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Dot Records founder, industry pioneer

His practice of having white singers record black artists' hits is credited by some with helping black musicians — and early rock music — break into the commercial mainstream.

April 14, 2011|Valerie J. Nelson

Dot Records founder Randy Wood was looking for a song for a young Pat Boone to record in 1955 and found it in the Fats Domino hit "Ain't That a Shame?" Except Boone, then an English major, wanted to sing "Isn't That a Shame?" After a few run-throughs, Wood insisted, "It's got to be 'ain't'," and Boone soon had his first No. 1 single.

Wood's practice of having white singers such as Boone cover rhythm and blues hits by black artists is credited by some with helping black musicians -- and early rock music -- break into the commercial mainstream. Pop stations that had limited airplay mainly to white artists found room for the remakes, which helped introduce the black R&B sound to a white audience.

Wood died Saturday at his La Jolla home of complications from injuries suffered in a fall down stairs in his house, said his son John Wood. He was 94.

Calling him "one of the people I owe my career to," singer Pat Boone said Wood "picked out all my early hits."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 16, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Randy Wood: The obituary of Dot Records founder Randy Wood in the April 14 LATExtra section said the record label had a hit with "Pipeline" by the Surfaris. The Surfaris recorded the hits "Wipeout" and "Surfer Joe" for Dot. The Chantays recorded the hit version of "Pipeline" for Pyramid Records. The article also said that Wood was a 1937 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University. He graduated in 1941.

"He was just my mentor, my angel," Boone, who stayed with Dot Records for 13 years, told The Times in 2005.

The R&B remakes were not without controversy. Dot Records, Boone and other singers were accused of stealing music and success from the black artists.

"That's a perversion of history," Boone said. "The recording directors at the small R&B labels wanted to attract attention to their artists, and the covers expanded the impact of the song. Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry were all thrilled because it made it possible for their songs to finally get heard, and Randy knew that."

At one point in the mid-1950s, Dot had five of the top 10 hits on the Billboard charts, said Larry Welk, who is the son of the late band leader Lawrence Welk and first worked with Wood in 1960.

"He was a true pioneer in the music business," Welk said in a 2005 Times interview. "He put in effect a lot of policies in the music business that will outlive him."

One innovation included automatically shipping large numbers of a record to distributors if Wood thought the song was a hit and guaranteeing that the unsold ones could be returned, Welk said.

When Wood opened a small appliance store in 1945 in Gallatin, Tenn., he stocked pop records, but customers kept asking for R&B. So Wood started a mail-order business for the hard-to-find records and advertised it on a late-night R&B show he put together for WLAC, a Nashville radio station with a national presence.

"Randy's radio show played what were called 'race records' in those days, and he knew what the huge black hits were," Welk said. "Since whites weren't buying black hits, he'd be selling stuff through his record shop and then he'd cover the same song with a white artist."

By 1950, the store had become Randy's Record Shop and soon was selling almost 500,000 records a month. Wood also launched an independent record label and named it Dot because it was "simple and easy to remember," his son said.

The first group to put Dot on the pop charts, in 1952, was a group made up of mostly Western Kentucky College students who went by the school's nickname, the Hilltoppers. Their first Dot record, " 'Tryin'," made it to No. 7.

Boone moved beyond recording covers and became Dot's most successful artist, rivaling Elvis Presley's chart dominance.

The company also had other hits in the 1950s and '60s, including "Pipeline" by the Surfaris, "Calcutta" by Lawrence Welk and "Melody of Love" by Billy Vaughn, a Hilltopper who became Dot's musical director.

Dot's catalog was "totally eclectic," Wood's son said, and included a "tremendous" number of black artists. "It went from Liberace to Louis Armstrong, T-Bone Walker to Lawrence Welk."

Lawrence Welk told The Times in 1961 that his success as a recording artist came only after Wood advised him "to record music that is more for listening than dancing."

Wood's "radar" for hits was ever-present, Boone said.

At recording sessions, Wood would show up with three or four songs for Boone to record.

"Most of them were pretty simple," Boone said. "Three hours later, we were through and at least one of the records would be a million-seller."

From 1954 to 1956, Dot specialized in R&B cover records. The Fontane Sisters, who had sung backup for Perry Como, had a gold record with "Hearts of Stone," which had been recorded by several black artists. Among Boone's hits were remakes of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and the Charms' "Two Hearts."

After Wood saw actress Gale Storm sing on television, he had her record R&B covers, including Smiley Lewis' "I Hear You Knocking," which reached No. 2 in 1955.

Wood walked out of a Tab Hunter movie convinced that the actor's looks and teen idol status would sell records. He had Hunter record "Young Love," which was soon a No. 1 single in 1957. (Warner Bros. refused to let Hunter make any more records for Dot because the studio said the actor, and his voice, were under contract.)

Artists were loyal to Wood, who was known for being fair-minded.

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