Fantasy Records moving into Black Pop

Moving into Black Pop
by Mark Ruffin.

Fantasy Records has raised more than a few eyebrows in the record business by re-activating the Volt Record label. In addition to recording new talent, the imprint will concentrate on veteran soul acts from the past including the Delfonics, Brenda Holloway, Lenny Williams, the Dramatics and the Dells.

In its 50 plus years as a San Francisco area firm, Fantasy has built a conflicting corporate legacy. They are known for taking huge calculating risks periodically while always maintaining a very strict, some say stifling, frugality.

“Even our Xerox machine is a profit center,” laughed Phil Jones, a Fantasy vice-president, and the man in charge of Volt Records. “We’re really a bottom line company. We’re very careful in what we do, and we make sure every album is a profit center.”

Their movies don’t do too bad either. Under Chairman Saul Zaentz, they’ve only made seven of them, but three of them, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The English Patient, won best picture of the year Academy Awards.

The company made its mark in jazz, with Dave Brubeck being its first artist signed in 1949. Over the decades, like a whale gobbling smaller fish, Fantasy has acquired a number of labels in jazz, blues and classic Black music, like the once Memphis based Stax/Volt record labels.

In the pre-disco era of the late 60’s and early 70’s, the company dabbled just a bit in pop, but had two of the acts that defined that period in Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Blackbyrds.

At the end of the 90’s, there was a surge of interest in classic rhythm & blues and classic soul music, thanks to all the new so-called ‘jamming oldies’ stations popping up around the country. The ever-increasing number of steppers, doing the dance that will never die, also have contributed, because the moves may be timeless, but they work best with dusties.

None of that, however, had anything to do with Fantasy’s decision to resurrect these classic black voices.

“Actually we had the idea a few years ago and signed the Spinners, the Dramatics and Dorothy Moore,” explained Jones, who was vice-president of promotion during Motown’s heyday from 1964 to 1972. “Nothing happened and we dropped them and the whole idea. But after a couple of years, we watched as those albums kept selling and selling until my boss said, ‘why don’t we start an R&B department?’

After doing some research, Jones found out was the Dramatics, in particular, continued to sell because even without new releases, they never stopped touring. He found others on the road including the Delfonics, and Holloway whose big hits at Motown, Every Little Bit Hurts, and You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, which she co-wrote, were promoted by Jones.

“She’s singing better than she ever did in her life,” Jones said of Holloway whose new release is titled It’s A Woman’s World. “I didn’t know her well at Motown, but I know Motown was a great school. It certainly was for me. I watched everything (Berry Gordy) did and how he did everything for the artist, like having arrangers, writers and producers. That’s what we have here. Fred Pittman is our producer and Preston Glass does a lot of our arranging.”

“Fred Pittman and Preston Glass are two talented young brothers,” said Chuck Barksdale, who except for nine months in the late 50’s spent with Marvin Gaye in the Moonglows, has been a member of the Dells for 47 years. “They wrote some stuff that is fantastic and just right for the Dells.

“Everything goes around in a cycle,” Barksdale continued. “If you are blessed to be here, when it was around before, like we were back in the 50’s when doo-wop, Rhythm & Blues, soul and all this Black music came together, you’d fine that there’s nothing new under the sun.”

The Dells are the longest surviving pop group in modern music history and it is that legacy and the fact that they still tour that Barksdale says will drive sales of their new album, not radio. Their new album won’t be out until June, but this week, the Delfonics new album, Forever New, comes out. Next month, its the Dramatics with If You Come Back To Me, followed in June by former Tower of Power lead singer Lenny Williams, whose release is titled Love Therapy.

“At Fantasy, we feel we can market anything,” crowed Jones when asked about modern radio that either plays music made 25 years ago or by artists who are barely that age. “The key is in hiring independent promotion people across the country and making your presence known in all the major chain stores. We don’t think we’ll be ignored at the urban adult radio stations across the country because these are all major recognizable names we’re pushing here.”

“Phil Jones knows, he wouldn’t pull your leg,” Barksdale continued, “we’ve got a dynamite album that’s about to come out. The name of the album is The Dells, Reminiscing.”