In its brief but brightly blazing life, Bethlehem Records helped launch and/or advance the careers of many great names in jazz and contemporary music. It was founded like so many American labels of the time by an immigrant from Europe – in this case one Gustav ‘Gus’ Wildi. He had been born and raised in Switzerland, arriving in the States in the early Fifties.
His initial intention was to release pop records, but the influence of a young music-student friend called Creed Taylor – later of course to found his own CTI label – decided to focus on jazz. Wildi’s label would be defined by two factors: a willingness to grant the artist complete creative freedom, and the distinctive album artwork designed by Burt Goldblatt that gave Bethlehem an identity all its own.
The label was founded in New York in 1954 and released albums in the then-standard 10-inch format. The name Bethlehem was chosen from a list of possibles; founder Wildi revealed to Tyler Alpern in a series of fascinating interviews (see www.tyleralpern.com) that it stemmed from researches he’d done into the US steel industry. So the Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was the catalyst, rather than the ‘little town’ of nativity renown. He admitted, however, that it crossed his mind to call the roster ‘The Stars of Bethlehem’…but this was dropped when they decided to concentrate on jazz.
One major early project was the George Gershwin opera ‘Porgy And Bess’, a three-album multi-artist set recorded in California. It was the second complete recording of the work, the first having been in 1951, and featured jazz singers and musicians rather than opera singers and an orchestra. Mel Tormé sang the role of Porgy and Frances Faye was Bess; other singers included Johnny Hartman, Betty Roche and Sallie Blair, all of whom have contributed singles to our compilation.
Gus Wildi who saw his role ‘mostly as facilitator’ was wise enough to have a number of knowledgeable lieutenants to guide him: in addition to Creed Taylor, who left in 1956, he employed producer/A&R man Red Clyde to run the West Coast operation, while Sy Oliver acted as musical director. From 1955 onwards, most of the recording was done in Los Angeles rather than New York City.
The roster was a mix of new, hitherto unknown and established artists. Music student Eunice Waymon from Tyron, North Carolina, became Nina Simone when performing in extra-curricular fashion in Atlantic City as a pianist-singer. Her first LP for Bethlehem was acclaimed one of the all-time great jazz albums (though, typically, Nina preferred the term ‘Black Classical Music’). She moved on and soon signed with Columbia Pictures’ larger Colpix label.
Mel Tormé, in contrast, was already an established artist on the Coral label when he was attracted to join Bethlehem. He was attracted by the label’s philosophies – not to mention a wish list of star performers. ‘Red Clyde and I had dined, and he told me he was going to sign Dizzy (GIllespie) and Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan, and I felt that was the place for me.’
Tormé would record a staggering seven albums for the label in the years 1955-57, with assistance from pianist/composer/arranger Marty Paich. It proved a profitable spell, for he left Bethlehem having graduated from the pop crooner class to become a jazz singer.
Another artist who used Bethlehem as a stepping-stone was Julie London. The former actress famed for ‘Cry Me A River’ made her first four recordings for Bethlehem; they were released in 1955 on an album, ‘Bethlehem’s Girlfriends’, along with material by Chris Connor and Carmen McRae, but she had moved to Liberty by the time her first album was released later in 1955. (Bobby Troup, also present here, was her husband.)
The original Bethlehem albums are much prized by collectors today thanks to the artwork created by Burt Goldblatt. He, like the musicians, was given unprecedented freedom to create, and his stylish matte-finish artwork was designed to have an impact on prospective buyers flipping through the LP sleeves at the record shop. His trademark was eschewing the four-colour approach and making his point with a limited palette.
Bethlehem Records had been distributed by King, a company with its own manufacturing and distribution facilities, and Gus Wildi had relinquished 50 per cent of his label’s ownership as part of the deal. When he ran into trouble in 1962, King took control of the catalogue. This has since passed through many hands, but the music has never lost its lustre.
This was proved in 1987 when ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, a track recorded by Nina Simone for Bethlehem nearly three decades previously, became an enormous and unexpected UK hit after its use in a TV advertising campaign for Chanel No 5 perfume.
Enjoy the sweet smell of Bethlehem…