History Of Elektra Records
& Founder Jac Holzman

The Elektra Story
By David Edwards, Mike Callahan and Patrice Eyries
Last update: September 29, 2000

Early Elektra logo

    Elektra Records was started by Jac Holzman in December, 1950, in New York City. Elektra initially recorded folk music, ethnic music, jazz and gospel, although it later expanded into blues, pop, and rock music.

    Jack Holzman was born in September 1931 on the Upper East Side of New York to upper middle class parents. His father was a successful doctor. Jac Holzman rebelled against his parents' life style and ran away from home many times. When he was 12 years old, he got as far as Trenton, New Jersey, and holed up in a hotel room but was found and taken home. His parents did have state-of-the-art phonograph equipment, and Jac wrapped himself up in music and radio. His grandmother was Estelle Stenberger who was the head of the National Council of Jewish Women and did political commentary on radio station WQXR. Jac would frequently go with his grandmother to the station for her radio broadcasts, where he became interested in radio. He began to experiment with electronics by building crystal radio sets. This activity stopped when his parents shipped him off to the Peekskill Military Academy for two years. In 1946, he successfully pestered his father for a Meissner semi-professional disc recorder for his fifteenth birthday, which he used to record bar mitzvahs and weddings.

    Jac graduated from high school at sixteen and entered St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He pretty much ignored his school work, missing most of his classes. St. John's had an electronics lab where Jac would hang out working with electronic equipment. In the early fall of 1950, Jac attended a recital at St. John's by soprano Georgianna Banister. The recital featured musical settings of poems by Rilke, Holderlin and e.e. cummings, accompanied by the music's composer, John Gruen. Jac felt the music was worth recording so Jac decided to start a record company and do it himself. Holzman asked Banister and Gruen to record for this non-existent record company. On October 10, 1950, Jac decided to use the name Elektra for his company and in December 1950 recorded New Songs By John Gruen in one three hour session at Peter Bartok's recording studio in New York City. Jac took the tapes to RCA for mastering and pressing. He received the test pressings in February, 1951, but was disappointed to find the music was barely audible above the surface noise. He complained to RCA and they agreed to do another transfer, so Jac went from St. John's to New York to supervise. This effort was successful and in March, 1951, Jac received 500 copies of Elektra EKLP-1. Jac found a national distributor who agreed to take 100 records, but demanded 50 additional free copies for "promotional purposes". By the fall of 1951, the distributor returned all 100 records, the only records sold came out of the 50 freebies. So far, Elektra was a money-losing venture.

    After his junior year, the acting Dean of St. John's "suggested" that Jac take time off before starting his senior year to get his bearings. His parents were upset, but Jac moved back to New York and settled in Greenwich Village. He took a five dollar a week walk-up at 40 Grove Street. In order to make ends meet, Jack started a record store at 189 West 10th Street which he named "The Record Loft". He had about 1000 records for sale, of which 400 were folk music titles. Many of the folkies living in Greenwich Village would stop into the store just to browse and talk music. One day, George Pickow came into the store and mentioned that his wife was a folk singer (he was married to Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie). Jac was impressed with Ritchie, and decided to record her. Because Jac Holzman was still under 21, his father had to co-sign the contract. The second Elektra LP [EKLP-2] was a 10 inch album with the unwieldy title Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family. The record received great review,s and Jac predicted in a letter to Ritchie that it would eventually sell 2000 copies.

    Elektra Records was off and running, and after the success of the Ritchie album, Jac purchased his own recording equipment. He bought a Magnecord PT-6 tape machine with an Electro-Voice Hammerhead microphone. Elektra continued to release folk albums with records by Frank Warner, Shep Ginandes, Cynthia Gooding, Hally Wood and Tom Paley in 1952 and 1953. In 1954, Elektra issued it's first blues albums, two by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. In 1954, with eight records released, Jac closed the Record Loft and moved Elektra to larger offices at 361 Bleecker Street.

    Jac met Theodore Bikel in 1955, Bikel was an actor that had come from England to the United States to be in a Broadway play. Bikel was born in Vienna, but moved to Palestine before World War II. Bikel had no interest in singing on records, but Jac talked him into making a record of folk songs. Jac asked him to record the songs he knew best and he recorded a 10 inch album [EKL-32] titled Folk Songs of Israel, which did very well. Theodore Bikel became the mainstay of Elektra from 1956 to 1961, eventually because of his importance to the founding of Elektra, Holzman sold Bikel a 5% share of Elektra for $20,000 which returned a half million to Bikel when Elektra was sold.

    Jac met a neighbor in his apartment building, Nina Merrick, in 1955. Jac knocked on her door and asked to borrow some napkins. Later, he asked her out, and on their third date asked her to marry him. Nina Holzman became the first paid employee of the Elektra Record Company.

    Elektra continued to expand, and they next signed Josh White, a major folk singing star. Josh started recording in 1931, and in the early '50s was recording for the major label Decca, when abruptly Decca refused to record him because he had been placed on the Joe McCarthy blacklist (Joe McCarthy was a United States Senator who built his career with Communist witch hunts in the early '50s. His underhanded tactics later got him censured by the Senate.). Anyone who was put on the blacklist - because of suspected or rumored Communist leanings - found themselves unable to work because the large record companies, radio and TV networks would not hire anyone on the blacklist. Many of the early folk singing stars found themselves in the same situation, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Josh White was put on the blacklist because he refused to testify against his friend Paul Robeson. When Decca would not record him, Holzman defied the blacklisting and signed White to Elektra and issued several successful albums.

    In 1956, Elektra pioneered the use of a music sampler as a way to boost record sales. Record companies had issued record compilations to radio stations prior to this, and even Elektra issued a 10 inch sampler [SMP-1] to radio stations in 1954. But SMP-2 was issued for sale to the public, with a modest $1.25 price tag. It was made up of songs by various artists in the Elektra catalog. The idea was to use a low price to lure customers to purchase the sampler in order to interest the buyers in purchasing other records in the Elektra catalog. Holzman introduced a provision into all of the Elektra artists' contracts that allowed the use of a limited number of songs on sampler records without paying royalties for the use of the song. The artists agreed to this because it stimulated sales of their albums.

    Elektra continued to expand into the early '60s with a catalog dominated by folk music. Holzman signed one of his most important artists in 1961, when Judy Collins signed an Elektra contract. Her first album [EKL-209], titled A Maid of Constant Sorrow, was recorded at Fine Sound Studio on 57th Street and sold about five thousand copies. Many critics dismissively called her a Joan Baez clone, but Holzman immediately began work on her next album, Golden Apples of the Sun [EKL-222]. Jac Holzman had become so involved in the day-to-day management of Elektra that he turned over production of the Collins album to Mark Abramson. With this album and the many more Judy Collins recorded for Elektra, she forged a distinctive style of her own and had great success for them.

    After 1961, it was rare for Jac to produce an artist himself, as he turned over most of the production work to Abramson, and later Paul Rothchild. Jac concentrated on Elektra management and the signing of new artists. In 1962, Jac thought that New York had become stale musically, so he opened a west coast office on Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Holzman moved his family to California. When Jac heard the astonishing first album by Bob Dylan - and realized Elektra had missed out on Dylan while he was in California - he closed down the west coast office and moved back to New York. Shortly after returning to New York, Holzman hired Paul Rothchild as a producer and gave him the Even Dozen Jug Band to produce. The Even Dozen Jug Band, with 12 members, did not have much success for Elektra but many of the members went on to future fame, including John Sebastian (Lovin' Spoonful), Steve Katz (Blood, Sweat and Tears) and Maria Muldaur (top-10 hit "Midnight at the Oasis").

    Elektra moved more seriously into blues music in 1963, leasing a record by three white bluesmen. The record, titled Blues, Rags and Hollers by Koerner, Ray and Glover, was very influential. Koerner, Ray and Glover came to New York and recorded directly for Elektra. Elektra moved into electric blues when Paul Rothchild signed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965. Rothchild ended up recording their first album three times before he felt he got it right. The album cost $50,000, which was a staggering sum for the time, but the album was brilliant and sold more copies than any other Elektra album up to that time. As Paul Rothchild has since said, "It made the electric blues a viable form for popular music". When Bob Dylan wanted to perform at Newport with an electric band to back him up, he got the Butterfield Blues Band.

    In 1963 Jac came up with an idea to start a classical music label as part of Elektra, remembering back to his college days when he wanted to buy two classical albums but could only afford one. He wanted to make it possible for people to buy inexpensive classical records, just like you were able to buy paperback copies of great literature. To keep costs low, he knew that he would not be able to record the music himself, so he flew to Europe and saw the large classical record companies in England and France. He secured the cream of the crop of their classical music titles from their vaults for $500 per album plus a royalty. The record companies contacted were happy to lease Jac albums that they had no chance of ever marketing in the United States themselves. Jac named the label Nonesuch, and Bill Harvey, the artistic director of Elektra, came up with distinctive packaging. The slogan for the Nonesuch line was "Quality Recordings at the Price of a Quality Paperback". Nonesuch records sold for $2.50, half the price of a classical album by the majors. The Nonesuch label was very successful and became a money making machine for Elektra.

    Eventually, Elektra did record two of the most successful albums on Nonesuch by using one of their own employees. Joshua Rifkin was a classically trained musician and a former member of the Even Dozen Jug Band who was working as an arranger for Elektra. In 1965, Jac had asked Rifkin to do an album of classical interpretations of Lennon-McCartney songs, and the result was The Baroque Beatles Book {Elektra EKS-7306]. The record took off, making #83 on the Billboard Album charts, and was even played on AM radio. Later, Rifkin proposed to Jac that they do an album of Scott Joplin piano rags for Nonesuch. Jac agreed, and the result was Piano Rags By Scott Joplin [Nonesuch 73026] which led to a revival of ragtime in the United States, and later the use of Scott Joplin's music in the movie The Sting.

    In 1965, Elektra had the inside track to sign the Lovin' Spoonful because of Elektra's relationship with John Sebastian (in the Even Dozen Jug band and by using him as a session player). Paul Rothchild lobbied Jac to pay the $10,000 being asked by the group, but Holzman thought the price was too high. Moreover, Holtzman felt that to justify the price tag, it would force Elektra to sell top forty singles. Elektra had never had a successful single, but Holzman finally agreed, and the $10,000 was paid to the group. Then the Lovin' Spoonful were told that a contract they had signed for publishing rights to their songs included a provision to record for the publishing company's record arm, Kama Sutra. Elektra felt they had legal claim to the Lovin' Spoonful, but Jac decided not to start a messy court battle because of his friendship with John Sebastian.

    After losing the Lovin' Spoonful, who became fabulously successful, Jac Holzman was on the lookout for a breakthrough pop band for Elektra. The New York groups had been picked over by the record companies with lots of pop experience, so in 1965 Jac Holzman headed for Los Angeles again. On the Sunset strip Jac discovered the band Love, headed by Arthur Lee. In his autobiography, Holzman said of Love, "Five guys of all colors, black, white and psychedelic-that was a real first. My heart skipped a beat. I had found my band!" Elektra started a new numbering system with the first Love album [EKS-74001] and for the first time in Elektra history they put a single onto the charts with "My Little Red Book." In 1967, Love followed their first album with "Forever Changes" [EKL-74013] which is incredible, an album that ranks near the top as one of the best albums ever made.
Doors logo
    In May, 1966, Jac flew to Los Angeles to meet with Love, who were playing at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. Their opening act was a group which Arthur Lee had a high opinion of, and Lee suggested that Jac sign them to Elektra. Jac initially was unimpressed with the group but went back several times to see them perform. On his fourth visit, Jac realized that this was no run-of-the-mill rock band and decided to sign them. The group was the Doors. Jac wanted Paul Rothchild to produce them, but when Rothchild flew to L.A. to hear them, he told Holzman he was nuts for signing the group and that he (Rothchild) did not want to produce them. Finally, Jac told him, "Paul, I never thought I'd say this to you, but you owe me. You've got to do this band. You are the only person for the job." Rothchild reluctantly agreed. The group was taken to Tutti Camarata's Disney studios to record their first album, which took about a week. Elektra issued "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" as the first single from the album, and it received modest airplay stalling at number 106. They immediately issued the second single from the album, "Light My Fire". The version on the album is seven minutes long, and Jac insisted it be cut for AM play. The Doors said it couldn't be cut, but Rothchild edited the song to about three minutes and then played it for them. They all agreed to issue it. In June, 1967, "Light My Fire" reached the Number One position in the pop charts, becoming Elektra's first #1 single. The album was just as successful, and in the last 30 years the Doors have sold over 45 million records.

    With the success of the Doors and Love, Elektra moved away from the small folk label image to a label that could handle rock acts. Holzman decided to establish a west coast office again and built a state-of- the-art studio at 962 North La Cienega Boulevard. This established a permanent west coast presence for Elektra, and Jac Holzman began dividing his time between New York and L.A. By the late '60s, Elektra was having success with the Doors, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley and a group called Bread. But the record business was changing, and Jac knew Elektra could not survive as a small independent label. He did not want to merge Elektra with any of the long established (bureaucratic) majors, Columbia, RCA, Decca or Capitol. As early as 1966, he had talked with Warner Brothers about a sale, and became friends with Mo Ostin who was running the Reprise label for Warners. In 1967, Warner Brothers had purchased Atlantic Records, a label whose rise had paralleled Elektra. Jac talked to Mo Ostin, who had recently become head of Warner Brothers, about combining the two companies and establishing a record distribution arm. Ostin went to Steve Ross, the chairman of the Warner Brothers parent company Kinney Corp. (later called Warner Communications), and proposed that they buy Elektra. In negotiations with Warner Brothers, Jac Holzman asked for, and received, 10 million dollars for the company. Jac Holzman agreed to remain with the company for three years, with Warner Brothers having an option for two additional years.

    Jac Holzman continued to run Elektra under the Warner Communications umbrella. He signed Carly Simon, and she had a lot of success with the label. He also signed Harry Chapin to the label and was so excited with his talent that he returned to record production for the first time in many years to do Chapin's Heads and Tales album [Elektra EKS-75023]. By 1973, Holzman wanted to retire to a home he built in Maui, Hawaii. When Warner Communications missed the deadline for picking up the option for the two additional years of service required by his contract. Holzman notified them that he was leaving the company. Warner's tried to change his mind, but Jac Holzman retired at the age of 42 in Hawaii.

    During the mid to late '70s, Elektra expanded its roster of artists from pop (Neil Sedaka, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Sparks, the Cars, etc) to country (Eddie Rabbitt and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others), heavy rock (Queen) and soul and funk (Patrice Rushen and Donald Byrd). Elektra also released records by punk/new wave groups such as Television and the Dictators. Elektra Records and Asylum Records were combined in 1974.

    In 1982, Elektra founded its own jazz-rock orientated subsidiary Elektra Musician, while adopting a new consolidated numbering system, the 60000 series (which is still running today), and setting up distribution deals for labels such as Beserkley, Planet, Solar, and others.

    Elektra continues today as part of Time-Warner Communications and is still very successful releasing records by such different artists as Metallica, Third Eye Blind, or rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, as well as distributing independent English-founded labels as Mute (Depeche Mode) or Fiction (the Cure).

    Jac Holzman wrote his autobiography titled Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture (with Gavan Daws) in 1998

This Elektra history was written using information from Follow the Music by Jac Holzman and Gavin Daws and The American Record Label Directory and Dating Guide, 1940-1959 by Galen Gart.



    Jac Holzman (66) was the founder, chief executive officer and creative head of both Elektra Records (1950) and Nonesuch Records (1964). In 1970, Jac sold all of his music interests to Warner Communications Inc. and continued his association with the labels he created for three additional years. While a part of the WCI music group, Jac helped to establish both the WEA Distributing Group and WEA International. Among the artists he has produced or discovered are: Judy Collins, The Doors, Bread, Carly Simon, Harry Chapin and Queen.

    In 1973, Jac became Senior Vice-President of WCI and the company's Chief Technologist. He co-wrote Warner's business plan for early year entry into home video and into the first interactive cable system( Qube). In 1976 Jac did the technical evaluation for WCI's acquisition of Atari and was a member of the Atari board until 1982, concentrating on product planning. From 1972 to 1982 Jac was also a director of Pioneer Electronics, Japan and as Senior Consultant to Pioneer, contributed to Pioneer's early adoption and successful implementation of both Compact Disc (CD) and LaserDisc technology. He led the team that help to launch CD for the Warner Music Group

    In June of 1982, Jac assumed the Chairmanship of Panavision, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Warner Communications, then in both financial and structural decline. In two and a half years, Panavision was turned around so that it was no longer a borrower of money but became, instead, a substantial cash generator. Panavision's value more than doubled, and in the spring of 1985 the company was sold for in excess of $70 million. While at Panavision, Jac introduced an advanced system of 16mm cinematography designed so that the progressive features of this system could migrate, without market disruption, into the camera that eventually became the Platinum Panaflex. Under his stewardship, Panavision began a totally new program of optical design resulting in the acclaimed Primo series lenses and inaugurated a comprehensive management information system to track the whereabouts of rental equipment throughout the world and to determine the ROI on each rental item in Panavision's considerable universe.

    In 1986, Jac formed FirstMedia, a closely held investment firm specializing in communications. FirstMedia led the acquisition of Cinema Products, the largest non-camera maker of precision equipment for the motion picture industry which includes the Oscar winning Steadicam® family of camera stabilizing products, the Vidiflex high resolution and super sensitive video viewing system for film cameras and a new Telescanner for the transfer of film to digital video formats.

    In June of 1991, Robert Morgado, then Chairman of the Warner Music Group, retained Jac as the group's Chief Technologist to help sort and define a broad spectrum of issues relating to Warner's expanding music interests. His current work centers around DVD Audio and multichannel sound.

    In October of 1991, through FirstMedia, Jac acquired the Discovery, Trend and Musicraft jazz labels from the estate of Albert Marx which he refashioned into a fully contemporary label. In 1993 Discovery was acquired by the Warner Music Group and operates as a 100% Time Warner subsidiary.

    Jac has done pioneering work in setting both operating and business standards for the LaserDisc optical video disc and the Compact Disc (CD). He is a member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers, a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where he has served four terms on the steering committee for Scientific and Technical Awards.

    Jac is an alumnus of St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland class of 1952 and contributed six years as a member of the college's Board of Visitors and Governors. He recently received that college's Most Distinguished Alumnus award.