It’s been 44 years since a small recording studio on Northside Dr. in Jackson, MS opened its doors. It was in that studio that Mitchell Malouf and Tommy Couch, Sr. combined their talents and names (Mal and Co) to create one of the longest-standing independent labels in the history of music. While in today’s times musicians often state that independent is the way to go, Malaco Records established that mentality and lifestyle long before.
Going into the 70s, black music was in a good place financially. Many independent labels had heavy chart success with rhythm and blues. Among those labels were Vee Jay Records, Motown Recordings Corp., and southern powerhouse label Stax Records. Blues was one of the dominant genres of the fifties and gave birth to rock n roll. The lighter, more pop sound of the Motown era, however, left many bluesmen absent from the charts. Malaco Records initially licensed their recordings to major labels. Songs like King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” became R&B and pop hits with the aid of large distributors, but when the labels began to pass on the more traditional down home blues records the company took matters into their own hands. It was in 1975 that Malaco hit a financial stump. Majors weren’t picking up on their records, and money wasn’t coming in like they had hoped. Searching for a hit, they recorded a song with one of their back ground singers by the name of Dorothy Moore. What became of that session was the hit single “Misty Blue.”
The song was met with rejection from almost all of the majors that Malaco shopped it to. Malaco President Tommy Couch, Jr. stated, “Nobody would put it out. None of the majors liked it or wanted to make an offer on it.” Couch went on to state that Malaco only had enough money to press and mail out the record. The single “Misty Blue,” released by Malaco, became an international hit. The song garnered gold sales status in several countries including Australia, Canada, and the UK. Malaco Records moved forward as an independent label specializing in traditional blues, also known as “southern soul,” and became a major player in the gospel genre. They realized by remaining independent, they could sell 30 – 50,000 units and net a hefty profit. Since most of the majors were chasing after the pop hits, Malaco easily dominated gospel and blues.
Malaco kept their business model going over the next few decades. Acquiring their main gospel competitors, Atlanta International Records and Savoy Records, Malaco dominated their respective charts. The company also purchased 50% of southern distribution giant Select-O-Hits in an effort to control more of their distribution. In the late 2000s the company once again made a foray into the world of contemporary R&B. The result was two hit R&B albums [2010’s Dondria vs. Phatffat by So So Def artist Dondria, and the Grammy nominated album Kelly by Kelly Price]. Tommy Couch, Jr. has stated that this move into contemporary R&B is the direction in which he will take the company. Recently Malaco signed multi-platinum singer/songwriter Q. Parker of the R&B group 112, and Essence Magazine R&B Star winner Greta Prince, whom he’s stated have been a pleasure to work with. “Moving forward we are moving into more contemporary music, while trying to maintain the more traditional music.”
Tragically in April of 2011, various tornados hit Jackson, MS and destroyed a good portion of the Malaco historical buildings. Some would have taken this as a sign to rebuild in another part of town or move the operations to a larger music city. The staff at Malaco Records stood tall and one year later opened its offices on the same property in Jackson “in order to embrace the neighborhood we’ve been in all along.”
In its 40-plus year of existence, Malaco Records has stood the test of time. Spawning hit after hit record while remaining true to its core is not a feat to which most labels–major or independent–can attest. The company has also outlasted many of its chief competitors like Stax, Chess, Motown and others. For this, Malaco was given the title “The Last Soul Company, ” but has earned the distinction of “Last One Standing Tall.”