LET'S BE honest. A couple of years or so back and if you mentioned the name of Capitol Records, you thought of Glen Campbell, the Beatles, a string of Country & Western artists and aside from the occasional R&B single success, only Nancy Wilson and the late Nat King Cole really represented our music within the company.
Then, in 1973, a young Black attorney in the company's legal department was switched over to start a Soul Music Division. Larkin Arnold is now Vice President and General Manager of that division and his success record is somewhat staggering. Virtually every act that has signed a Capitol Records contract with Larkin has attained some measure of success.
Some, like Natalie Cole, Tavares, the Sylvers and Maze, have gone on to become soul giants whilst his more recent signings — Freda Payne, Peabo Bryson, Caldera, Eddie Henderson and Sun — are still enduring a building pattern.
It's also worth noting that Mr. Arnold must possess some kind of magic because he hasn't lost one act and when you study the travelling between labels that most R&B acts go through, it's a compliment to the way he handles his department.
"Sure, some have been offered more money," Larkin admits, "but I have a good relationship with all of my acts. In many cases, of course, I discovered them and the company has been responsible for putting them where they are today."
So, where are they today and who are they? We asked Larkin to give us a brief run-down on his 'family' and their current status:
Natalie Cole: "We haven't peaked with Natalie yet but I expect to see her expanding into writing in the future. Sure, every album she does goes Gold immediately but there are 225 million people in America so that means we have missed 220 million!
"I believe that she still has to develop even further to reach her full potential and that she also has the ability to get involved in production."
Maze: "It took us six months to break their album because it was only picking up sporadic airplay around the country. The East Coast was the last to go with the album. Now, they are appealing to a jazz-rock market as well as R&B and their second album is already over 400,000 in sales — almost half as much as the first one sold over the year.
"I'm very pleased with the new album — especially the second side. Maze really is a hard group to categorise — but how do you categorise Earth Wind & Fire or the Commodores. Maze is a similar, self-contained band. They have so far only used rhythm instruments on their records."
Freda Payne: "While we have recreated a new interest in Freda, I must confess that I am not satisfied with the progress that has been made. "Love Magnet" was Top 15 Disco but we couldn't get it into the pop or soul charts but critics have said they feel her album to be the best she has done in a while and, of course, Freda has a hugh international appeal.
"It will take a little time maybe but we'll get Freda over." Caldera: "I always feel more could be done with Caldera and so am always frustrated. Musically, they are Jazz, Rock and Latin but their music is somewhat specialised. They were voted No.1 New Jazz Group by Cash Box, by the way. They have a hugh potential, I feel." Eddie Henderson: "The disco thing helped Eddie do better in Britain than we did with him in the States. He has a new album out in two or three months."
Sylvers: "It was really good timing because they came back when the Jacksons were quiet but they have developed and managed to capture a large market share in the States. Now, we have just released a solo album on Foster, too."
Tavares: "We have just shipped a new single and an album is ready for immediate release. It's called "Future Bound" and it is a lot more disco orientated than their last — rather like "Sky High" was. Sun: "Another band with great potential that hasn't been realised. They have a new album and I feel it to be their best yet."
Nancy Wilson: "We have just put Nancy in the studio with Clarence McDonald and that promises to be an interesting and rewarding project."
Bill Cosby: "What can you say about him? He always sells and has a regular market — and he's as funny as hell!"
RECENT additions to the roster are Peabo Bryson; Chuck Jackson and a girl duo, a Taste Of Honey. "Peabo has a unique quality to his voice and we were looking for a male solo artist. I heard his album on Bang/Bullet and felt he would be ideal for our roster. The album and single are both doing extremely well so it all looks promising.
"Chuck Jackson is actually the Chuck Jackson that used to be lead singer with the Independents and who is co-producer of Natalie Cole, now. He has a solo album due for April release but we haven't decided what name he'll go under. Naturally, he prefers Chuck but he realises there would be some confusion — but he has never been called by his real name, Charles, in his life!
"A Taste Of Honey are two girls that I saw in a club in Los Angeles and who are a fusion of jazz, rock and funk. Helen and Janice are their names and they are a female version of the Brothers Johnson because they play guitar and bass on stage, too. The Mizell Brothers are producing them."
With so much activity and success, it is no surprise that Larkin is satisfied with his progress. "We have exceptional talent in every aspect of Black music so I am naturally pleased with the balance.
"There are no real gaps although I feel we shall involve ourselves even more into Jazz Fusion this year. There is a definite increase of interest in that area."
As the roster increases, is there a possibility that the company may spawn a new label devoted to this area of music? "It has been proposed," Larkin says, "But since Capitol is an internationally known label, there really is no need. As it is, we are one of the top three or four soul labels now anyway."
Is there a key to his success? "Only that I try to always concentrate on quality product and acts," Larkin smiles. "I tend to be far more interested in acts rather than individual records.
"There have been times when I have turned down a good record because I didn't feel the act was strong enough. But I have been lucky and not lived to regret any record I have turned down so far!
"Before I sign an act, I study all angles of the company's involvement — and compared it with the amount of money that is being asked. The company is very strong on market research and we check out thoroughly before we sign any act.
"You see, before we start earning any money, we have to spend upwards of $100,000 (£55,000) getting everything ready and that is a lot of money."
One of larkin's pet projects is to also get across to his people that there are openings within the business side of the music industry and that it isn't always necessary to actually get on stage and sing to be involved in the entertainment world.
"Black people have made great strides in the music business," he cites, in his easy, eloquent manner, "and there are always openings whereby we can make decisions ourselves these days. Generally speaking, a Black person is better qualified to work on or speak of Black music because he will be closer to the roots and that means a lot of R&B. And we are making great progress every day.
"That's why I don't think we will see this talked-about return to the older form of R&B. It's all to simple and the people have moved on too far to go back now. Sure, the occasional simple ballad will always make it if it is good but with bands like Earth Wind & Fire, the Commodores and Maze, Black music can never go backwards again.
"Personally speaking, that would be regression anyway. To me, music is better today than it has ever been and it will continue to be that way only as long as it progresses."