Art Rupe, one of rock n’ roll’s first record executives who launched the career of stars like Little Richard, died this weekend at the age of 104, his foundation announced on Sunday. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Born Arthur Goldberg in Pittsburgh in 1917, the executive changed his name to Rupe and got his start in the music industry after working at a shipbuilding company during World War II. In 1945, he founded his record label Specialty Records, which got its start selling what were called “race records,” albums from Black gospel and R&B artists like Jimmy Liggins, Roy Milton, and the Soul Stirrers, which featured a young Sam Cooke.
But Rupe’s biggest signing came in 1955, when he listened to a demo tape from Richard Penniman — who would become known to the world as Little Richard — after the artist repeatedly called the Specialty Records office asking if he had heard the tape.
“There was something in Little Richard’s voice I liked,” Rupe said in a 2011 interview just prior to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. “I don’t know — it was so exaggerated, so over-emotional. And I said, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance and maybe we can get him to sing like B.B. King.’”
Little Richard became a breakout success after Rupe arranged a recording session and heard him perform his profane, wild song “Tutti Frutti.” Though the version that was released in record stories had sanitized lyrics, it hit the pop charts in both the United States and Great Britain and became one of the first big hits in rock n’ roll history.
Over the next two years, Little Richard and Specialty Records would release several more hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” which rocketed to the top of the Billboard R&B charts and peaked at No. 6 on the pop charts as well.
But Rupe and Little Richard’s relationship ended acrimoniously over his use of exploitative contracts common in the music industry, particularly among Black artists. In his authorized biography “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” the musician said that he signed a contract with Rupe that gave him a half-cent royalty per record sold while Rupe and Specialty retained full ownership of “Tutti Frutti” and his other songs.
After leaving Specialty, Little Richard sued the record company over claims of unpaid royalties, leading to a settlement in which the label paid Little Richard $11,000 — around $102,000 in today’s money — while the artist waived all future royalties.
Despite the contract practices, Rupe is known for helping build the foundations of rock n’ roll and modern pop music through Specialty Records, bringing Black music to mainstream pop culture and starting a musical movement that would inspire artists like The Beatles. His survivors include his daughter, Beverly Rupe Schwarz, and granddaughter Madeline Kahan.