Word has come this morning that Mercury Records co-founder Irwin Steinberg has died at age 94. The Chicago native graduated from the University of Chicago and served in the Air Corps before beginning his career in the music business. After starting Mercury and serving at its helm for several years, he became chairman and CEO of Polygram Records, where he remained for more than 30 years.
Mercury under Steinberg was a major force in the recording industry, spanning a wide variety of eras and genres. In my ‘70s youth, for example, it was home to Bachman Turner Overdrive and the Ohio Players, Rush and Barry White. Mercury also made an important impact in jazz, even if its contributions are somewhat overlooked today. Here’s the background on its jazz efforts.
Mercury's jazz division had two distinct and important fathers. John Henry Hammond, Jr. brought his expertise and connections when Mercury bought Keynote Records in the late 1940s. And Mercury was the issuing company and distributor for Norman Granz's pre-Norgran/Verve recordings. Although both Hammond and Granz had departed Mercury by the mid-1950s, they established the company in the jazz world. Mercury, under its EmArcy label, released LPs by many important post-swing and bebop artists including Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Clark Terry, Dinah Washington, Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Ernestine Anderson, Sarah Vaughn, Maynard Ferguson, Jimmy Cleveland, Herb Geller and others. By the early 1960s, Mercury was releasing jazz under the flagship label and was an early leader in the new stereo sound releases. Highlights of the early and mid-1960s included albums by Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Cannonball Adderley, Charles (then called Charlie) Mingus, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Max Roach and others. In the early 1950s, Norman Granz started his own record company, Norgran, which later became Verve.
The 1995 release, “Mercury Records Jazz Story,” is both a fine compilation and a fitting tribute to the label’s guiding light. It features many of the artists listed above as well as tracks Gerry Mulligan (“Demanton”), John Coltrane (“Weaver Of Dreams”), Ben Webster (“The Iron Hat”), Art Blakey (“Eleanor”), Erroll Garner (“I've Got To Be A Rug Cutter”), Oscar Peterson (“Squeaky's Blues”) and Dizzy Gillespie (“Groovin' High”), among many others.
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