release Columbia records in Canada under the Columbia name.
Columbia's LPs were particularly well-suited to classical music's longer pieces, so some of the early albums featured such artists as Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The success of these recordings eventually persuaded Capitol Records to begin releasing LPs in 1949. More significantly, RCA Victor began releasing LPs in 1950, quickly followed by other major American labels. (Decca Records in the U.K. was the first to release LPs in Europe, beginning in 1949.)
An "original cast recording" of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific with Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin was recorded in 1949. Both conventional metal masters and tape were used in the sessions in New York City. For some reason, the taped version was not used until Sony released it as part of a set of CDs devoted to Columbia's Broadway albums. Over the years, Columbia joined Decca and RCA Victor in specializing in albums devoted to Broadway musicals with members of the original casts. In the 1950s, Columbia also began releasing LPs drawn from the soundtracks of popular films.
In 1951, Columbia USA began issuing records in the 45 rpm format RCA had introduced two years earlier. Also that year, Columbia USA severed its decades-long distribution arrangement with EMI and signed a distribution deal with Philips Records to market Columbia recordings outside North America. EMI continued to distribute Okeh, and later Epic, label recordings for several years into the 1960s. EMI also continued to distribute Columbia recordings in Australia and New Zealand.
Columbia became the most successful non-rock record company in the 1950s when they hired impresario Mitch Miller away from the Mercury label (Columbia was very disinterested in the teenage rock market until the early 1960s). Miller quickly signed on Mercury's biggest artist at the time, Frankie Laine, and discovered several of the decade's biggest recording stars including Tony Bennett, Jimmy Boyd, Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray, The Four Lads, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Conniff and Johnny Mathis. He also oversaw many of the early singles of the label's top female recording star of the decade, Doris Day. In 1953, CBS formed Columbia's sister label Epic Records. 1954 saw Columbia end its distribution arrangement with Sparton Records and form Columbia Records of Canada.
With 1955, Columbia USA decisively broke with its past when it introduced its new, modernist-style "Walking Eye" logo. This logo actually depicts a stylus (the legs) on a record (the eye); however, the "eye" also subtly refers to CBS's main business in television, and that division's iconic Eye logo. Columbia continued to use the "notes and mike" logo on 78-rpm record labels and even used a promo label showing both logos until the "notes and mike" was phased out (along with the 78) in 1958. The original Walking Eye was tall and solid; it was modified in 1960 to the familiar one still used today (pictured on this page).
Columbia changed distributors in Australia and New Zealand in 1956 when the Australian Record Company picked up distribution of U.S. Columbia product to replace the Capitol Records product which ARC lost when EMI bought Capitol. As EMI owned the Columbia trademark at that time, the U.S. Columbia material was issued in Australia and New Zealand on the CBS Coronet label.
In 1961, CBS ended its arrangement with Philips Records and formed its own international organization, CBS Records, which released Columbia recordings outside the USA and Canada on the CBS label. The recordings could not be released under the "Columbia Records" name because EMI operated a separate record label by that name outside North America. (This was the result of the legal maneuvers which led to the creation of EMI in the early 1930s.) When Epic's distribution deal with EMI expired, CBS Records distributed Epic recordings on the Epic label outside North America as well. Epic distributed Ode Records between 1967-1969 and between 1976-1979
With the formation of CBS Records' international arm, it started establishing its own distribution in the early 1960s beginning in Australia. In 1960 CBS took over its distributor in Australia and New Zealand, the Australian Record Company (founded in 1936) including Coronet Records, one of the leading Australian independent recording and distribution companies of the day. The CBS Coronet label was replaced by the CBS label with the 'walking eye' logo in 1963. ARC continued trading under that name until the late 1970s when it formally changed its business name to CBS Australia.
In September 1964, CBS established its own British distribution by purchasing its British distributor, the independent Oriole Records (UK) label, pressing plant and recording studio (as well as its sold-only-in-Woolworth's Embassy cover version label).
In 1966, another Columbia subsidiary label, Date, was created mainly for the soul music outlet. This label released the first string of hits for Peaches & Herb. Date's biggest success was Time Of The Season by The Zombies, peaking at #2 in 1969. The label was discontinued in 1972.
Following the appointment of Clive Davis as president in 1967 the Columbia label became more of a rock music label, thanks mainly to Davis's fortuitous decision to attend the Monterey International Pop Festival, where he spotted and signed several leading acts including Janis Joplin. However, Columbia/CBS still had a hand in traditional pop and jazz and one of its key acquisitions during this period was Barbra Streisand. She released her first solo album on Columbia in 1963 and remains with the label to this day.
Perhaps the most successful Columbia pop act of this period was Simon & Garfunkel. The group broke through in 1965 with the Tom Wilson-produced single "The Sound of Silence", which helped to usher in the so-called "folk-rock" boom of the mid-Sixties, and whose valedictory 1970 LP Bridge Over Troubled Water became one of the biggest selling albums ever released up to that time. Another Columbia recording artist of this period was Janis Joplin, who led the way for several generations of female rock and rollers.
The structure of US Columbia remained the same until 1980, when it spun off the classical/Broadway unit into a separate imprint, CBS Masterworks Records (now Sony Classical).
In the early 1970s, Columbia began recording in a four-channel process called quadraphonic, using the "SQ" standard which used an electronic encoding process that could be decoded by special amplifiers and then played through four speakers, with each speaker placed in the corner of a room. Remarkably, RCA Victor countered with another quadraphonic process which required a special cartridge to play the "discrete" recordings for four-channel playback. Both Columbia and RCA's quadraphonic records could be played on conventional stereo equipment. Although the Columbia process required less equipment and was quite effective, many were confused by the competing systems and sales of both Columbia's matrix recordings and RCA's discrete recordings were disappointing. A few other companies also issued some matrix recordings for a few years. Quadraphonic recording was used by both classical artists, including Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, and popular artists such as Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Barbra Streisand and Carlos Santana. Columbia even released a soundtrack album of the movie version of Funny Girl in quadraphonic. Many of these recordings were later remastered and released in Dolby surround sound on CD.
On May 5, 1979, Columbia Masterworks began digital recording in a recording session of Stravinsky's Petrouchka by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, in New York (using 3M's 32-channnel multitrack digital recorder).
In March 2007, Columbia, along with Epic Records, singed an agreement with Sony Music Entertainment Japan (which is not part of Sony BMG) to handle American and multinational releases of its artists, most likely because Sony Music Japan's own record company in the US, Tofu Records, is no longer in business.