Mercury Records was an American record label that had significant success as an independent operation in the 1940s and 1950s and that later became owned by Philips, PolyGram, and Universal Music Group. In the United States, it operated through Island Records; in the United Kingdom, it was distributed by EMI Records.
|Parent company||Universal Music Group|
|Country of origin||United States|
Since the separation of Island Records, Motown, Mercury Records, and Def Jam Recordings combining the Island Def Jam Music Group, Mercury Records has been placed under Island Records, although its back catalogue is still owned by the Island Def Jam Music Group.
The success of Mercury Records has been attributed to the use of alternative marketing techniques to promote records. The conventional method of record promotion used by major labels like RCA Victor, Decca Records and Capitol Records was dependent on radio airplay but Mercury Records founder Irving Green decided to promote new records using jukeboxes instead. By lowering promotion costs, Mercury Records was able to compete with the more established record labels.
Mercury Record Corporation was formed in Chicago in 1945 by Irving Green, Berle Adams, Ray Greenberg and Arthur Talmadge. They were a major force in jazz and blues, classical music, rock and roll, and country music recordings. Early in the label's history, Mercury opened two pressing plants, one in Chicago and the other in St. Louis, Missouri. With the use of automatic presses and providing 24-hour turnaround, they aimed for direct competition with the major recording labels, Columbia, Decca, Capitol and RCA Victor.
By hiring two promoters, Tiny Hill and Jimmy Hilliard, they penetrated the pop market with names such as Frankie Laine, Vic Damone, Tony Fontane and Patti Page.
In 1946, Mercury hired Eddie Gaedel, an American with dwarfism, most notable for participating in a Major League Baseball game, to portray the "Mercury Man", complete with a winged hat similar to its logo, to promote Mercury recordings. Some early Mercury recordings featured a caricature of him as its logo.
In 1947, Jack Rael, a musician and publicist/manager, persuaded Mercury to let Patti Page (whom he managed) record a song that had been planned to be done by Vic Damone, "Confess". The budget was too small for them to hire a second singer to provide the "answer" parts to Page, so at Rael's suggestion she did both voices. Though "overdubbing" had been used occasionally on 78rpm discs in the 1930s, for Enrico Caruso and Elisabeth Schumann recordings among others, this became the first documented example of "overdubbing" using tape, and Patti Page, along with rival Capitol Records artists Les Paul & Mary Ford, became one of the artists best known for the use of this technique.
The company released an enormous number of recordings under the Mercury label as well as its subsidiaries (Blue Rock Records, Cumberland Records, EmArcy Records, Smash Records and Wing Records, later via Fontana Records and Limelight Records after being absorbed by Philips). In addition, they leased and purchased material by independent labels and redistributed them.
Mercury's jazz division
John Hammond brought his expertise and connections when Mercury bought Keynote Records in the late 1940s. Mercury, under its EmArcy label, released LPs by many post-swing and bebop artists including Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Clark Terry, Dinah Washington, Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Ernestine Anderson, Sarah Vaughan, Maynard Ferguson, Jimmy Cleveland, Herb Geller and others. By the early 1960s, Mercury was releasing jazz under the flagship label. Highlights of the early and mid-1960s included albums by Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Cannonball Adderley, Charles (then called Charlie) Mingus, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach and others.
In the early 1950s, Norman Granz founded his own record company, Norgran Records, which later became Verve, and was purchased by MGM Records in 1961, later acquired by Polygram. Both Mercury and Verve are now owned by Universal Music Group and Mercury's jazz library falls under the Verve division. Since the early 1990s, Verve has reissued many Mercury jazz titles on CD. In addition, Mosaic Records in Stamford CT has issued several box sets spotlighting the Mercury and Verve recordings of multiple artists including Max Roach, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich.
In 1961, Philips, a Dutch electronics company and owner of Philips Records, which had lost its distribution deal with Columbia Records outside North America, played a key role in Mercury's future by signing an exchange agreement with the American Record Company. A year later, Mercury was sold to Consolidated Electronics Industries Corp. (a.k.a. Conelco) which is an affiliate of Philips under its U.S. Trust division; and in 1963, Mercury switched British distribution from EMI to Philips.
In 1969, Mercury changed its corporate name to Mercury Record Productions Inc. while its parent Conelco became North American Philips Corp (N.A.P.C.) after Philips brought control of the company.
Philips and German Electronics giant Siemens reorganized their joint-ventured record operations, Grammophon-Philips Group, home of Deutsche Grammophon, Philips Records and Polydor to become PolyGram in 1972. That year PolyGram brought Mercury from N.A.P.C. Mercury's corporate name was changed to Phonogram Inc. to match a related company in the UK that operated the Mercury label there.
From late 1974 to early 1983, the company's label design featured a painting of three famous Chicago buildings: Marina City, John Hancock Center and One IBM Plaza which was Mercury headquarters during that period, having moved from its long-time address at 35 East Wacker Drive in Chicago. From 70s to 80s, Mercury released albums of funk bands such as The Bar-Kays, Con Funk Shun, Cameo, and Kool and the Gang.
In 1980, Phonogram moved its headquarters from Chicago to New York City.In 1981, Mercury, along with other U.S. PolyGram-owned labels, which included Polydor, RSO Records, and Casablanca, consolidated under the new name PolyGram Records, Inc.
Under PolyGram, Mercury absorbed the artists and catalogue of Casablanca Records (also home to the 20th Century Records back catalogue), which consisted of hard rockers Kiss and disco stars Donna Summer and the Village People, and primarily became a rock/pop label with Kiss, Scorpions, Rush, John Cougar Mellencamp, Kurtis Blow, Tears for Fears, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Treat, Candy, and Def Leppard.
Mercury, by having Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Def Leppard, Kiss, Candy, and Scorpions on their roster, was a premiere label for glam metal. Most of these bands were on Vertigo Records in Europe (that label specialized in progressive rock and hard rock including subgenres like glam metal).
In late 1998, PolyGram was bought by Seagram, which then absorbed the company into its Universal Music Group unit. Under the reorganization, Mercury Records was folded into the newly formed The Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG). Mercury's pop roster was predominantly taken over by Island Records, while its hip hop artists found a new home at Def Jam Recordings, and some of Mercury's R&B acts were moved to the newly created Def Soul Records roster. Mercury's former country unit became Mercury Nashville Records. IDJMG revived the Mercury imprint in the US in 2007.
Today the Mercury name survives on the Mercury Music Group division of UMG France, the Mercury Studios film division (which absorbed Eagle Rock Entertainment, acquired by UMG in 2014), the classical music label Mercury KX, and catalogue reissues in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan and Brazil as well.
Mercury Living Presence series
In 1951, under the direction of recording engineer C. Robert (Bob) Fine and recording director David Hall, Mercury Records initiated a recording technique using a single microphone to record symphony orchestras. Fine had for several years used a single microphone for Mercury small-ensemble classical recordings produced by John Hammond and later Mitch Miller (indeed, Miller, using his full name of Mitchell Miller, made several recordings as a featured oboe player in the late 1940s for Mercury). The first record in this new Mercury Olympian Series was Pictures at an Exhibition performed by Rafael Kubelík and the Chicago Symphony. The group that became the best known using this technique was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which, under the leadership of conductor Antal Doráti, made a series of classical albums that were well reviewed and sold briskly, including the first-ever complete recordings of Tchaikovsky's ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Dorati's 1954 one-mic monaural recording (Mercury MG 50054) and 1958 three-mic stereo rerecording (Mercury MG 50054) of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" included dramatic overdub recordings of 1812-era artillery and the bells of the Yale University Carillon. A stereo release in 1960 featured new recordings of the cannon shots, and the bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at The Riverside Church in Chicago. Besides Mercury's mono and stereo versions of the 1812, only one other classical album rang up Gold Record sales in the 1950s in the U.S. The recording of the 1812 Overture is considered by many to be one of the best performances of that work and was still in reissue in 2011, nearly 60 years after its first release.
The New York Times music critic Howard Taubman described the Mercury sound on Pictures at an Exhibition as "being in the living presence of the orchestra" and Mercury eventually began releasing their classical recordings under the 'Living Presence' series' name. The recordings were produced by Mercury vice president Wilma Cozart, who later married Bob Fine. Cozart took over recording director duties in 1953 and also produced the CD reissues of more than half of the Mercury Living Presence catalog in the 1990s. By the late 1950s, the Mercury Living Presence crew included session musical supervisors Harold Lawrence and Clair van Ausdall and associate engineer Robert Eberenz. When Cozart retired in 1964, Lawrence took over the Mercury classical division and continued producing Mercury Living Presence records into 1967.
Besides the recordings with the Chicago and Minneapolis orchestras, Mercury also recorded Howard Hanson with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, Frederick Fennell with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Dorati made some recordings in the United Kingdom with the London Symphony Orchestra for Mercury during the 1960s.
In late 1955, Mercury began using 3 omnidirectional microphones to make stereo recordings on 3-track tape. The technique was an expansion on the mono process—center was still paramount. Once the center, single microphone was set, the sides were set to provide the depth and width heard in the stereo recordings. The center mike still fed the mono LP releases, which accompanied stereo LPs well into the 1960s. From 1961, Mercury enhanced the three-microphone stereo technique by using 35 mm magnetic film instead of half-inch tape for recording. The greater emulsion thickness, track width and speed (90 feet per min or 18 ips) of 35 mm magnetic film increased prevention of tape layer print-through and gained in addition extended frequency range and transient response. The Mercury 'Living Presence' stereo records were mastered directly from the 3-track tapes or mag film, with a 3-2 mix occurring in the mastering room. The same technique—and restored vintage equipment of the same type—was used during the CD reissues. Specifically, 3-track tapes were recorded on Ampex 300-3 (½" 3-track) machines at 15 IPS. 35 mm magnetic film recordings were made on 3-track Westrex film recorders. The 3-2 mixdown was done on a modified Westrex mixer. For the original LPs, the mixer directly fed the custom cutting chain. At Fine Recording in NY, the Westrex cutter head on a Scully lathe was fed by modified McIntosh 200W tube amplifiers with very little feedback in the system. Older mono records were made with a Miller cutter head. For the CD reissues, the output of the Westrex mixer directly fed a DCS analog-to-digital converter and the CDs were mastered on Sony 1630 tapes. No digital enhancement or noise reduction was used.
The original LP releases of the classical recordings continued through 1968. The Mercury classical music catalogue (including the Living Presence catalogue) is currently managed by Decca Label Group through Philips Records, which reissued the recordings on LP and then CD. In turn, Mercury now manages the pop/rock catalog of Philips Records.
In 2003, Speakers Corner Records began issuing 180-gram audiophile-quality LP reissues. The LPs are mastered from 2-track tapes made at the time of the original LP mastering, thus one generation removed from the edited session master used to produce the original LP master and the CD master.
In 2012, Decca Classics, the current owner of the Mercury Living Presence label, issued a value-priced 51-CD box that included 50 of the 1990s CD titles (remastered by Wilma Cozart Fine) as well as a bonus CD containing an interview with Wilma Cozart Fine, and a deluxe booklet detailing the history of Mercury Living Presence. The CD was issued worldwide and was sold by major retailers. A limited-edition 6-LP box set was also issued. The CD set brings back into print dozens of titles that had not been available as manufactured CD's since the early 2000s. The CD box set sold out within 8 months and the LP box set sold out within 6 months.
In 2013, Decca Classics issued a second, 55-CD box set, along with a second 6-LP box set. The CD box set included two bonus discs: a new reissue of the 1953 monophonic recording of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" by Dorati with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and a first-time-on-CD reissue of the premiere recording of John Corigliano's Piano Concerto, played by Hilde Somer with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Victor Alessandro. Also included on the Corigliano CD was an interview with the composer and the pianist. As in the first CD box set, the 53 titles from the 1990s series were remastered by Wilma Cozart Fine.
Major Mercury Records labels and operations worldwide
Mercury Records was relaunched in 2007 as a label under The Island Def Jam Music Group, appointing record executive David Massey as the President and CEO of the new venture.
This division of Mercury handled US distribution of most pre-1998 Polydor Records pop/rock releases currently under UMG control. There are some exceptions, however. Some artists based outside the US did not have their releases on Polydor in North America, signing to various other labels instead. Some of these bands, such as The Who, did sign to a label that also is now part of the UMG family (or later absorbed by such a label), hence those labels control US rights to these works (in the case of the Who, they had been on US Decca Records and MCA Records in the past, their pre-breakup catalogue is now on Geffen Records in North America).
Mercury KX (formerly Mercury Classics)
Mercury Classics was relaunched in 2012 as an international classical label by UMGI, appointing musicologist and record executive Dr. Alexander Buhr as Managing Director. The label aims to identify and work with strong creative individuals that bring a distinctive and fresh perspective to classical music.
In its first year, artist signings to the label included Icelandic neo-classical composer Olafur Arnalds, New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Chinese pianist Yundi and Austrian clarinetist and Berlin Philharmonic soloist Andreas Ottensamer. The label also oversees the recording career of Montenegrin classical guitarist Milos Karadaglic and has an ongoing partnership with Tori Amos, which dates back to her work with Buhr on her classically inspired Night of Hunters album for Deutsche Grammophon in 2011. Following Buhr's longstanding relationship with the Deutsche Grammophon label, some of Mercury Classics' early core classical recordings have been released as co-brands of Mercury Classics and Deutsche Grammophon.
In 2013, Mercury Classics released Olafur Arnalds' label debut For Now I Am Winter, which entered the US Classical Chart at No. 1. It was followed by an EP of Arnalds' soundtrack to the much acclaimed ITV crime series Broadchurch which received a BAFTA Award for best original soundtrack the following year. Yundi's recording of three Beethoven sonatas went platinum in his native China. The label also released Andreas Ottensamer's debut "Portraits", and the much acclaimed label debut of Brooklyn Rider "A Walking Fire". Milos Karadaglic's "Latino Gold" topped the UK classical charts and entered the pop charts. Legendary banjo soloist and 15 time Grammy Award winner Bela Fleck's concerto for banjo and orchestra "The Impostor" was released in the fall.
In 2014, Mercury Classics released "Aranjuez", Milos Karadaglic's recording of iconic guitar concertos by Joaquin Rodrigo, featuring Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The album topped the iTunes Classical Charts in more than 10 countries and the classical charts in the US, UK, France, New Zealand and Denmark, where it peaked in the pop charts at No. 17. With the release of Yundi's new album "Emperor/Fantasy", including Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto with Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Harding, Mercury Classics held the top two spots on the UK classical chart. In May 2014 the label released Tori Amos' 14th studio album Unrepentant Geraldines. The album entered the US Billboard top 200 at No. 7, charted in UK (No. 13), Netherlands (No. 10) and Germany (No. 15) and hit the iTunes Top 10 in more than 20 countries.
Influential classical music website Alto Riot named Mercury Classics its 'Label of the Year 2013'.
Mercury Classics was later rebranded as Mercury KX.
Mercury's Nashville unit dates back to 1957, when Mercury formed a joint venture with Starday Records specifically for releasing artists performing country music. Mercury bought out Starday's half in 1958.
In 1997, PolyGram, looking to cut costs in anticipation of a merger with a competitor, consolidated all of its Nashville operations under the Mercury name. Mercury Nashville took over management of all of PolyGram's country back catalog from sister labels such as Polydor (including releases once issued by MGM Records), A&M, and the small country back catalog of Motown Records (Motown released these albums under subsidiary labels). All country artists under contract to other PolyGram labels either moved to Mercury or were dropped altogether.
Today Mercury Nashville continues to be an active imprint under Universal Music Group Nashville, where it continues to manage the country back catalog that once belonged to PolyGram (MCA Nashville manages what Universal had already owned at the time of the PolyGram merger).
Mercury Records (UK)
Mercury operated as an imprint in the UK under Phonogram, a division of Dutch electronics company Philips from the mid-1960s until 1998, when Phonogram was bought by Universal Music. In March 2013 its artist roster was moved to Virgin EMI in a restructuring of Universal's UK labels.
In 2005, Jason Iley was appointed the new Managing Director of Mercury. He joined the company from Island Records where he was General Manager. In July 2005 Iley appointed Paul Adam to senior A&R director of the label – the two had previously worked together at Island Records.
In 2012, signings on Mercury included Pixie Lott, Arcade Fire, Amy Macdonald, Noah and the Whale, Chase & Status, Jake Bugg and Bo Bruce.
Mercury Records (Australia)
Launched in 2007 by Universal Music Australia exclusively as a full-service local (Australian) A&R operation. Mercury Records had been used for some Australian artists in the 1980s and 1990s, but was put into hibernation in 1999 in favour of the Universal label until 2007.
Mercury Records (France)
In France, Mercury Records operates as a part of the Mercury Music Group, a division of Universal Music Group. Mercury Music Group controls the French operations of UMG labels Mercury, Fontana Records, Verve Records, Decca Records, Blue Note Records, Island Records, and Virgin Records, among others.
Various other national Universal Music Group companies are known to actively use the Mercury Records trademark as an imprint for their local artist and repertoire operations, but no other Universal Music Group companies use the label as a key marketing differentiator, nor do they operate frontline divisions based on the Mercury label.
Mercury Records Tokyo (formerly Mercury Music Entertainment) (Japan)
Launched in 1993 as a division of Nippon PolyGram (now Universal Music Japan), it was later relaunched in 2000 as a joint venture with Kitty Films under the name Kitty MME. It was merged into the Universal J label in 2002. Its artist roster included Seiko Matsuda, Yūji Oda, Delta, ZIGGY, Kinniku Shōjo Tai and Takashi Sorimachi.
After 15 years, the label was revitalized under its new name, Mercury Records Tokyo and is now under the Universal Music & Brands (UM & Brands) division of Universal Music Japan. Korean pop group Monsta X was the first artist signed under the newly relaunched label.
- Chicago record labels
- List of Mercury Records artists
- List of record labels
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- Microgroove.jp – a site devoted to the label's history
- Mercury US & UK A&R team contact list
- Jay & The Techniques article in The Standard Report
- Interview with Wilma Cozart Fine by Bruce Duffie