Art Rupe – the musical director who helped R&B go mainstream – has died at the age of 104.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer founded Specialty Records in Los Angeles in 1946, giving Sam Cooke, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker a shot.
Rupe died Friday at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and his cause of death has not been disclosed.
His most lucrative and memorable signing was rhythm and blues and gospel performer Little Richard, who initially struggled to break through commercially.
Rock and roll historian and musician Billy Vera described Rupe as “one of the great men I’ve known”, adding “RIP my friend” in a Twitter tribute.
In a 2011 interview for the Rock Hall Archives, Rupe said, “There was something about Little Richard’s voice that I loved.”
The first recording sessions were uninspiring – but during a lunch break at a nearby hostel, Little Richard sat down at the piano and hammered out a song he had performed on club outings, Tutti Frutti, with its immortal opening cry: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”
Released in September 1955 and one of the first major rock and roll hits, Tutti Frutti was a manic but cleaner version of the raunchy original.
Little Richard’s other hits with Specialty included such rock classics as Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Rip It Up before he abruptly (and temporarily) retired in 1957.
By the mid-1950s, Sam Cooke was eager to expand his appeal beyond gospel and recorded a few songs for Specialty, including the hit You Send Me.
Rupe found the song bland and was dismayed by his white backing vocalists and let Cooke and his manager buy the copyright and release You Send Me through RCA.
The music manager was known for paying his artists little, with performers signing contracts leaving him with much or all of the royalties and publishing rights.
Little Richard sued him in 1959 for arrears in royalties and settled out of court for $11,000.
Billy Vera wrote in the liner notes of The Specialty Story, a five-CD set released in 1994, that the growth of Specialty Records paralleled and perhaps defined the evolution of black popular music.