Mercury Records is a record label operating as a standalone company in the UK and as part of the The Island Def Jam Music Group in the US, and are both subsidiaries of Universal Music Group. There is also a Mercury Records in Australia, which is a local artist and repertoire division of Universal Music Australia. In the United States, Universal Music Group Nashville administers the Mercury Records Nashville label.
Mercury Record Corporation was founded in the American city of Chicago in 1945 by Irving Green, Berle Adams and Arthur Talmadge. They were a major force in jazz and blues, classical music, rock and roll, and country music recordings. Early in the label's history, Mercury opened two pressing plants, one in Chicago and the other in St. Louis, Missouri. With the use of automatic presses and providing 24-hour turnaround, they went into direct competition with major recording labels such as Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor.
Rather than rely on radio airplay, Mercury initially relied to jukeboxes to promote their music.
In 1946, Mercury hired midget Eddie Gaedel to portray the "Mercury man", complete with a winged hat similar to its logo, to promote Mercury recordings. Some early Mercury recordings featured a caricature of him as its logo.
In 1947 Jack Rael, a musician and publicist/manager, persuaded Mercury to let Patti Page (whom he managed) record a song that had been planned to be done by Vic Damone, "Confess". The budget was too small for them to hire a second singer to provide the "answer" parts to Page, so at Rael's suggestion she did both voices. Though "overdubbing" had been used occasionally on 78 discs in the 1930s, for Enrico Caruso and Elisabeth Schumann recordings among others, this became the first documented example of "overdubbing" using tape, and Patti Page, along with rival Capitol Records artists Les Paul & Mary Ford, became one of the artists best known for the use of this technique.
The company released an enormous number of recordings under the Mercury label as well as its subsidiaries (Blue Rock Records, Cumberland Records, EmArcy Records, Fontana Records, Limelight Records, Philips Records, Smash Records and Wing Records). In addition, they leased and purchased material by independent labels and redistributed them.
Under their own label, Mercury released a variety of recording styles from classical music to psychedelic rock. However, its subsidiaries focused on their own specialized categories of music.
Mercury's jazz division had two distinct and important fathers. John Henry Hammond, Jr. brought his expertise and connections when Mercury bought Keynote Records in the late 1940s. And Mercury was the issuing company and distributor for Norman Granz's pre-Norgran/Verve recordings. Although both Hammond and Granz had departed Mercury by the mid-'50s, they established the company in the jazz world. Mercury, under its EmArcy label, released LPs by many important post-swing and bebop artists including Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Clark Terry, Dinah Washington, Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Ernestine Anderson, Sarah Vaughn, Maynard Ferguson, Jimmy Cleveland, Herb Geller and others. By the early 1960s, Mercury was releasing jazz under the flagship label and was an early leader in the new stereo sound releases. Highlights of the early and mid-'60s included albums by Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Cannonball Adderley, Charles (then called Charlie) Mingus, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Max Roach and others.
In the early 1950s, Norman Granz started his own record company, Norgran, which later became Verve. In an ironic twist, both Mercury and Verve are now owned by Universal Music Group and Mercury's jazz library falls under the Verve division. Since the early 1990s, Verve has reissued many Mercury jazz titles on CD, often taking care to use original master tapes and including session material not included on the original LPs. In addition, Mosaic Records in Stamford CT has issued several box sets spotlighting the Mercury and Verve recordings of various artists including Max Roach, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich.
In 1951, under the direction of recording engineer C. Robert (Bob) Fine and recording director David Hall, Mercury Records initiated a recording technique using a single microphone to record symphony orchestras. Fine had for several years used a single microphone for various Mercury small-ensemble classical recordings produced by John Hammond and later Mitch Miller (indeed, Miller, using his full name of Mitchell Miller, made several recordings as a featured oboe player in the late '40s for Mercury). The first record in this new Mercury Olympian Series was Pictures at an Exhibition performed by Rafael Kubelík and the Chicago Symphony. The group that became the most famous using this technique was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which, under the leadership of conductor Antal Doráti, made a long series of classical albums that were very highly regarded - including the first-ever complete recordings of Tchaikovsky's ballets - Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Dorati's 1954 single-mic recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", which also included dramatic recordings of 1812-era artillery and the giant bell tower at Yale University, was one of only two classical albums to ring up Gold Record sales in the 1950s in the U.S.
The New York Times music critic described the Mercury sound on Pictures at an Exhibition as "being in the living presence of the orchestra" and Mercury eventually began releasing their classical recordings under the 'Living Presence' series' name. The recordings were produced by Mercury vice president Wilma Cozart, who later married Bob Fine. Cozart took over recording director duties in 1953 and also produced the CD reissues of much of the Mercury Living Presence catalog in the 1990s. By the late '50s, the Mercury Living Presence crew included session musical supervisors Harold Lawrence and Clair van Ausdall and associate engineer Robert Eberenz. When Cozart retired in 1964, Lawrence took over the Mercury classical division and continued producing Mercury Living Presence records into 1967.
Besides the recordings with the Chicago and Minneapolis orchestras, Mercury also recorded Howard Hanson with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, Frederick Fennell with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Dorati made some recordings in the United Kingdom with the London Symphony Orchestra for Mercury during the 1960s.
In 1955, Mercury began using 3 omni-directional microphones to make stereo recordings on 3-track tape. The technique was an expansion on the mono process—center was still paramount. Once the center, single microphone was set, the sides were set to provide the depth and width heard in the stereo recordings. The center mike still fed the mono LP releases, which accompanied stereo LPs into the 1960s. In 1961, Mercury enhanced the three-microphone stereo technique by using 35 mm magnetic film instead of half-inch tape for recording. The greater emulsion thickness, track width and speed (90 feet per min or 18 ips) of 35 mm magnetic film increased prevention of tape layer print-through and pre-echo and gained in addition extended frequency range and transient response. The Mercury 'Living Presence' stereo records were mastered directly from the 3-track tapes or films, with a 3-2 mix occurring in the mastering room. The same technique—and restored vintage equipment of the same type—was used during the CD reissues. Specifically, 3-track tapes were recorded on Ampex 300-3½" machines at 15 IPS. 35 mm magnetic film recordings were made on 3-track Westrex film recorders. The 3-2 mixdown was done on a modified Westrex mixer. For the original LPs, the mixer directly fed the custom cutting chain. At Fine Recording in NY, the Westrex cutter head on a Scully lathe was fed by modified McIntosh 200W tube amplifiers with very little feedback in the system. Older mono records were made with a Miller cutter head. For the CD reissues, the output of the Westrex mixer directly fed a DCS analog-to-digital converter and the CDs were mastered on Sony 1630 tapes. No digital enhancement or noise reduction was used.
The original LP releases of the classical recordings continued through 1968. The Mercury classical music catalogue is currently managed by Decca Music Group through Philips Records, which reissued the recordings on LP and then CD.
In 2003 Speakers Corner Records began issuing 180 gram audiophile quality LP reissues. The LPs are mastered from 2-track tapes made at the time of the original LP mastering, thus one generation removed from the edited session master used to produce the original LP master and the CD master.
In 1961, Philips, a Dutch electronics company and owner of Philips Records, which lost its distribution deal with Columbia Records outside North America, signed an exchange agreement with Mercury. A year later, Philips' U.S. affiliate Consolidated Electronics Industries Corp. (a.k.a Conelco), bought Mercury and its subsidiary labels. In 1963, Mercury switched British distribution from EMI to Philips.
In July 1967, Mercury Records became the first U.S. record company to release cassette music tapes (Musicassettes).
In 1969, Mercury changed its corporate name to Mercury Record Productions Inc. while its former parent Conelco became North American Philips Corp (N.A.P.C.) after Philips brought control of the company.
In 1972, Philips along with German Electronics giant Siemens merged their record operations with Deutsche Grammophon to become PolyGram. That year PolyGram brought Mercury from N.A.P.C. Mercury's corporate name was changed to Phonogram Inc. to match a related company in the UK that operated the Mercury label there.
In 1981, Mercury, along with other U.S. PolyGram-owned labels, which included Polydor, RSO, and Casablanca, consolidated under the new name PolyGram Records Inc. Around this time, Mercury moved its headquarters from Chicago to New York.
Under PolyGram, Mercury absorbed Casablanca Records (also home to the 20th Century Records back catalogue), home of heavy metalers Kiss and disco stars Donna Summer and Village People, in 1982 and primarily became a rock/pop label with Kiss, Scorpions, Rush, John Cougar Mellencamp, Kurtis Blow, Tears for Fears, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Treat, and Def Leppard.
Mercury, by having Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Def Leppard, Kiss, and Scorpions on their roster, was a premiere label for glam metal.
In late 1998, PolyGram was bought by Seagram, which then absorbed the company into its Universal Music Group unit. Under the reorganization, Mercury Records was folded into the newly formed The Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG). Mercury's pop roster was predominantly taken over by Island Records, while its hip hop artists found a new home at Def Jam Recordings, which formed an imprint dealing with R&B, Def Soul, that absorbed Mercury's R&B artists. Mercury's former country unit became Mercury Nashville Records. IDJMG revived the Mercury imprint in the US in 2007.
Mercury Records (UK) Mercury also continues to operate as an imprint in the UK under the Mercury Records Group of Universal Music UK.
Mercury Records Relaunched in 2007 as a label under The Island Def Jam Music Group, appointing record executive David Massey, as the President and CEO of the new venture. This division of Mercury handles US distribution of pre-1998 Polydor Records pop/rock releases (with some exceptions, such as The Who, whose pre-breakup catalog is controlled by Geffen Records in the US due to having previously been on Decca Records and MCA Records in that country; this also applies to other artists who were signed to a different label that eventually became part of UMG in the US but Polydor internationally). As part of the Polydor catalog, Mercury now handles US rights to all music released by the Rolling Stones between 1971 and 1997 - all releases after that are handled by Interscope Records.
Mercury Nashville Formed with Mercury's roster of country artists just after PolyGram was absorbed into the Universal Music Group. Today it continues to be an active imprint under Universal Music Group Nashville, where it manages the country back catalog that once belonged to PolyGram (MCA Nashville manages what Universal had already owned at the time of the PolyGram merger).
Mercury Records Australia Launched in 2007 by Universal Music Australia exclusively as a full-service local (Australian) A&R operation. Mercury Records had been used for some Australian artists in the 80s and 90s, but was put into hibernation in 1999 in favour of the Universal label until 2007.
Mercury Records (France)
A division of Universal Music France engaged in international Universal Music Group repertoire distribution, as well as local French A&R operations.
Various other national Universal Music Group companies are known to actively use the Mercury Records trademark as an imprint for their local artist and repertoire operations, however no other Universal Music Group companies use the label as a key marketing differentiator, nor do they operate frontline divisions based on the Mercury label.