Who was/is Sarg Records ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
"No, I haven't dropped dead or left the country. I'm still here fighting a one-man battle in this record rat race."
Charlie Fitch, in a letter to ACA Studios, September 12, 1957
At the time he wrote the above statement, Charlie Fitch and his Sarg record label of Luling, Texas -- a small town about sixty miles east of San Antonio -- had seemingly lost its battle with the merciless and unforgiving 'record rat race.' Sarg, a subsidiary of Fitch's Luling Phonograph & Record Shop, had started up a mere three years earlier with high hopes and a flurry of releases; by 1957, a mounting debt, distribution worries, public apathy, and changing tastes in popular music all threatened to hasten the demise of yet another once-promising independent label. No one would have faulted Fitch, a former Air Force Sergeant and WW II veteran, had he discontinued his Sarg imprint and gone back to devoting his full attention to the far more reliable retail record trade and jukebox business.
But Fitch refused to give in, and by adapting to trends and catering to local artists and ethnic styles, Sarg quietly outlived most other independent labels that had their beginnings in the tumultuous 1950s. Charlie viewed Sarg as an 'audition' label -- a testing ground for local artists and their material, granting them an opportunity they likely wouldn't have had otherwise. If their record proved to have any viability locally, he reasoned, chances were good that a larger company -- one with the means to properly promote and distribute the record on a national level -- would lease the master from him, the artist would go on to better things, and everyone would be happy. It sounded great in theory; in reality, in never quite played out that way for Charlie. Only one Sarg release, Cecil Moore's 1964 instrumental Diamond Back, was picked up by a bigger label (Atco). (Ironically, the record actually sold less on Atco than it did on Sarg.) Yet Fitch refused to be swayed. "I don't know if I can say that I made money or lost money," he'll tell you today. "What matters is: I gave everybody an equal chance."
It was only after he'd recovered from the losses he'd taken in 1955-56 that Charlie began to view rock 'n' roll music as a genuine commercial entity rather than a threat to his business. Like most label owners of the day, particularly those steeped in country music and western swing, Charlie was reluctant to delve into cutting this music at first. He'd experimented a little in the previous year, but probably agreed with one of his country singers, Russ Gotcher, when the latter wrote in late 1956 that "a large record label has just stated that 'rhythm & blues,' bop, etc., is on the way out...I believe the general public is ready to return to better music." Charlie concedes today that "I hesitated awhile" before delving into rock 'n' roll. "After a few successful releases -- not from me -- but jukebox-wise, and from people buying across the counter, I began to accept it. Rockabilly helped me accept it." By the summer of 1957, Charlie's initial reluctance was history, and he was scrambling to find material in this vein. Responding to a query from singer Link Davis, he wrote, "I want rock 'n' roll material. No country and western, hillbilly, or Cajun as this type will not sell at this time and it's not even played on the air by most radio stations. Records must be played on the air to sell. It's not like it used to be when the operators and retailers used to ask for new releases...now they buy from the top 40 or 50 lists."
Sarg's new shift in direction didn't automatically bolster sagging sales. Ultimately, however, Sarg's experiments with rock 'n' roll and rockabilly resulted in the bulk of the label's most memorable and enduring sides. Early efforts aside, nearly all of them were recorded in a relatively short period of time, specifically 1958 to 1961 -- a mere four years out of Sarg's three decade-plus existence. Pop music writers and fans who postulate that the late fifties and early sixties represent rock's lowest ebb (if not its outright demise) haven't fairly assessed more than a small portion of the rock music recorded and released during this period, undoubtedly because so little of it actually strode the 'Billboard' charts. A closer look at the late fifties/early sixties era reveals a wealth of vital, exciting recordings bereft of the commercial trappings stifling the pop charts during that time.
In the beginning, there was rockabilly. Rockabilly music has been so romanticized over the years that it has become almost mythic in nature; this mythology has brought with it an established orthodoxy of what 'authentic' rockabilly is supposed to sound like. The trouble is that most musicians of the time never abided by any of these very strict rules. Indeed, it's difficult to find an 'authentic' rockabilly musician or record on Sarg using the criteria that the mythologists have ordained. Rockin' And A-Boppin' by Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers is western swing minus the twin fiddles. Eddy Dugosh and the Ah-Ha Playboys' Strange Kinda Feeling is prodded along by a string-bending steel guitar. Rocking sides by Harmon Boazeman and the Circle C Band, Peck Touchton and the Sunset Wranglers, and Al Urban were the temporary flings of dedicated country artists. Dick Fagan's and Glenn Bland's records feature poppish white vocal groups padding out the sound. Jeff Stone's Everybody Rock features a black rhythm and blues group imitating what they thought a white rockabilly band might sound like. And so on.
Lost in the mythology of rockabilly is the reality that for all intents and purposes, there simply were very few true 'rockabilly' bands extant in the music's most celebrated year, 1956. More typically, one encounters country and western-based groups who adapted -- usually with great antipathy -- to what they viewed as a passing trend to the degree that their audiences (and labels) demanded.
One such group was ADOLPH HOFNER AND THE PEARL WRANGLERS. Adolph Hofner and his various musicians were legends in South Texas for their showmanship, musical ability, versatility, and longevity. Hofner himself (born 1916, in Moulton, Texas) had first recorded back in 1936 while a member of San Antonio's pioneering western band, Jimmie Revard and the Oklahoma Playboys. Striking out on his own in 1939, Adolph was instantly successful, and was awarded recording contracts with RCA-Bluebird and Okeh-Columbia. Improbably, he was able to keep a band together for the duration of World War II (a feat few of his peers accomplished) and spent a couple of years in Los Angeles during that city's western swing heyday of 1945-46. He settling back in San Antonio the next year, quickly re-establishing himself and his band (renamed the Pearl Wranglers in early 1949 under the sponsorship of Pearl brand beer) as the premier western swingers in South Texas. Always far more 'swing' (and pop) than 'western,' Hofner nonetheless moved closer to the center by the early fifties as Nashville-style country music began to assert its dominance.
Adolph was still under contract to Decca when he signed with Sarg in early 1956; the band's first two releases for the label were released under Adolph's steel guitar-playing brother's name, Bash Hofner, to keep Decca off the trail. Their lone attempt at rockabilly, Rockin' And A-Boppin' emanates from their first session, held (like most Sarg sessions of the fifties) at the ACA Sound and Film Studios in Houston on March 4, 1956. "Everybody's boppin' and runnin' wild, it's the only thing that's still in style," observes drummer Eddie Bowers in voice that betrays years of honky-tonkin'. Eddie Sweat's two jazz-tinged guitar breaks are the song's highlight, but must've confused any teenagers who bought this record expecting pure rock 'n' roll. As was standard practice with Sarg, only a small amount of copies were pressed; Fitch hypothesized that if his first pressings received a good response, he could order more as the public demanded. Rockin' And A-Boppin' didn't exceed its initial pressing of 250 copies.
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