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Imperial Records

Lewis R. Chudd generally avoids publicity. Even in his heyday all you'd see was an occasional fuzzy picture of a lean, austere-looking, gap-toothed man handing a gold disc to Fats Domino or Ricky Nelson. The former NBC executive had produced a radio programme, 'Let's Dance', during the 30s and it served to popularize Benny Goodman's swing band. After a stint in the Office Of War Information, Chudd remained in LA and entered the record business. He set up Crown Records, a jazz label, and sold it to another budding mogul, Irvin Feld. In January 1946 he launched Imperial (or Discos Imperiales) initially basing his catalogue around Mexican groups, a square dance roster and all types of foreign folk music. By the end of the year he had turned a start-up investment of $10,000 into a reputed $90,000.

Chudd has been described as gruff, hardbitten, ill-mannered, demanding and abrasive. According to sound engineer Bunny Robyn: "He didn't know an A-flat from a G but he smelled money." By the mid 50s he'd made a fortune selling Fats Domino in the race field and Slim Whitman to hillbilly fans. Both performers crossed over into the crucial pop domain where, by the early 60s, Chudd was busy selling an estimated $35 million's worth of Ricky Nelson records and turning Imperial into one of the most profitable independent companies.

A talent-spotter with few equals, Chudd was nonetheless concerned more with marketing and promotion than with supervision or production. Staff arranger Jimmie Haskell supervised many of Imperial's local rock 'n' roll sessions including those for Ricky Nelson. "Chudd", said Haskell, "was nasty, ruthless and rude but he knew how to make hit records." Haskell didn't have a comprehensive input here since most of Imperial's finest rockabilly moments were recorded far away from the company's Los Angeles' HQ, in Cleveland, Ohio (Laura Lee Perkins), Fort Worth, Texas (The Strikes), Clovis, New Mexico (Weldon Rogers) and, quite possibly, New Orleans (Roy Brown). Chudd's Dallas distributors also told him what was happening on Shreveport's 'Louisiana Hayride', an important rung on the ladder for aspiring rockabilly singers like Bob Luman and Al Jones. None of these artists contributed much to the company's profits and Lew Chudd's famous sense of smell wasn't operating too keenly when he picked up on, say, Bill Allen or Dennis Herrold. Nonetheless, this is all prime-cut, spring-heeled rockabilly and as exciting a collection as you'll find on any label.

Lew Chudd rode the wave for 18 years, longer than most of his equally tough contemporaries in the independent record business. Liberty absorbed Imperial in 1963 and Chudd apparently used his capital gains to buy several radio stations. Corporate takeovers also permit the inclusion here of records on United Artists which merged with Liberty in 1969. Ten years later, the whole lot was swallowed up by EMI.


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