THE 77 RECORD LABEL
Date Posted: 2007-04-30
by Paige VanVorst
We announced the purchase of 77 Records many years ago, in the 39th Anniversary Celebration Issue of JazzBeat’s ancestor, the CRC Jazz Journal. We’ve put out LPs and CDs over the years from the wealth of material purchased in 1988, but we’ve never finished the job. Until now.
Barry Martyn, who served as the middleman in the transaction that brought 77 Records into the GHB-Jazzology fold, always felt guilty about the various 77 sessions languishing in our files. He also felt guilty about the number of those sessions that featured his band, but when he was active importing New Orleans talent to England, Doug Dobell was in his most active period as a record producer, and the result was that most of the musicians who toured England for Barry and Keith Smith, the other prime presenter of New Orleans attractions, wound up recording for 77.
With this massive release we’re bringing back to print some of the earliest material recorded for 77 adding, where possible, additional material and combining together sessions that were individually too short to make up a decently lengthed CD.
The 77 Records story begins in 1946, when Douglas Dobell returned to London after seven years in the Army. He went to work for his father, who ran an antiquarian bookshop at 77 Charing Cross Road in London. The Dobell family were well-established members of a flourishing bookstore district; Doug’s grandfather had begun the district when he founded his store many years earlier.
Dobell’s father noted that he had attracted a following- young men would come in to talk eagerly to Doug then leave without taking any interest in the store’s stock of priceless first editions. These were early British record collectors, getting together after being dispersed during the War.
Dobell suggested to his father that an unused corner of the store could be put to good use selling records and the father reluctantly agreed. In May 1946 the record department of Dobell’s was officially open for business. The opening of the store coincided with a relaxing in record marketing in England, as there were independent record companies for the first time challenging the major labels, and Dobell’s became an important outlet for smaller labels, also importing various American labels of the time.
As time went on the record business kept expanding and Doug hired various assistants to take care of the business. The uneasy truce between the book and record portions of the store continued until 1955 when Dobell’s father retired and the rare books were phased out.
The firm expanded into the record business in 1957 when Dobell began the 77 label, named simply for the address of the store. He couldn’t have begun at a better time- the trad boom was soon to hit England and many of the artists he recorded first became an important par of that genre, including Acker Bilk, Bob Wallis, Dick Charlesworth and Diz Disley.
The 77 label was not strictly a traditional jazz label, though it was always strongly associated with traditional jazz. The early catalog also included folk music and the blues and over time Doug Dobell also recorded a number of the mainstream musicians who toured England in great numbers after Union restrictions on touring by American jazzmen were relaxed during the 1960’s. Some of the label’s early stars became famous later- Bob Dylan recorded for 77’s affiliated Folklore label as Blind Boy Grunt, and Ginger Baker, later famous at the superstar drummer with Cream and Blind Faith, appears in this release with Bob Wallis’ Storyville Jazzmen, playing in his best Baby Dodds style.
Doug Dobell was also very active in swapping sessions with his American counterparts- a number of 77s early releases were leased from Delmark, Euphonic, Arhoolie, Folk Lyric and other labels, and at least one 77 album- the first session featuring Kid Thomas’ own working band, was issued in the US by Arhoolie.
There was even a foray into film-making - Doug Dobell produced “Living Jazz” in 1960, featuring the Bruce Turner Jump Band in an attempt to film a jazz band as it really performed, rather than a Hollywood version of what a jazz band should look like.
The label really hit its stride in the mid-60’s. Dobell established Agate & Co, under the leadership of Bill Colyer, to market its products overseas, and the store was thriving and a flood of visiting American jazzmen went into the studios for 77. Dobell was a pianist himself and produced a number of excellent solo piano sessions featuring American artists like Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell and Joe Turner, as well as the cream of the British jazz scene.
Barry Martyn’s first big promotion was in 1966 when he brought Kid Sheik and Capt John Handy for a tour of Britain. Dobell was reluctant to record yet another old New Orleans jazzman but Martyn convinced him to walk the block from his house to one of their gigs and after one number Dobell announced, “I want to make a series of albums with this man.”
And he did. Barry Martyn said they spent most of the month of March1966 recording, often all night, working in the various tour dates he had booked during the day, traveling by bus and truck all over the United Kingdom.
The company continued to operate throughout the sixties and seventies- the last new sessions were recorded about 1979. During the early eighties Dobell sold off various sessions from the catalog to other companies; most of the New Orleans items went to GHB/Jazzology. See the centerfold of this issue for a full display of the items originating on the 77 label that we’ve already issued.
Doug Dobell died of a heart attack in 1987 while in Nice, France to attend a jazz festival. He was sixty-nine.
One of the important functions of the GHB/Jazzology group of labels is to preserve the output of many of the smaller labels that existed over the years- Doug Dobell did the same sort of thing when he ran 77- he put out a number of sessions featuring seriously-neglected American mainstream musicians that were leased from minute American labels- seldom-recorded men like Herman Autrey, Jack McVea, Harry Dial and Bernard Addison appeared on 77. It seemed ironic that you should have to order their records from England when they lived and worked in the US, but only Doug Dobell had any interest in that sort of music. For that we should all be eternally grateful.
We’re proud to own a large segment of the output of 77 Records, and with this release we’ve finally finished what we set out to do initially in 1988- release the remaining material from the 77 label
Barry Martyn adds the following remembrance of Doug Dobell:
Doug Dobell was a rather wonderful man. He was basically a jazz fan. Perhaps too much of a jazz fan. From the time he occupied a corner of his father’s bookstore on London’s Charing Cross Road, until he operated his own jazz record store across the street, he never once lost sight of his love of jazz and the musicians who played it. He was somewhat of a contradiction in terms in his professional life. He was an astute business man on the one hand yet he could be the most generous friend on the other. As an example of this...I brought George Lewis to England, under the auspices of the Manchester Sports Guild for his last tour. The money I had planned to make was going to be used to bring Louis Nelson on his first European tour. I imagined that Louis’ introductory tour would lose money, but George’s would be a fiscal success and one would cancel the other. No such luck... George fell victim to ill health and was hospitalized...the tour went into the red in a big way. Nelson’s tour, as predicted, followed suit and I was left on the verge of bankruptcy. I owed Doug several hundred pounds and decided to confront him with the “promise to pay later” clause. Up to this time my relationship with him had been strictly a business one. I was about to learn that he had a heart like a buffalo’s butt. Most people would have hit the roof and threatened lawsuits but Doug simply said, “Can I loan you a few hundred pounds until you get straight?” I never forgot the way that he did it. It was like everything about him...low key.
Low key was the best way to describe his record label. It was called, simply, “77 Records” from his address at 77 Charing Cross Road. It started with the occasional 78 rpm issue ant hen maybe an odd ten-inch album of limited quantity. As the years went by he recorded more and more. Practically every visiting US jazz artist, blues men, folk singers, big bands...as long as it was good and he felt he was helping jazz, he recorded it. He had one or two minor hits, but the music was too good and he was too much of a jazz fan to bother with the more commercial stuff. The label had respect, which meant more to Doug.