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Vanguard Records is a record label set up in 1950 by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon in New York. It started as a classical label, but is perhaps best known for its catalogue of recordings by a number of pivotal folk and blues artists from the 1960s; the Bach Guild was a subsidiary label.
In 1953, under the direction of John Hammond, the company began the "Jazz Showcase" series that concentrated on the mainstream jazz idiom, producing about two dozen recordings before it was wound down about 1958. Recordings made at the Spirituals to Swing concerts in 1938 and 1939 were finally released by Vanguard in 1959. The company only intermittently pursued recording jazz thereafter.
Vanguard diversified in the mid-1950s by challenging the blacklist and signing blacklisted performers Paul Robeson and the Weavers. The company continued to issue folk music with newly signed artists Joan Baez, Hedy West, the Rooftop Singers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Country Joe and the Fish, Ian and Sylvia, and Mimi and Richard Fariña.
In the summer of 1965 Maynard Solomon hired Samuel Charters to edit the tapes of the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Following that project, the company sent Charters to Chicago to capture the broad range of blues musicians there. Those sessions resulted in the classic 1966 three album series titled Chicago/The Blues/Today!, which introduced a new generation to the blues. The albums included sets by Junior Wells with Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters's bandmates Otis Spann and James Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James, Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton, and Charlie Musselwhite.
Vanguard released a number of important classical recordings, both domestically-produced and imported. Many of the latter came from the United Kingdom's Pye Records label, featuring performances by the Halle Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The recordings were so exceptional in their stereo sound and overall quality that many classical radio stations programmed them. Vanguard even released some quadraphonic classical recordings in the early 1970s, including a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The label also released many performances by the Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Abravanel, including a complete performance of The Nutcracker, as well as the earlier P.D.Q. Bach recordings, from 1965 to 1983. Vanguard was the first American label to release the complete 1944 high fidelity recordings of composer Richard Strauss conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in most of his tone poems; the recordings were made on the Magnetophon tape recording equipment in the Vienna Opera House.
After entering the rock market by signing Country Joe and the Fish, Vanguard started a 6500 series for releases by rock acts, but had little success in that field. With acts such as Joan Baez and Ian & Sylvia leaving for other labels and disappointing sales for the "Everyman" budget classical series, by the early 1970s Vanguard's stature in the music industry was greatly diminished. The label stayed minimally active with specialty releases such as those by Indian classical musician and sarod virtouso Vasant Rai. An unexpected novelty hit on Vanguard, "Shaving Cream" by Benny Bell, led the company to release albums of humorous music inspired by Dr. Demento. In the late 1970s Tom Paxton issued two albums, New Songs from the Briarpatch and Heroes, on the label. A few disco albums by acts such as Players Association were released on Vanguard without much chart impact.
After this period of near-dormancy, Vanguard was sold to the Welk Music Group in 1985. The Welk Group sold the classical music catalog back to Seymour Solomon. Welk Music Group revitalized the label, reissuing much of its extensive folk and popular music back catalogue (a good deal of which had been out of print for several years) on CD, as well as signing a number of new artists (such as Matt Nathanson, Mindy Smith, Greg Laswell, and Trevor Hall) along with established musicians (such as Merle Haggard, John Fogerty, Chris Isaak, Robert Cray, Shawn Mullins, and Linda Ronstadt). The label also struck marketing partnerships with a number of artist-run label imprints, to include Levon Helm (Dirt Farmer Music), Indigo Girls (IG Recordings), and Chely Wright (Painted Red Music), amongst others. This era for Vanguard also garnered the label and its artists a number of accolades, including three consecutive Grammy Awards for Levon Helm, multiple Grammy Awards for Robert Cray, and an RIAA certified platinum single for Matt Nathanson's "Come on Get Higher." In 2008, Welk Music Group began a distribution deal with EMI to handle its labels including Vanguard.
Vanguard Classics was sold after Seymour Solomon's death to Artemis Records, which reactivated the company with new releases by Leon Fleisher and Gil Shaham. When Artemis folded in 2004, the Vanguard Classics catalogue was sold to Sheridan Square Entertainment, which is licensing the Vanguard Classics material with no apparent plans to relaunch or reactivate the label.
Vanguard used the Brooklyn Masonic Temple as one of its recording studios, in the New York City area, for many of its classic sessions.
Camper Van Beethoven
The Clancy Brothers
The Country Gentlemen
Country Joe & The Fish
Pee Wee Crayton
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Richard & Mimi Fariña
Big Walter Horton
Mississippi John Hurt
Ian & Sylvia
Perrey & Kingsley
The Rooftop Singers
Big Mama Thornton
Jerry Jeff Walker
The Watson Twins
Yonder Mountain String Band