It’s hard to go anywhere in this country without seeing or hearing something related to Taylor Swift. For the four or five of you who are unfamiliar, Swift began her career in country music as a teenager before graduating to pop music superstardom. Her current tour is seeing folks paying tens of thousands of dollars PER TICKET just to be in the same stadium as her (and southern gospel audiences whine at $20 per ticket!!). When she recently played my hometown, just her merchandise truck had a line that wrapped around the block a full day before the concert even took place. To say she is popular would be an understatement.
She also has her fair share of controversies, most notably with her former record label, Big Machine Records. Her first six albums were recorded with Big Machine Records, who (as is typical) retains ownership of those masters. When the label was sold to a new owner, Swift reportedly attempted to purchase the masters herself to retain ownership over her catalog, but ultimately, the masters stayed with Big Machine and its new owner, who (according to Swift) refused to allow the use of any tracks from that catalog on an awards show and documentary featuring Swift. You can read more about the controversy (and decide which side is right) on your own, but at the end of the day, Swift decided the best course of action would be to re-record each of these albums in their entirety in order to regain control of the songs (her new record deal includes a clause that she maintains ownership of all masters). A bit extreme, maybe, but apparently it’s working, as the new “Taylor’s Version” albums are outselling her original catalog.
Of course, re-recording songs is nothing new. Artists do this all the time for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to give a song a fresh arrangement. Sometimes it’s to feature a current lineup that wasn’t on the original recording. And yes, it is often done to give the artist a copy of a song (or songs) that they themselves control. More often than not, this is seen when older artists re-record their greatest hits with similar arrangements on their current label because the original record company is either refusing to license the originals, or because the royalties on the original tracks are lower than that of a re-cut version.
It is unusual, however, for an entire album to be re-recorded from scratch, as is the case with Taylor Swift and her ongoing quest to gain full ownership over her music. Unusual, but not unheard of…even in gospel music! Case in point: The LeFevres.
One of the LeFevres’ early recordings, Songs of Happiness from 1958, was originally released under the Bibletone Records label, and was reportedly recorded with the group themselves singing and playing all parts. This album was later reissued multiple times with different cover photos (and by different labels), but being an early album, the group felt it did not properly represent the sound, style, and quality of later recordings (which is understandable).
One such label that reissued the album in 1965 was Canaan Records. Started in 1964, Canaan was a new competitor with Sing Records (Sing was owned by the LeFevres), and having an album by the a well-known group (even an older album) would help Canaan gain some space in the marketplace. The group, however, objected to Canaan reissuing the album, but were unable to stop them from doing so, as the master belonged to Bibletone Records (maybe Taylor is on to something!!). In response, the group essentially re-recorded the entire album with studio musicians (song for song) and released it with the title Songs of Happiness on Sing Records (and with a “$1.98” label baked into the artwork) to undermine Canaan Records. The LeFevres pulled a Taylor Swift decades before there even WAS a Taylor Swift!!
Of course, gospel music is full of similar stories of record labels refusing to allow the use of certain masters. One such example is the Cathedrals’ Campmeeting Live video and CD (released by Canaan Records) which used re-cut tracks for several songs originally recorded at Benson Records, as Benson refused to allow the use of the original tracks (the re-cut track for “This Ole House” would also show up on a couple Gaither Gospel Series videos, although the original Benson version was used on their Farewell Celebration release). Even today, getting a hold of the Benson Records catalog (which is owned by Sony) can be quite the chore, as Wayne Haun has confirmed multiple attempts by StowTown Records to gain access with no success, despite StowTown having direct ties to Sony for distribution.
And yes, artists have feuded with their record labels pretty much for as long as record labels have existed. Buddy Holly actually recorded for two different labels simultaneously under two different names (his solo efforts were under his own name, while additional songs were released by “The Crickets”). Frank Sinatra famously started his own label specifically to compete with Capitol Records (and purposely recorded subpar albums for Capitol to burn off his contract there while putting better material on his own label at the same time). Prince wound up infamously changing his name due to a clause in his recording contract with Warner Bros. More recently, Tim McGraw has been going back and forth with Curb Records over seemingly-endless compilations that are preventing his full release from the label. In the Christian music world, Petra struggled repeatedly with their former label, who would purposely plan the release of compilation albums to coincide with the release dates of new albums at another label, undercutting the new album’s sales by creating confusion in the marketplace as to which album was actually the new one.
What makes the LeFevres’ case interesting is that it happened relatively early in the recording industry, and that it involved two exclusively-gospel record labels. Stranger still, the year after the LeFevres recut an entire album out of protest, the group sold Sing Records to Joel Gentry, who at the time also owned Skylite Records, and the merged company became Skylite-Sing Records. Gentry would retain ownership of the LeFevres early catalog as part of this agreement, although two separate (and suspicious) fires would destroy most of the masters between 1970 and 1986. Starting in 1969, the LeFevres would sign a new recording contract that would continue until the group retired.
Their new label? Canaan Records.
Hat Tip to David Bruce Murray for pointing me towards this album and background. For more information, visit https://sghistory.com.