Jack Kapp – The Man with the Musical ‘Midas Touch’

He could not read or compose music, nor carry a tune. But for all of his personal ‘musical short comings’, he had an uncanny ability to discover musical talent in others.

Born in Chicago, Illinois to a Jewish family of Russian immigrants, Jack Kapp (born Jacob Kaplitzky) was a record company executive with Brunswick Records who founded the American Decca Records Company in 1934. Kapp’s father was a distributor for Columbia Records and the founder of the Imperial Talking Machine Shop in Chicago. The teenaged Kapp worked at his father’s store after school, and allegedly memorized the catalog numbers of every record in the shop’s inventory, as well as the addresses and phone numbers of his father’s best customers.

In 1922 Jack, along with his younger brother Dave, opened the ‘Kapp Record Store’. By 1926 Kapp’s ability to recognize emerging talent was rewarded when Brunswick Records hired Kapp to be in charge of Brunswick’s so-called “race” labels (most notably the Brunswick owned Vocalion label), where he identified and signed such artists as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Pinetop Smith (of ‘Boogie Woogie’ fame), among others. Kapp also produced artists on the Brunswick label, and knocked heads with company executives when Kapp insisted Al Jolson record “Sonny Boy”. In spite of corporate objections to making the recording, the song became a huge success for Brunswick and Jolson. Early Brunswick artists signed by Kapp included such notable names as Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, and Mildred Bailey.

In 1932, Kapp oversaw the sale of Brunswick’s British franchises to stockbroker Edward Lewis, who owned the British Decca Company. Two years later, when the hopes of a deal to buy Columbia Records fell apart, Lewis along with Kapp joined forces to form America Decca Records.

Much to the chagrin of Brunswick record executives, Bing Crosby’s deal with Brunswick had an escape clause that allowed him to follow Kapp to the newly formed Decca.  Decades later, Crosby still showed appreciation to Kapp for signing him to Decca and helping to diversify Crosby’s song catalogue into various genres and styles, saying, “I thought he (Kapp) was crazy, but I just did what he told me.” Other artists and successes followed, including the Mills Brothers, Boswell Sisters, Earl Hines, Ted Lewis, Isham Jones and the Dorsey Brothers. Never straying too far from his “race label” roots, Kapp also signed new performers such as Chick Webb, Art Tatum, Jimmie Lunceford, Ethel Waters, and a year after the company’s founding, Louis Armstrong.

At the peak of the great depression, record sales had plunged, and Kapp decided that Decca should lower the price of their records to $.50 cents (instead of the usual $.75 cents to $1.00). When Brunswick shifted its older catalogue to a $.25 cent subsidiary label in the hopes of driving Decca out of business, Kapp further reduced Decca’s price to $.35 cents per record. In addition, Kapp strategically went after the newly emerging jukebox market. In 1938, Decca began releasing record sleeves with cover artwork (while most other labels all issued ‘generic’ record sleeves). Kapp’s other innovations included issuing records with liner notes and Broadway cast albums. By 1939, the company was on solid financial footing; 18 million of the 50 million records sold in the United States that same year were issued by Decca.

By the end of the decade, Kapp had created a reputation as having developed a new kind of A&R creature that included strategic promotional plans for creating “hits”. Decca carefully studied the likes and reactions of the record buying audience in depth, and produced records in response to that feedback. It was Kapp’s brother Dave that came up with the line “The Hit’s in the Groove”.

By the time of his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1949 at the age of 47, Jack Kapp was considered one of the best A&R men in the business.

Many of the songs and artists of the Decca Records catalog are regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Jimmie Lunceford’s soundman.