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.