For blues buffs who revere the name of Mamie Smith, who made the first black blues record on Okeh back in the 1920s), for jazz aficionados who associate the label with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Paul Gayten, for jump jive worshippers whose fingers inadvertently click at the slightest sound of a Treniers recording. For all these, it must be at best bemusing, at worst galling, that a total flop from an otherwise unknown singer called Sandi Sheldon, known better in the UK than any of those mentioned major black heroes.
There are many reasons why Okeh is known as the most revered label on the Northern Soul scene. Its original success and fame came through a series of Chicago-produced soul hits, which were made and often written by Curtis Mayfield, lead vocalist and inspiration with The Impressions. Curtis was enjoying a creative period and commercial success at this time (1962-64). He joined the company as a freelancer thanks to head of A&R Carl Davis, who in turn introduced the new Chicago talents Major Lance, Billy Butler, The Artistics and The Opals. Major Lance was to become Okeh's biggest star and, through an amazing eleven single releases on UK Columbia Records, would place himself and Okeh's Chicago soul sound in soulies and British Mods' hearts for ever. Carl Davis used the full brassy productions of Johnny Pate, The Impressions' main arranger, on Major Lance's early releases. He also utilised Riley Hampton, Etta James' main arranger, on the more sophisticated productions of big ballad singer Walter Jackson. Both were very successful and this solid soul market meant Okeh would continue to put out singles aimed at the R&B charts long after the demise of its Chicago base
Being part of the US music giant Columbia Records meant that the producers and arrangers got away with more lavish recordings but could live with failure for a longer time than an independent would have done due to financial restrictions. As their most dramatic successes were thanks to with Major Lance and dancefloor numbers, Okeh continued to aim mainly at this market while Walter Jackson and Ted Taylor maintained steady if unspectacular sales on the blues and ballad side of the business.
The last three years of Okeh's existence saw a geographically diverse output of music, tailor-made for UK soul fans who discovered it during the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, the glorious failure of the label ensured its longevity in Britain and subsequently Europe.
Okeh had the odd commercial success in these later years, most notably with three faded West Coast rock'n'roll heroes. Larry Williams & Johnny Watson recorded both individually and together to create the quintessential uptown soul LP with their Two For The Price Of One (Okeh 12122). Their ultra cool version of the jazz standard "Mercy, Mercy" hit the charts and, encouraged by this, Okeh's bosses gave Larry Williams the approval to produce several acts for the label. He approached fellow 1950s Specialty Records rocker Little Richard and coaxed out of the wayward genius his best performances since his heyday, and even got a hit for him with "Poor Dog". Larry Williams, hooked on a very manic, stomping, uptempo soul sound and Little Richard, Williams & Watson, and his other acts, all reflected this. Singles by The Seven Souls, Cookie Jackson, The Triumphs, The Autographs, disappeared in the mass of dance floor directed discs, that came out every week in black America, and only gained full recognition in such Northern towns as Wigan and Cleethorpes a decade later. Similar one shot deals ensued with the genius Detroit producer Mike Terry brought to bear on Johnny Robinson's "Gone But Not Forgotten" and Sandra Phillips' "I Wish I Had Known".
In New York, one of the most sublime moments in soul music came when the aforementioned Sandi Sheldon set her anguished vocals just above Van McCoy's pounding arrangement and song "You're Gonna Make Me Love You" (Okeh 7277). In the South, Tommy Tate was recording a delightful mid-tempo number "I'm Taking On Pain", that was very emotional and would only capture British soul hearts in the 1990s, when their taste had broadened, no longer limited to stompers only. It was the pounding rhythms of The Carstairs, however, with "He Who Picks A Rose", The Tangeers with the semi-psychedelic stomper What's The Use Of Me Trying and New York-based Teacho Wiltshire's production on The Vibrations adrenalin-powered Gonna Get Along Without You Now that have turned Okeh Records into a 'Northern Soul Obsession'.