20-75 And Other Label Fables

Apr 17, 2012

If you’re one of those who has to find organization in the midst of chaos, you could divide the history of Hi Records into roughly three parts, defined by three artists. The first would be marked by the instrumental hits, primarily recorded by either the Bill Black Combo or Ace Cannon. The third, and most commercially successful period, was the run of hits by Al Green in the early 70’s. But in between, the man who bridged those dissimilar chapters would step out from behind the board to the other side of the glass, and be the star on his share of hits from the 60’s.

As an artist, Willie Mitchell made his mark with distinctive instrumental arrangements in the mid-60’s. His first national chart hit was called “20-75” in late summer, 1964. The unusual name came from the Hi Record catalog number of the song, release number 20-75. One of those odd pieces of information on an actual record’s paper label, these numbers mean a great deal to the record companies in keeping the releases organized, and come in handy for researching the history of an artist or label.

Without going to the expense of actually conducting a research poll, I will jump to the conclusion that most people who ever bought a record never paid much attention to the information on the label beyond the title and artist. These overlooked bits of data unlock vast vaults of useless information.

We will begin our tour of the typical label by looking under the title in parenthesis, where ostensibly one would find the names of the song's composers. As we have observed, there are times the people listed may have not had any tangible input into the song whatsoever, but through wrangling of some sort managed to divert the money the song produces into their coffers. To further cloud the issue, agreements come into play in which a songwriting team may be presenting a lone wolf’s composition in the sheep’s clothing of a collaboration. For example, when we see Lennon-McCartney in the writing credit on a Beatle song, unless it was a song they knocked out when they were teenagers, most often it was Lennon or McCartney who wrote the piece, but not usually both.

At the height of their popularity, Paul McCartney gave a Lennon-McCartney branded song titled “A World Without Love” to a duo named Peter And Gordon. The song went straight to number one. As a bit of a trial balloon, Paul offered the song called "Woman" to the singers, employing the name Bernard Webb as the writer, just to see if the song would do as well without his notoriety. This rose-by-another-name made it to number 14.

Some early Rolling Stones compositions, such as "Play With Fire," were credited to Nanker Phelge, which was an inside joke among band members and a collective pseudonym for the group itself. The records on file show the actual group members listed as co-composers, and the earliest of these even include a sixth Rolling Stone, keybordist Ian Stewart.

The publisher is often given a mention on the label. The duty of the publisher is to collect and distribute the money due for the sale and use of music, and, in industry parlance, to exploit the copyright. The next time you observe your favorite song being desecrated to sell cheese or insurance or personal care products, you know somewhere a bunch of publishers are getting together and patting one another on the back.

In a similar vein, the publishing rights organization sometimes gets a mention, traditionally BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Media and many public performance venues pay for a license to use the music they represent. So if a record gets played on the radio or tv, and manages to get detected by the various means employed by these organizations, then pennies will flow to the account of the writers and publishers who own the copyright. Performers themselves, at this time, do not have such an arrangement.

Lastly, let’s consider the running time of the cut, listed in minutes and seconds. Straightforward enough, it would seem, but not above being monkeyed with. In the mid 60’s, if a record exceeded three minutes in length, it was almost impossible to get a it added to tight-listed AM top 40 stations. Simon and Garfunkel tried to slip one in by listing their 3:14 record “Fakin’ It” as 2:74 on the label. Not one of their biggest hits, but it did get airplay by fooling some of the people some of the… time.