Jac Holzman is one of the true visionaries of the music industry.
He founded Elektra Records, an independent label that nurtured some of the most unique folk and rock talents of the age, from Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley to the Doors, the Stooges, MC5 and Love. Even the disparate likes of the Butterfield Blues Band, Carly Simon and Queen found a home at Elektra, whose tasteful eclecticism made it the ultimate boutique label.
Holzman was integrally involved with the label from its founding in 1950 until his departure in 1973. Elektra represented a total commitment on Holzman’s part. “Elektra was what I did 24 hours a day,” he told Goldmine in 2006. “I dreamed Elektra, and I did nothing else for my life for those 23 years.”
Jac Holzman founded Elektra Records in 1950, initially operating it out of his college dorm room. Its first release was an album of German art poems set to music by John Gruen and sung by Georgiana Bannister. The name “Elektra” came from Greek mythology.
After dropping out of college, Holzman returned to New York, where he pursued the growth of Elektra in earnest. The label primarily focused on folk music throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, building a catalog of recordings by such varied traditionalists as Josh White (folk blues), Jean Ritchie (Appalachian folk) and Theodore Bikel (Israeli folk).
During the early Sixties, many rising young folksingers were signed to the label. Judy Collins first cut a pair of trad-folk albums for Elektra, but beginning with her third album turned her attention to the work of contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tom Paxton. Collins became the label’s most prolific and long-lived artist, releasing seventeen albums between 1962 and 1984. Phil Ochs, a literate and impassioned folk-protest songwriter, cut three albums for Elektra. Next to Bob Dylan, Ochs was arguably the most important figure on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the Sixties. Other significant contemporary folksingers, including Tom Paxton and Tom Rush, were brought into the Elektra fold.
Along the way, Holzman devised ingenious ways to generate revenue and expand Elektra’s influence. In 1958 he recorded and released The Wild Blue Yonder....Songs of a Fighting Air Force, the first of a series of albums aimed at branches of the military and various other groups’ interests and hobbies.
Another of Holzman’s inspirations was a series of sound effects records. The first volume was released in 1960. Numbering 13 in total, they sold well and were extremely popular with the movie industry and radio programmers. Never had such a gallery of sounds and noises, including a definitive car crash, been so painstakingly recorded. Moreover, they were highly profitable because there were no performers' royalties involved.
Holzman established the Nonesuch imprint in 1963 as a means of making classical music affordable to the masses. Nonesuch licensed numerous classical titles from overseas labels and sold them for significantly less than other classical labels in the U.S. It was extremely successful, and its profits helped subsidize Elektra’s move into more contemporary music styles in the Sixties.
Whether it was a gallery of sound effects, a folksinger’s unadorned voice and guitar, or a band’s baroque psychedelia or brutal hard rock, Elektra was notable for the remarkable fidelity of its recordings. This high standard owed much to Holzman’s technological prowess and interest in sound quality.
Overall, Elektra was defined more by a standard of quality than a type of music. People would buy albums bearing the distinctive Elektra logo (a capital M turned on its side to read E, for Elektra) simply because the label’s releases were dependably unique and interesting. Many were critical and commercial successes. Yet a significant number of Elektra titles remained somewhat obscure, and are still being discovered and processed to this day. Holzman and company mined a deep well of deserving music with many facets and aspects to it.
Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, Holzman and his staff – which included such estimable figures as Paul Rothchild, Peter Siegal, David Anderle, Frazier Mohawk (a.k.a. Barry Friedman), Mark Abramson and Bruce Botnik as talent scouts, producers and engineers – had an ear for musicians who were breaking new ground. Thus did Elektra wind up with such fascinating figures on the creative fringes of the folk world as Koerner, Ray and Glover, Paul Siebel, Pat Kilroy, and the Incredible String Band. As the folk scene of the Fifties and Sixties evolved into the singer-songwriter movement of the Seventies, the label landed such cult favorites as David Ackles, Dennis Linde and Mickey Newbury. They also had considerable commercial success with Carly Simon, Harry Chapin and the soft-rock songwriters’ collective known as Bread.
With the signing of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965, Holzman expanded Elektra into realms of electric music, including blues, rock and psychedelia. Butterfield’s group, which included guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, combined those styles – synthesizing them with elements of Eastern music, to boot – on their 1966 tour de force,East-West.
In its determined pursuit of the cutting edge, Elektra signed some of contemporary music’s most groundbreaking acts in the latter half of the Sixties. Establishing a presence in Los Angeles, Elektra signed Love, the Doors (its biggest act of any kind) and beloved cult bands like Clear Light, Crabby Appleton and Rhinoceros. Honing his radar on Detroit, he signed the MC5 and the Stooges, both of them explosive, uncompromising and anarchic rock groups whose impact on popular music would be felt for decades. From London came Queen, an eclectic glam-rock powerhouse that rivaled Led Zeppelin for popularity in the Seventies.
Jac Holzman left Elektra in 1973. He sold Elektra for $10 million in 1970, staying on for three more years as part of the agreement. Since departing the label, he’s stayed heavily involved in the conjoined worlds of music and technology. He’s worked as a director for Japanese-based Pioneer Electronics and served as chief technologist for Warner Communications (later Time-Warner). In his own words, “I had a lot to do with early cable technology [and] the adoption of the CD.” He was also chairman of Panavision, which makes cameras, film and accessories for the movie industry.
In summary, Jac Holzman has had quite an amazing life both in music and music technology. He still regards his time at Elektra Records, helping to document the greatest period of creativity in popular music, as the most wondrous years of all.
“Part of me hangs onto my mystical roots in the Fifties and Sixties,” he told interviewer Bruce Sylvester in 2001. “A very special heady air existed at that time. You could almost taste that things were changing. And things did change.”
Jac Holzman (record executive; born September 15, 1931)