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Interview with Inner City Records Founder, Irv Kratka

Label owner, producer and arguably the godfather of karaoke, Irv Kratka’s career has spanned almost 7 decades. At the ripe old age of 89 he’s still in full control of his empire, officially making him the longest serving music CEO in America. Starting ‘Music Minus One‘ as a student back in 1950, Irv hit on the revolutionary idea of removing a single instrument or vocal part from a recording and packaging it with sheet music and lyrics, thus enabling students to practise at home with the backing of a full orchestra. The idea earned him a full page article in the New York Times and positive press across the world, sowing the seeds which later grew into the global phenomenon of karaoke. 66 years and almost 900 releases later, MMO is still going strong, continuing its mission to hone the skills of budding musicians in a wide variety of genres. Having always relied on the talents of the finest musicians available for his MMO recordings (Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Julius Baker and a host of others featured on the early releases), it seemed an obvious progression to begin releasing original music too. Irv’s two ‘normal’ record labels, Inner City and Classic Jazz have attracted a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz greats over the years, surely to many to list here. With a new double vinyl retrospective of his Inner City label available now on BBE, we caught up with Irv Kratka in his Westchester office, eager to learn more about his truly incredible life in music.

How did you get your start in music?

I played drums, and progressed musically from Krupa stylings, back to Baby Dodds of the Hot Seven Days with Armstrong.  When Bunk Johnson came to New York in the middle fifties of the 20th century, sponsored by Bill Russell, I became the most constant visitor at the Stuyvesant Casino, coming to befriend my idol Warren Baby Dodds who played with this traditional New Orleans band, the first ever to set foot in New York.

Are you still actively involved in running MMO and its subsidiaries?

Yes I am still running Music Minus One as we enter our 66th year of consecutive activity with this amazing line. I am in fact the oldest CEO in the music industry in the USA, per statistics provide by NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Inner City was an offshoot of Music Minus One and something I undertook simultaneously from the beginning of the company in 1950, I’ve been a fierce jazz fan following and participating in the music from my late teens in the mid 40s to this date.

Talk us through the music policy for your three labels.

Over the years, Inner City, Classic Jazz and Proscenium Records featured the music of famed  artists, such as Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Django Reinhardt, Willie “The Lion” Smith, ranging throughout the jazz, blues and folk realms in the creation of what is now a 100 CD catalogue. Inner City was devoted to such jazz artists as Chet Baker, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Gerry Mulligan, J.J.Johnson, and bass virtuoso David Friesen to name but a few. Classic Jazz was devoted to earlier styles and artists such as Bob Wilber, Clark Terry, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Dick Wellstood. Proscenium features three albums by Dick Hyman, piano solo profiles of Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke and Noel Coward. Coward in fact wrote to the company years ago to tell us that he’d encountered Dick’s recording of his songs at Liberty Music and was very pleased by the presentation.

Are you still releasing new material?

Inner City is still in existence. We released some 14 albums in the past 18 months on its associate label, Classic Jazz. These feature Bob Wilber, an artist whom we’ve known for literally a lifetime.  He made his first recordings for Music Minus One in the middle 1950s and ultimately we had him record for Classic Jazz with a Boston band he led in that city at the beginning of his career.  He has performed with Clark Terry and Dick Wellstood on many records he’s produced for Classic Jazz. Multi instrumentalist Glenn Zottola was enticed out of retirement three years ago and has produced and performed on 15 albums in that time, on trumpet, alto and tenor sax. He is one of a very few players who can double or triple in this fashion in jazz. Benny Carter is one other I can remember. Glenn undertook an extraordinary series, devoted to the music of Chas Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz and Ben Webster besides creating almost a dozen albums of standards with rhythm sections and orchestras.

Sounds exhausting!

As you can imagine, my production in the past 66 years of 1000+ Music Minus One albums plus another 140 albums devoted to jazz, has provided me with a very busy life.  We recorded the Jim Cullum Band in one of its earliest albums, a 3 CD set devoted to Louis, Jelly Roll and Bix.

How did you go about selecting projects for the labels?

My approach to what I wanted to record was very broad-based. It included folk artists, jazz musicians, macabre comedians such as Theodore and songwriters such as Otis Blackwell, who created many of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits.  It was Blackwell’s demo versions that Elvis emulated to create his own unique style. To hear Blackwell is to hear Elvis, slightly less black.

Amazing. Do any other highlights spring to mind?

A typical rarity is the only recording of ‘Baby’ Lawrence, called ‘Dancemaster’, acclaimed almost universally as the world’s finest tap dancer. He works with a small jazz group, becoming an equal in their midst and raising tap far beyond what had been seen or heard before or since. It was my nature not to put restrictions or limits on what I recorded resulting in such albums as one of the earliest if not first rendering of a Broadway musical , Oliver, by a quartet of musicians led by Bob Dorough and featuring Al Shackman, Clark Terry, and Tyree Glenn. Classic Jazz was to the first jazz label to present Scott Joplin Rags, as performed by the Zinn String Quartet.  Our recording “A Night At Eddie Condon’s” was recorded in that venue one of the extraordinary ‘live’ recordings in our catalogue.

You must have seen huge changes during your time running MMO…

I’ve been witness to the beginning of the vinylite age, supplanted by cassettes which in turn were retired by the advent of the compact disc. My first recording was a 78 rpm shellac disc by Dick Hyman of two standards. It was shortly after that that he began a planned series of 13 vinylite albums devoted to the great song writers of the beginning and middle years of the 20th century. We only got as far as 3 albums, mentioned above, before moving away from this planned series.

With BBE issuing their ‘Best Of Inner City Records’ in 2016, how do you feel looking back over your catalogue?

Nothing I recorded was planned to exist forever. If it was good music in 1960, I felt it would meet that standard in 2016 and beyond. That the catalogues continue to this day provide ample proof of this contention. The players have remained the same. Only the media has changed.

Interview by Will Sumsuch (5 Magazine, Chicago)

Kev Beadle Presents The Best Of Inner City Records is available now on vinyl, CD and digital formats.

Kev Beadle Presents The Best Of Inner City Records