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Seymour Solomon, 80; One of Vanguard Label Founders

July 23, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seymour Solomon, one of the co-founders of Vanguard Records, a leading independent label best known for its recordings by top American folk artists in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 80.

Solomon died Thursday in Lenox, Mass., where he maintained a summer home. Cause of death was not announced.

With a $10,000 loan from their father, Solomon and his brother, Maynard, started Vanguard in the 1950s as the larger, long-playing records began to overtake 78 rpm records in the marketplace.

Vanguard became known for producing albums of top quality. The label's motto became "Recordings for the Connoisseur," and its eclectic catalog lived up to that billing.

Vanguard started as a classical label, but the Solomons--politically active and committed intellectuals--were not opposed to broadening the scope of their label and taking some risks to achieve that goal. Perhaps the best example of that came in 1956, when they licensed a tape of the 1955 Carnegie Hall concert by a folk group called the Weavers.

In the early 1950s, the Weavers had some impressive hits in the pop-folk genre for Decca Records, but disbanded in 1953 after Pete Seeger, one of the group's members, was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The 1955 concert, which marked the return of the Weavers to performing, was a critical and artistic success, but the political climate made many labels loath to release the recording. The Solomons purchased the rights, and the record became a huge hit. Many music experts say that the concert and subsequent recording marked the revival of folk music in the United States.

Vanguard's success with the Weavers album--and the reputation it developed for allowing a good deal of artistic freedom--led to the signing of other folk stars, including Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Richard and Mimi Farina.

In the 1960s, Vanguard began recording live concerts, including the Newport Folk Festival, and later spearheaded a resurgence in blues music by recording performers such as Mississippi John Hurt, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Charlie Musselwhite.

Born in New York City, Seymour Solomon studied violin at Juilliard and served in the Army Air Corps orchestra during World War II. Following the war, he studied music at New York University, wrote criticism for several music magazines, and was a music commentator on several New York radio stations.

Solomon's first venture in recording came when he traveled to Europe with a tape recorder in 1950 and captured five Bach cantatas performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera. These became the first recordings for his Bach Guild Label.

The Solomon brothers founded Vanguard later that same year. They diversified into more contemporary music in the 1970s and '80s. Then, in 1985, they sold the label to the Welk Record Group run by Larry Welk, the son of bandleader Lawrence Welk.

Seymour Solomon later began another label, Omega Classics. He eventually bought Vanguard's old classical holdings from the Welk Record Group and re-released much of it on compact disc.

In addition to his brother, Solomon is survived by three daughters, a stepson, a sister and nine grandchildren.

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