Before it became a part of Arista Records in the mid Seventies, Bell Records enjoyed a fascinating life. Yet its beginnings in the Fifties were a long way from the label most people remember it as. The only connection was targeting a young teen audience.
The Bell Records label began life in 1952 when it was formed by Arthur Shimkin. Born in Brooklyn in 1922, he had started Golden Records as a children’s label in 1948 to complement the new Little Golden Books line from Simon & Schuster. This employed Mitch Miller as musical director, and was so successful the releases were excluded from the national charts by jealous rivals due to being ‘children’s records’.
They pressed their own discs, with Simon and Schuster’s backing, and used the book distribution network established for their successful range of Pocket Books (including their racking system) to keep costs to a minimum, undercutting the competition. By selling large numbers, they persuaded major stars from film, radio and television like Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Durante, Shari Lewis and Alfred Hitchcock to accept a low royalty rate and lend their talents to entertaining and educating children.
Shimkin’s intention in founding Bell was to offer versions of the hits of the day to the teenage audience that had grown up with (and now outgrown) Golden Records. With postwar austerity still biting, this was to be done at pocket-money prices. When its first eight 78rpm singles were released in September 1953, Bell would be the lowest-priced pop label on the market at 35 cents a record.
They turned out eight to 12 singles a month. As Billboard reported, ‘Plans call for four additional disks each month on a semi-monthly basis. Half of the release will be standards and half will cover the big hits on regular-priced labels.’ But Shimkin, who’d been inspired by the Your Hit Parade (radio and then) TV series, insisted ‘We did not imitate the original pop hits; we interpreted them.’ He didn’t skimp on recording sessions, using top New York jazz and R&B musicians and arrangers including Sy Oliver (the label’s musical director), Buddy Lucas and Ray Ellis.
Bell Records had one last hurdle to overcome – after test marketing the concept successfully in 12 cities, they found a small New York label selling Yiddish records; they bought out their ‘namesakes’ for $2,500 and the show was finally on the road.
The early 7-inch, 78 RPM records sold for either 39 or 49 cents, probably through dime stores, bookstores, department stores and places that did not usually sell records (nowadays known as non-traditional outlets). They came in illustrated sleeves, with different pictures on each side to attract kids’ attention, and are for that reason highly collectable. (One of the models was a pre-fame Jayne Mansfield.) Their slogan was ‘Music for the Millions’, and in Billboard magazine’s words they were ‘reaching classes of consumers who heretofore have not been exposed to disks.’
Billboard also revealed that ‘standard waxings sell about one-third as well as do the latest tunes.’ From then on, Bell specialised in re-recording big hits of the day, so in most cases, the songs are more famous than the artists. Our first track, Jan and Dean’s ‘Baby Talk’, is by a duo billed as Tom & Jerry who would later be famous using their real names Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
Other, less famous names include Bob Miller, whose version of Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ clocks in at less than two minutes. He was co-credited with Jimmy Carroll and his Orchestra, a house band that backed a number of Bell artists. Edna McGriff was a talented New York teenager who had a huge hit with ‘Heavenly Father’ on the Jubilee label but failed to follow it up. Sadly, she died in her thirties, but extended her recorded career through her association with Bell.
The Amy and Mala record labels were formed as Bell subsidiaries by Arthur Shimkin’s Bell co-owner Al Massler, and proved successful; Larry Uttal, the owner of Madison Records, purchased all three labels in the mid Sixties and moved his artists over to them. Shimkin, who fell out with Massler, moved on to Columbia Records where he became a Grammy award-winning producer. He passed away in 2006
Bell was reactivated in 1966 and returned to prominence in the early Seventies when it signed teen heart-throb David Cassidy. Other acts to impress as Bell re-entered the singles market included the Fifth Dimension, Tony Orlando and Dawn and Barry Manilow. One star it did not sign but perhaps should have was Carly Simon, whose father Richard L Simon was the Simon in Simon and Schuster.
There are a couple more interesting angles to this story: the music business now relies on the non-traditional outlets Bell exploited, and the ‘Top Of The Pops’ and ‘Hot Hits’ series of albums plus releases by British labels like Pickwick and Hallmark have proved cover versions can be collectable. So think of these songs as enjoyable ‘interpretations’…