Friday, February 3, 2023

A Chronic Case of the Blues

Alumni turn campus business into a music industry icon

Malaco founder Tommy Couch Sr. (left) and business manager Stewart Madison pose on either side of the yet-to-be-unveiled historic marker designating the company's inclusion on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Malaco founder Tommy Couch Sr. (left) and business manager Stewart Madison pose on either side of the yet-to-be-unveiled historic marker designating the company’s inclusion on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

OXFORD, Miss. – In the early 1960s, some of the hottest groups booked for parties at the Pi Kappa Alpha house at Ole Miss were black rhythm and blues bands. They were brought in by the fraternity’s social chairman, Tommy Couch Sr., and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson, then partners in Campus Attractions, a band-booking business.
The two pharmacy students used a little chicanery to get popular artists to the house. Sometimes they’d find out who the Phi Delts were bringing in on Saturday night, then call the band’s agent and arrange to get them to Oxford a little earlier, so they could do a show at the Pike house Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
“We’d watch the Dekes, too, to see if they were bringing in anybody good,” Couch sheepishly admitted.
Campus Attractions quickly expanded to other Southern campuses and, when Couch graduated and began practicing pharmacy in Jackson in 1965, became Malaco Attractions, which brought the Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Ike and Tina Turner and others to the then-new Mississippi Coliseum.
Stephenson joined Couch in promoting those acts after graduating in 1966.
While practicing pharmacy full-time, Stephenson kept his hand in the music business. After going into the business full-time in 1970, “I practiced pharmacy half-time, so I could still buy groceries,” he said.
Malaco opened a recording studio in a former Pepsi-Cola warehouse in 1967. In that metal building, the two partners began putting the soulful, earthy R&B music they loved on vinyl. With Stephenson mixing and mastering at the engineer’s control board and Couch handling the business side, Malaco produced six singles and a Grammy-nominated album between 1968 and ’70. But the company’s revenue was minimal because it had to license those records to established labels for national distribution.
The tide began to turn, though, in 1970, when Malaco recorded King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” The songs were rejected by both Stax and Atlantic Records, so Malaco released them on its Chimneyville label and began sending them to stations.
When “Groove Me” started getting radio play, Atlantic picked it up for distribution, and it went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Then Stax picked up “Mr. Big Stuff,” which sold more than 2 million copies on its way to the top of the R&B and pop charts.
Soon, Atlantic sent the Pointer Sisters to Jackson for Malaco’s touch, Stax sent Rufus Thomas and, in 1973, Paul Simon recorded material for his “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” album. However, by 1975, the company was again in financial straits.
With just enough cash to do so, Couch and Stephenson recorded Dorothy Moore’s soulful love song “Misty Blue” and released it on the Malaco label just before Thanksgiving. “Misty Blue” peaked near the top of the R&B and pop charts and earned gold records around the world.
“I mixed it over the weekend, took it to Nashville Monday to have it mastered, then took it to Murfreesboro to have it pressed,” Stephenson said. “When I got back, we started sending the record to stations, and some stations in Jackson started playing it. … All of a sudden, it started making a lot of noise. We were not prepared to press thousands of records, so we hooked up with TK in Miami.
“‘Misty Blue’ saved us big-time back then, just like ‘Groove Me’ and ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ did earlier. We put it out on the Malaco label, TK distributed it and it blew wide open.”
Malaco gambled again in 1976 and started a gospel division. It, too, began paying off by toting up 25 percent of the company’s sales, but it wasn’t until the late Z.Z. Hill came searching for a label that the studio began shooting skyward in the early ’80s. His first album sold only 25,000 copies, but his second, “Down Home Blues,” spent more than 100 weeks on the Billboard black LP chart and sold more than 500,000 copies.
“Hill sold more records than all the other blues artists put together,” Couch said.
When Stax and TK went out of business, other R&B artists – Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, Denise LaSalle, Johnnie Taylor and Latimore – began flocking to Malaco.
“The R&B and soul artists depended on gigs for their money, but without a record playing on radio, they couldn’t charge top dollar, so they flocked to us,” Stephenson said. “For me, those were our halcyon days, from 1985 to ’90. We had people clamoring to work with us.”
Also in ’85, Malaco bought the Muscle Shoals (Alabama) Sound Studio, label and publishing company. The studio had produced gold records for Simon, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and Wilson Pickett, and its publishing catalog contained moneymakers such as “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Torn Between Two Lovers” and songs made famous by Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.
“We mined that catalog and had our artists record them,” Stephenson said. “We could use that studio and its musicians, go in and work for a week, and record our artists without being bumped.”
In 1986, Malaco entered the world of telemarketing and purchased Savoy Records, the largest black gospel label. In ’95, it cut “Good Love” with Johnnie Taylor, the company’s biggest record ever.
“Between the mid-’80s and late ’90s, our gospel division was going like crazy, and we were selling a million records,” Couch said. “We had 130 to 140 employees, offices in London, New York and Nashville, and associates in other places. It was a big time for us.”
Today, the Malaco Music Group includes the new studio, office and warehouse complex on West Northside Drive in Jackson, nearly a dozen record labels and another dozen music publishing companies, as well as direct marketing operations and distribution services.
Since it began laying down tracks on vinyl and eight-track tapes 45 years ago, Malaco has outlasted fads like disco and adapted to other changes.
“First it was death of the eight-track, and here come the cassettes, then the CDs,” Stephenson said. “The real stumbling block came with computers and file sharing. It took us awhile to adapt to that.”
“Now it’s all digital,” Couch said. “People just download what they like from places like iTunes.”
Despite making inroads into even more markets such as children’s music and rock, Malaco is known to many around the world as “The Last Soul Company,” as it was touted in a Boston magazine article in the mid-’80s. It has a historic marker on the Mississippi Blues trail, designating its importance to the genre, and its thousands of master tapes are a treasure trove to historians, students and movie producers, who sometimes ask to use some of Malaco’s music.
Malaco was hit by a tornado in April 2011, but its masters and other artifacts survived in a concrete vault. Tucked among them are more than 50 Grammy-nominated songs and albums, including a CD by the Ole Miss Gospel Choir.
These days, Tommy Couch Jr. (BBA 87) is president of the Malaco Music Group.
While at Ole Miss, Tommy Jr. reprised not only his father’s penchant for mining fraternity bookings but also Campus Attractions. After graduating, Tommy Jr. started Waldoxy Records, one of Malaco’s many subsidiaries, and signed Bobby Rush and others.
Tommy Sr. and his wife, Mayme, also have two daughters, Christy Echols of Nashville and Tamyne Armour of Madison, and eight grandchildren. Wolf Stephenson and his wife, Catherine, have two children, Leslie Carpenter of Jackson and John Stephenson of Nashville, and three grandchildren.
The families could trace their roots back to a Pike formal at Ole Miss, circa 1963. A photo taken there shows Couch and Stephenson in white tuxedos, and the elaborately gowned young ladies who would become their wives.
The band at that formal also appears in the photo. It was Professor James Richards and the Esquire Combo, whose lead singer, Percy Sledge, would quickly rise to fame upon wailing “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
For more than two decades, that photo hung at Malaco Studio.
“That’s where I got the music bug,” Stephenson said. “I started hanging around with Tommy at Ole Miss.”
–Barbara Lago, Ole Miss News Desk

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