One of the most important 1950’s independent label owners passed away March 20. Hyman "Hy" Weiss started the Harlem-based Old Town label in 1953, and over the next two decades introduced a steady stream of artists that set the pace for a radical shift in public tastes. Jazz, Country, Pop, and Latin had been coming together around that time, but visionaries like Weiss added deep injections of Blues & R&B to the mix. Old Town Records was there from the start, and deserves credit for the type of risk-taking that helped pave the way for the soon -to-arrive Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm & Blues explosions.
Hy’s name stands alongside such legendary figures as Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic), Syd Nathan (Federal-King) , Art Rupe (Specialty), Herman Lubinsky (Savoy), Sam Phillips (Sun), Chess brothers (Chess), and the L.A.- based Biihari brothers. Jerry Wexler knew Weiss well---and called him "a lovable redneck."
Weiss made his reputation tapping into a rich vein of local (and other) artists that were beginning to combine the riches of R&B with the plaintive strains of adolescent crooning. This enticing hybrid would soon be known as Doo Wop. Hy’s two most successful R&B groups were the Solitaires ("Walking Along", "The Angels Sang") and Fiestas ("So Fine"), while two of the era's defining Doo-Wop anthems were 1963’s "Remember Then" by the Earls and 1961’s "There’s A Moon Out Tonight" by the Capris (also the label’s biggest success at #3). Some other Old Town songs that charted high nationally included "Let The Little Girl Dance" (Billy Bland), "Dear One" (Larry Finnegan), and "We Belong Together" (Robert and Johnny).
Like many other independents, Old Town and its subsidiaries embraced a broad range of genres to appeal to a wide cross-section of listeners. Thus, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Gospel, and even folk devotees could twist their ears to such talent as Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, Willie Dixon, Bob Gaddy, Larry Dale, Titus Turner, Oscar Brand, Gene Mumford, The Fairfield Four, Rosco Gordon, and Buddy & Ella Johnson. Weiss also co-wrote along with Raoul Cita that everlasting nugget "Life Is But A Dream" for the Harptones. The artist with the greatest longevity at Old Town was Arthur Prysock who continued recording for the label well into the 70’s, and whose heartfelt balladry was often accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra.
Thanks to licensing arrangements with labels like Ace (U.K), Rhino, Collectibles, Atlantic, and P-Vine, the hundreds of titles in Old Town’s vaults (released and unreleased) are now available to delight new generations of listeners. With the passing of Hy Weiss the curtain may have finally been drawn on the panoply of pioneers who flew by the seat of their pants, yet did the important legwork for today’s music industry.