OKeh Records was founded by Otto K. E. Heinemann, a German-American, who set up a recording studio and pressing plant in New York City and started the label in 1918. 

A landmark OKeh release

OKeh released mainly music by dance and jazz bands, until a blues singer, Mamie Smith, became the first African American woman to make a Blues recording in 1920. Mamie’s song “Crazy Blues” sold over a million copies and alerted the music industry to a new market, the American black community. So-called “race records” were issued by the label to meet this hitherto untapped source of income, produced by a New York team led by Clarence Williams and a team in Chicago led by Richard M. Jones.

The OKeh race series was produced from 1921 to 1932, including music by Clarence Williams, Lonnie Johnson, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The success of the “race records” series persuaded the company to begin “remote recording”. Starting in 1923, OKeh sent a team with mobile recording equipment to cities where new black artists could be found, including New Orleans, Atlanta, San Antonio, St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit. The OKeh studio in Atlanta also discovered “hillbilly” artists such as “Fiddlin’ John Carson, who first recorded Country music in 1923.

In 1926, OKeh was sold to Columbia Records. Ownership then moved to the American Record Corporation (ARC) in 1934, and the race records series from the 1920s ended. CBS bought the company in 1938.

In 1953, OKeh’s pop music acts were transferred to the newly-formed Epic Records, making OKeh a “rhythm and blues” label, as race music was now known. Interestingly, the first ever album released by OKeh was a Gospel album, Sons of Glory’s ” God Glorifies”, in 1962.

The first OKeh album 1962

The “Chicago Soul” phase of OKeh Records also began in 1962, when producer Carl Davis was hired. Davis quickly recruited Curtis Mayfield, to write songs for his R&B artists. Together in Chicago they formed a very strong team that immediately put OKeh Records on the popular music map. Davis produced many hits for artists such as Major Lance, Walter Jackson and Billy Butler.

Davis had been working as a salesman for Columbia Records, in 1961, when he heard a local group rehearsing a doo-wop song called “Duke of Earl”.  He helped them secure a record deal with Vee-Jay records, who put the song out under the name of the lead singer Gene Chandler. The song went to number one on the national R&B chart and Davis saw a new career ahead of him. He joined OKeh a year later and began to search out talented singers and musicians, mainly from the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side.

One of the first singers he found was Major Lance, whose first release in 1962 was produced by Davis and written by Mayfield. “Delilah” failed to make the charts, but the following year Davis worked with arranger Johnny Pate to develop a harder-edged style, with a trombone-led attack. Lance’s second release, another Curtis Mayfield song called “The Monkey Time”, took off, reaching number two on the U.S. R&B chart and number eight on the U.S. pop chart.

The same team came up with another hit six months later, when “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” was released in December 1963. The song reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 on 8th February 1964 and number one on the Cash Box R&B chart. In the UK it reached number forty. 

Altogether, Major Lance released eighteen singles on the OKeh label between 1962 and 1968, when he moved to Dakar Records. Eleven charted on the Top 100 Pop chart and fourteen entered the R&B chart. His songs were extremely popular in the dance clubs in the north of England.

Carl Davis first heard Walter Jackson in a Detroit nightclub and persuaded him to come to Chicago and sign for Columbia  Records in 1962. Two years later, after switching to OKeh Records, Jackson had his first success with “It’s All Over”, written by Curtis Mayfield and produced by Mayfield and Davis, which reached number sixty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. This was followed by a succession of minor hits, the best of which was “It’s An Uphill Climb to the Bottom” in 1966. Altogether Jackson released fourteen singles and three albums on the OKeh label, before he switched to Epic Records in 1967.

Billy Butler joined OKeh Records in 1963, with his group The Enchanters (later The Chanters). His first recordings were produced by Curtis Mayfield, with Carl Davis taking over later. He released seven singles, including “I Can’t Work No Longer” in 1965, which reached number six on  the U.S. Billboard R&B Singles chart and number sixty on the Billboard Hot 100. “The Right Track” was his last OKeh release, another minor hit. Like Major Lance, Jackson’s songs were highly rated by lovers of “Northern Soul” in the UK.

Three groups joined OKeh Records during this period: the Opals, the Artistics and the Vibrations. The Opals issued only four singles on the label, written by Clifford Davis (two songs), Billy Butler and Curtis Mayfield, but they made no impact. However, the trio can be heard on several of Major Lance’s hits, providing backing vocals. The Artistics also backed Major Lance (“The Monkey Time”) and had some minor successes of their own with “Get My Hands On Some Lovin'” (a Marvin Gaye song) and “This Heart of Mine”, written by Barrett Strong, which reached number twenty-five on the Billboard R&B chart in 1965. The Vibrations (originally known as the Jayhawks) released eleven singles and three albums on the OKeh label between 1965 and 1968, with input from Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield. They had several minor hits, including “Misty” and “And I Love Her”. Their last OKeh single, “Love In Them There Hills”/ “Remember The Rain”, was produced by Gamble and Huff!

Carl Davis left OKeh in 1966 to join Brunswick/Dakar, a rival Chicago record company, following Columbia’s decision to put the Epic Records management team in charge of OKeh. Two years later, Curtis Mayfield started Curtom Records. Without the  creative leadership of Davis and Mayfield, OKeh slowly lost impetus until Columbia closed the label down in 1970. There was, though, one last flurry of excitement, when Larry Williams and Little Richard joined OKeh. Larry Williams recorded with and produced a funky soul band that included Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Too Late”, the B-side of the 1967 single “Two For The Price Of One”, became very popular in the UK amongst fans of Northern Soul. He was also asked to work as producer for Little Richard, who had been persuaded to return to secular music, after his time as a preacher. He produced two Little Richard albums for OKeh. The first “The Explosive Little Richard” was recorded in 1966 and released in January 1967, featuring an interesting mix of Motown and New Orleans inspiration. Tracks include “Land of a Thousand Dances”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, several songs written by Williams and one Sam Cooke number. The track “Poor Dog” was released as a single and gave Richard his first chart appearance for ten years.

The second album, entitled “Little Richard’s Greatest Hits – Recorded Live!”, was recorded live at the CBS Studios in Hollywood. The track listing features all the classic hits. Band members included Little Richard (vocals, piano), Billy Preston (organ), Eddie Fletcher (bass), Glenn Willings (guitar) and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (guitar).

The global rights to the OKeh back catalogue are now owned by Sony Music, who relaunched the OKeh imprint in 1993/4 as a new-age blues label, which it ran until 2000. Then in 2013 Sony launched the label again, this time as a jazz imprint under Sony Masterworks.

The OKeh Chicago Soul catalogue contains many songs that were minor hits or passed under the radar. They live on through the passion of collectors around the world. Many of the songs were written, arranged and produced by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Pate and Carl Davis. They have real quality, that should not be lost. Here is one collectors’ album: