‘If we thought it was great, we put it out’: The story of Blue Thumb Records

@1996 Bill DeYoung

The worst thing that we could do at the label was to cut a hit record. Because every time we came close to it, or had something that smelled like a hit, Columbia would come along and steal ’em away.

– Tommy LiPuma

There was virtually no precedent when Bob Krasnow threw open the doors of Blue Thumb Records in 1968. As far as anyone knew, there hadn’t yet been an album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label, with an eclectic artist roster and a keen sense of eye-catching graphics. Blue Thumb came about in that heady, post-Sgt. Pepper era, at a time when the music business was starting to think of popular music as an art, or as a grand statement, or at the very least a little bit more than the mileage you could bleed out of an artist once the hit singles had come and gone.

“There was a sense in the air of a lot of adventure,” said keyboardist Joe Sample, whose Crusaders signed with Blue Thumb in 1970. “The music business was making big, major changes; the newfound FM airwaves meant there was suddenly a whole new branch of radio stations that played music that would never be played on an AM station. Blue Thumb was one of the first companies that realized this new set of airwaves was important for music; they were one of the very first record companies that got into recording albums. FM played album cuts, that would get up to four and five minutes.”

Krasnow, who’d cut his teeth on R&B as a promo man for James Brown, had sat in the president’s chair at both King and Buddha/Kama Sutra Records. “He’d gotten his taste of running alternative product, at a time when alternative product was becoming mainstream,” explained Ben Sidran, another keyboard man who recorded for Blue Thumb.

“Anybody who knows Krasnow knows that he’s one of the great gunslingers of the Wild West,” said Sidran. “And this was him at the top of his form, making a run at the record business.” Krasnow, who was convinced his left-of-center tastes were as right-as-rain, had had his fill of big record companies that only saw their artists in profit-making terms. Securing a finance and distribution contract from the tape manufacturer GRT, Krasnow set up his new indie label on LaBrea Avenue in Los Angeles, just across the street from A&M Records.

Krasnow lured away A&M staff producer Tommy LiPuma and vice president of marketing Don Graham, telling them, “If it doesn’t work, what difference does it make? We’ll go back and get jobs. So what? Jobs you can always get.”

In its six years of existence, Blue Thumb was never a smashing success, but Krasnow and LiPuma, both of whom stayed the course, were able to put out between 60 and 100 albums (nobody knows for sure) of music that encompassed the wild, the unusual and the blatantly non-commercial. There was pop, jazz, R&B, warning-label comedy and other things that didn’t come close to a label.

The artist roster included (among others) Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Hugh Masekela, Dave Mason, the Pointer Sisters, Marc Almond, Ike and Tina Turner, Gerry Rafferty, Sun Ra, Love, Joao Donato, Clifton Chenier and Gabor Szabo. The label issued the first batch of National Lampoon albums too, and distributed Leon Russell’s Shelter Records.

“Hits never entered the picture,” said LiPuma. “These were the glory days, when you had the beginning of FM alternative radio. It was great radio, because they played everything. I think one reason a lot of these things ended up on Blue Thumb, particularly something like the Lampoon albums, was that nobody else had the balls to put it out. If you listen to Radio Dinner, it was pretty out. The majors weren’t interested in putting out things like that. It was too controversial.”

On a personal level, Blue Thumb for producer extraordinaire LiPuma was a way out of the endless repetition of Claudine Longet, Chris Montez and Sandpipers records at A&M. Krasnow and Graham were his off-hours buddies. “We were all just having a good time, you know?” he said. “There were a lot of good chemicals going around at that time, and it was one big hang. The record business is a totally different animal today. It’s not even a question of ‘Those were the good old days,’ or whatever. I’m not even talking about that. It was a much simpler situation. There weren’t as many labels, there weren’t as many artists. The highway wasn’t as crowded.”

The Blue Thumb A&R staff, LiPuma recalled, was non-existent. “It was Bob and myself. That’s all it was about,” he said. “As far as we were concerned, if it excited us, if we thought it was great, we put it out. It didn’t matter if it was the Pointer Sisters, the Crusaders or Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, it was just good music of every genre.”

Blue Thumb’s first release was a collection of audio snippets from W.C. Fields movies. The first artist signed was Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. (Beefheart, in fact, coined the name Blue Thumb; according to Krasnow, it was to be the name of a new Beefheart blues band, but Krasnow “borrowed” it for his label.) Beefheart’s Strictly Personal appeared on Blue Thumb in 1968.

Beefheart, said Krasnow, “was like an inspiration to me. His brain, his liberated ideas, his multi-talents. To me it wasn’t even about rock ‘n’ roll. It was about where rock ‘n’ roll came from and about the linear concept of music, you know, and how it evolved. I don’t think you can make a rock record without making a blues record, and I don’t think you can make a blues record without making this other kind of record, and it all had to make sense to me, you know? I don’t care if it made sense to anybody else, but I had to understand it. So it was kind of like this complex puzzle in my mind that was simplistic in its reality.”

Krasnow made frequent trips to England (perhaps he was checking out the scene at Apple Records, where a similar laissez-faire philosophy was in effect). In 1968, he and Don Graham went to the Marquee Club, in order to sign Robert Fripp and his band King Crimson, which was then the talk of the circuit.

“They were brilliant,” Graham recalled, “and it got to the end of the set, a little over an hour of unbelievable music and people were screaming and hollering, and I was thinking, ‘This is it! We’re going to sign them and it will be huge.'” As it turned out, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun was in the club, too, and had already inked King Crimson. The Blue Thumb boys were crestfallen.

Graham and Krasnow then proceeded to the nearby Speakeasy club to drown their sorrows. “And there were these guys in the corner of the room on a little stage. And one guy was sitting in the lotus position on pillows wearing Mary Janes, playing like a small guitar and singing folk songs. And standing next to him was this tall guy beating himself with his own belt. I just thought it was weird. But finally Krasnow looks up and says, ‘These guys are fantastic.'”

At intermission, the Blue Thumb welcoming committee rushed back to the dressing room and signed Marc Bolan, the guy on the pillows, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Blue Thumb’s artwork was all done by Tom Wilkes and Barry Feinstein, from their Camoflage Productions office in the Hollywood Hills. Dave Mason, who’d left Traffic (and England) for a solo career, chose Blue Thumb in part because a lot of his friends at the time were in the “hang” circle with the artists (Camoflage was also part of a management company called Group 3).

In accordance with the label’s “alternative” stance, Mason’s contract was signed, with solemnity, in the men’s room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I read somewhere,” Feinstein said, “that Howard Hughes used to sign a lot of his deals in the men’s room too.”

Mason’s Alone Together album, released in 1970, was designed by Wilkes and Feinstein as a sort of fold-open poster. Called a “Kangaroo Pack,” the jacket included a pouch for the album, which was pressed on a multi-colored “marble” vinyl, created by dropping colored pellets into the vinyl vats at random intervals, so that no two LP’s were alike.

“It stood out as something that nobody else was doing,” commented LiPuma. “People had stopped making gatefolds. And Barry and Tom were friends of ours. So we hung out and would come up with ideas; we’d sit there and laugh about them, because a lot of them were funny and a lot were unique. And we didn’t have to check with anybody in order to get it done. We just did it.”

One day, Ike Turner complained to Krasnow that white kids were making a fortune playing the blues and Turner, a black man and a life-long blues musician, was still scuffling. The result, courtesy Camoflage, was the Outta Season cover, depicting Ike on one side and his wife Tina on the other, each in whiteface makeup and eating a huge slice of watermelon. Outta Season was nominated for a Grammy, for its cover design.

San Francisco singer and songwriter Dan Hicks was one of Blue Thumb’s most popular artists. His Hot Licks played a campy sort of acoustic ’40s swing music, and it hadn’t clicked on their one and only album for Epic. So they were up for grabs.

According to Hicks, Blue Thumb was the perfect label for him. “I guess I wanted just a few guys to deal with,” he said. “A hands-on approach, as opposed to a big company. I liked them; I liked their style. They just seemed like contemporary guys. They seemed pretty hip, to use a word that I didn’t want to use, because I’m the only hip person there is. They seemed like guys that could be friends, but still we could get a lot done.”

Hicks and his outfit made three albums for Blue Thumb: Where’s The Money?, Strikin’ It Rich and Last Train To Hicksville, all produced by Tommy LiPuma. “I knew he had a jazz appreciation, which is what I liked,” said Hicks. “So I knew there’d be sort of a common savvy there; I knew he had played tenor sax.”

The Hot Licks were one of the few acts to stay with Blue Thumb until it folded in 1974. “I think it was more popular than I was aware of,” reflected Hicks. “I say that because I still get people who say to me ‘When we were in college man, we turned your records way up and danced,’ and all this. So I hear all these stories that I didn’t know about.”

Ben Sidran and Blue Thumb were never about money and huge sales. “Back then, record companies were still interested in records that sold 30, 40,000 copies,” he explained. “The numbers people were shooting for were never that great. I do know that they sold records, and the records didn’t come back like they do today. The records they sold stayed sold.”

For a decade, the Jazz Crusaders had recorded in relative obscurity on smaller labels such as Chisa, where they’d consider a project successful if it sold 50,000 copies. Joe Sample: “If it was known as jazz, you could count on basically no exposure. One of the things we felt, and that Blue Thumb felt, was that we had to get the labeling out of music. That was the main reason we went over to Blue Thumb; it was a very exciting company. We did a Carole King tune, ‘So Far Away,’ and that song was played right alongside Creedence Clearwater and a number of the popular acts of that day.”

The re-named Crusaders cut a handful of albums for Blue Thumb, and each one moved about 200,000 units. “Tommy and LiPuma and Krasnow were young and vibrant men with tremendous love of music,” Sample said. “And they also had the expertise to back up that love. And they started signing all kinds of bands. It was the new image in music, and I think it was the best kind of image that we ever had in the music business.

“And I wish today that somehow we could go back to that kind of image, where if music was good it was simply known as music; it didn’t matter if it was jazz or rock or forms of a mixture. Every artist they signed was very unique in their own way.”

The artist roster changed in dribs and drabs over Blue Thumb’s six-year run. Dave Mason’s debut album became the label’s biggest seller. “Alone Together was a breath of fresh air at the right time,” said LiPuma, who produced the record. “The guy’s songs were incredible, his guitar playing was fantastic. He had this tie-dyed record, beautiful packaging.

“Most of the time, when you’ve got something like this, whether or not it’s going to sell a million or five million, or 10 copies, you could tell when something’s got the goods or not. There’s no question to that.”

Mason’s relationship with DiPuma and Krasnow began to sour almost immediately. “The record was a monster, and then he came back and wanted to do this record with Cass Elliot,” DiPuma recalled. “Which obviously, didn’t make sense to us whatsoever, but we let him do it, and the rest is history.” Dave Mason and Cass Elliot was a resounding flop and drove Mason’s stock way down.

Headkeeper, Mason’s next solo effort, was barely half-finished when Mason, eager to re-negotiate his Blue Thumb contract, literally stole the master tapes. Krasnow, never one to back down from a fight, issued the half-done record anyway. The strained relationship between artist and label was pushed to the breaking point, and in 1973, after lots of legal wrangling, a declaration of bankruptcy and threats across the conference table, Mason signed with Columbia Records.

“Blue Thumb came along and did what they did so well that corporate America started going after their acts,” explained Joe Sample. “And one by one, they began to offer their acts a hell of a lot more money than they could pay ’em.”

“Listen, the worst thing that we could do at the label was to cut a hit record,” offered LiPuma. “Because every time we came close to it, or had something that smelled like a hit, Columbia would come along and steal ’em away. They did it with Dave Mason, they did it with Marc-Almond; T-Rex went with Warner Brothers …” The Pointer Sisters, who scored a hit on Blue Thumb with the ’40s retro “Yes We Can Can,” were still on the label when it went down. The group’s big smashes (“Fire,” “Jump”) came many years later, on another label.

Ben Sidran recalled how he first came to be a Blue Thumb artist: “I got a phone call at two o’clock one morning,” he said. “Woke me out of a dead sleep. It was Krasnow; he had heard my first record on Capitol (Feel Your Groove). He said, ‘I want to sign you, man. What do we have to do?’ So we worked it out.

“It was clear that he was at a party at somebody’s house, he heard my record and he dug it, he tracked me down and he dialed the phone that minute. And that’s an indication of what the next four years were like for me. If Kras liked your idea, he’d say, ‘Okay, do it.’ It’s not that way today, but back then, he was trusting creative people.”

“I think,” offered LiPuma, “record companies, for the most part, worked in a disciplined and organized administrative manner. We didn’t have meetings; it was just a small group of people. If we heard something we liked, we signed it.”

“They were running it, literally out of three rooms,” said Sidran. “And they were making records that were consciously counter to what was going on. And nobody had done that. Everybody else had maybe started small and had a party, but they were making overtly commercial records. But Krasnow was going out of his way to do something different.”

Joe Sample said that Blue Thumb simply had the right vibe. “Most of the time, when you went in and spoke to music people at pop record companies, it was like speaking to someone who spoke back in a foreign language. We (the Crusaders) had nothing in common with the majority of record companies.”

Krasnow’s vision was of the label as the umbrella under which all the members of the big musical family could stand together. Bluesmen Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Nathan Beauregard and Furry Lewis all made history on Blue Thumb, on the roster right next to Mason, Hicks and the Pointer Sisters, with their Memphis Swamp Jam.

“That record only made sense if you were going to then make other records that followed in a broad way,” Krasnow explained. “It was kind of the foundation that other records could build on. It led to the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, which was a blues band, because Aynsley was John Mayall’s drummer and they had Jon Mark and John Almond in the band, and we did a record with them too, which had a whole different point of view.

“See, the whole thing only made sense to me when you did it right, and built on it that way. To make a Memphis Blues Jam record in a vacuum, then you might as well be Arhoolie Records. And just to make a Mark-Almond record didn’t mean anything either because then you might as well be Columbia Records. I wanted to do it the way I saw it. I mean how did I grow up, you know? What did it mean to me?”

In the end, perhaps inevitably, it was Blue Thumb’s non-conformity that did them in. After the label’s second distribution deal (with Capitol/EMI) went sour, Krasnow sold Blue Thumb to the Gulf and Western corporation, which owned Paramount Records and several even smaller labels, in 1972. The new owners promised to keep Blue Thumb’s rebel spirit alive, its irreverence intact. Hits would be nice, but Blue Thumb was making artistic statements.

Soon enough, however, it became apparent to all concerned that the day of the anarchic independent was drawing to a close. “The bottom line was that Gulf and Western wasn’t interested in being in the record business anymore,” LiPuma said frankly. “They had become very disillusioned. They had gotten into business with a lot of these small labels, none of which apparently did that well, including Paramount Records.

“I think they decided it was time to bail and ABC came along and offered them a price and they took it. We were certainly low on the totem pole in the deal, so we were just thrown over to ABC. And it wasn’t what you’d call a conducive place for making music and creating anything. It was one of these places where it was the hits and the hits. So we just settled, got paid off and left.”

And that was that. To Dan Hicks’s recollection, “The demise of Blue Thumb happened pretty quick. I remember going into the office and everything was stamped ‘Property of ABC.’ Everything, the typewriters, everything. I don’t know what was going on.”

Both Krasnow and LiPuma landed on their feet at Warner Brothers Records; Krasnow as a roving A&R man (later a vice-president), LiPuma as a staff producer (he was at the helm for all of George Benson’s big hits in the ’70’s and ’80’s, including Breezin’ and “On Broadway”).

In 1978, MCA bought ABC Records and so inherited all the Blue Thumb product. Very few of the original albums are in print today.

Bob Krasnow became president of Elektra Records in 1983 and enjoyed a long, successful stay at the top; currently, he’s running a new label, Krasnow Enterprises, which is distributed by MCA.

The retrospective All Day Thumbsucker Revisited was issued (on two CDs and as three-disc colored vinyl package) in 1996 by GRP Records, which is also distributed by MCA (hence, the masters were handy).

GRP’s president is none other than Tommy LiPuma. “I was looking for another logo, to put things out that didn’t fit the GRP genre,” he said. GRP/Blue Thumb has issued new CDs by Dr. John, Robben Ford, Jonathan Taylor and others. “I’ve got eclectic tastes; my tastes run a broader scope than one particular area,” LiPuma said, still chanting the Blue Thumb mantra after all the years.

“And the thing is, the logo was just sitting there.”