At the end of a long and illustrious half-century of giving the world some of the finest American black music to have been recorded, Okeh, in a final death-throe of creativity, produced a selection of soulful dance numbers that would ensure its name lives forever on the UK's Northern Soul scene.
For blues buffs who revere the name of Mamie Smith (she who recorded the first black blues record on Okeh back in the 1920's), for jazz aficionadoes who associate the label with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Paul Gayten, for jump jive worshippers whose fingers inadvertently click at the slightest sound of a Treniers recording. For all these, it must be at best bemusing, at worst galling, that a total flop from an otherwise unknown singer called Sandi Sheldon is probably better known in this country than any of those mentioned major black heroes.
There are several reasons why Okeh has become known as the most revered label on the Northern Soul scene. Its original success and fame came through a series of Chicago-produced soul hits, made and often written by Curtis Mayfield, lead vocalist and inspiration with The Impressions. Curtis was enjoying a period of creative and commercial success at this time (1962-64). Brought to the company on a freelance basis by head A&R man Carl Davis, he in turn brought with him the new Chicago talents Major Lance, Billy Butler, The Artistics and The Opals. It was Major Lance who would become Okeh's biggest star and, through an amazing eleven single releases on UK Columbia Records, would place himself and Okeh's Chicago soul sound in the hearts of British mods and soulies for ever. Carl Davis used the full brassy productions of Johnny Pate, The Impressions' main arranger, on Major Lance's early releases whereas he utilised Riley Hampton, Etta James' main arranger, on the music of the more sophisticated big ballad singer Walter Jackson. Both were very successful and this solid soul base meant Okeh would continue to put out singles aimed at the R&B charts long after the Chicago home base had disintegrated.
Being part of the US music giant Columbia Records meant that the producers and arrangers could get away with more lavish recordings but could live with failure for a longer time than an independent would have been able to financially afford. As their most dramatic successes had been with Major Lance and dancefloor numbers, Okeh continued to aim mainly at this market while Walter Jackson and Ted Taylor maintained steady if unspectacular sales on the blues and ballad side of the business.
The last three years of the company's life saw a geographically diverse output of music unwittingly tailor-made for, and waiting to be discovered by, UK soul fans throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was ironically the glorious failure of the label that would ensure its longevity in Britain and subsequently Europe.
Okeh did have the odd commerical success in these later years, most notably with a trio of faded West Coast rock'n'roll heroes. Larry Williams & Johnny Watson recorded both individually and together to create the quintessential uptown soul LP with their Two For The Price Of One (Okeh 12122). Their ultra cool version of the jazz standard Mercy, Mercy, Mercy hit the charts and, encouraged by this, Okeh's bosses gave Larry Williams the go-ahead to produce several acts for the label. He went to fellow 1950s Specialty Records rocker Little Richard and coaxed out of the wayward genius probably his best performances since his heyday (and even got a hit for him with Poor Dog). Larry was hooked on a very manic, stomping, uptempo soul sound and Little Richard, Williams and Watson and his other acts all reflected this. Singles by The Triumphs, Cookie Jackson, The Autographs and The Seven Souls were lost in the mass of dancefloor directed discs that come out every week in black America and only gained full recognition when played in such Northern towns as Wigan and Cleethorpes a decade later. Similar one shot deals ensued with the production pedigree of Detroit's genius Mike Terry brought to bear on Johnny Robinson's Gone But Not Forgotten and Sandra Phillips' I Wish I Had Known.
In New York, one of the most sublime moments in soul music came when the aforementioned Sandi Sheldon set her anguished vocals just above Van McCoy's pounding arrangement and song You're Gonna Make Me Love You (Okeh 7277). In the South, Tommy Tate was recording a delightful mid-tempo number I'm Taking On Pain that was full of emotion and would only fully capture British soul hearts in the 1990s when their taste had broadened and was no longer limited to stompers only. It was the pounding rhythms of The Carstairs, however, with He Who Picks A Rose, The Tangeers with the semi-psychedelic stomper What's The Use Of Me Trying and New York-based Teacho Wiltshire's production on The Vibrations adrenalin-powered Gonna Get Along Without You Now that have turned Okeh into a 'Northern Soul Obsession'.