Okeh (pronounced 'okay') was founded by Otto K. E. Heinemann (1877–1965), a German-American manager for the U.S. branch of German-owned Odeon Records. As World War I raged in Europe, Heinemann thought it best to have an American based company. He incorporated the Otto Heinemann Phonograph Corporation in 1916, set up his own recording studio and gramophone record pressing plant in New York City, and introduced the company's line of records for public sale in September 1918. Heinemann formed the name of the record label "Okeh", from his initials; early disc labels rendered the name as OkeH. The first discs were vertical cut. In 1919 Okeh switched to the lateral cut method of sound recording, more usual for disc records. That same year the name of the label's owning company was changed to the General Phonograph Corporation. The name on the labels was changed to OKeh. The common 10-inch discs retailed for 75 cents each; the 12-inch discs for $1.25. The company's musical director was Fred Hager, who also appeared under the pseudonym of "Milo Rega" (Hager's middle name and his surname reversed).
Okeh began by issuing popular songs, dance numbers, and vaudeville skits similar to the fare of other labels, but Heineman also wished to experiment with music for audiences neglected by the larger record companies. Okeh produced lines of recordings in German, Czech, Polish, Swedish, and Yiddish for the USA's immigrant communities. Some were pressed from masters leased from European labels, others were recorded by Okeh in New York.
In 1920, Ralph Peer's recordings by African-American blues singer Mamie Smith were a surprise smash hit for Okeh. The company perceived the significant little tapped market for blues and jazz by African American artists. In 1922, Okeh hired Clarence Williams to act as director of "Race" (African American) recordings for Okeh's New York studios, in addition to making recordings under his own name. Okeh then opened a recording studio in Chicago, Illinois, the center of jazz in the 1920s, where Richard M. Jones served as "Race" recordings director. Many classic jazz performances by the likes of King Oliver, Lucille Bogan, Sidney Bechet, Hattie McDaniel, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were recorded by Okeh. As part of the Carl Lindstrom Company, Okeh recordings were distributed by other Lindstrom labels including Parlophone in the United Kingdom.
The original Mamie Smith recording was in 1920, of “Crazy blues.” General Phonograph Corp, OKeH’s manufacturer used Smith’s success as the press to cultivate the new market. Portraits of Smith and lists of her records were used as the advertisements in newspapers including the Chicago Defender, the Atlanta Independent, New York Colored News, and others popular with the African-American community. Okeh had further prominence in the demographic, as African-American artists such as Sara Martin, Eva Taylor, Shelton Brooks, Esther Begeou, and Handy’s Orchestra recorded exclusively for the label. The success of these “Race Recordings” led OKeh to start recording where the music was actually being performed, known as “remote” or “location” recording.
Okeh Records pioneered the practice of "location recording" in 1922. Starting in 1924, Okeh also sent mobile recording trucks to tour other parts of the country to record performers not heard in New York or Chicago. Regular return trips were made once or twice a year to New Orleans, Louisiana, Atlanta, Georgia, San Antonio, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, Kansas City, Missouri, and Detroit, Michigan, recording a wealth of jazz and early country music artists.
In 1926, Okeh switched to the electric microphone system of audio recording. On November 11 of that year, controlling interest in Okeh was purchased by Columbia Records. Beside the legendary OKeh Race 8000 Series (which featured some of the great blues and black jazz of the era), OKeh recorded a series of legendary "chamber" hot jazz sessions with Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Frank Trumbauer's studio groups, Miff Mole's studio groups, among others. These are considered among the best of the 1920s hot small-group white jazz sessions.
Okeh releases grew infrequent after 1932, although the label continued into 1935. Columbia again revived it in 1940 after they lost the rights to the Vocalion name (by dropping the Brunswick label) and pressed it until 1946. It was revived once again in 1951 and used sporadically through to the 1990s. In 1953, Okeh's pop music acts were transferred to the newly formed Epic Records making Okeh an exclusive rhythm and blues label. In 1963, Carl Davis became Okeh's A&R manager and boosted Okeh's fortunes for a couple of years. Epic Records took over management of Okeh in 1965. Among the artists during Okeh's "pop" phase of the 50s and 60s were Johnnie Ray, Little Joe & The Thrillers, and Little Richard. With soul music coming to the forefront in the 60s, Okeh signed Major Lance, who gave the label two big successes with "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um". The success of Okeh in the 1960s was dependent on producer Carl Davis and songwriter Curtis Mayfield. After they left the label (due to disputes with Epic/Okeh head Len Levy), Okeh gradually slipped in sales, and was finally deactivated discreetly by CBS Records in 1970. Davis moved on to Brunswick Records and made it a leading soul music label.
In 1994, Sony Music reactivated the Okeh label (under distribution by Epic Records) as a new-age Blues label. Okeh's first new signings included G. Love & Special Sauce, Keb' Mo, Popa Chubby, and Little Axe. Throughout the first year, in celebration of the relaunch, singles for G. Love, Popa Chubby and Keb' Mo were released on 10-inch vinyl. By 2000, the Okeh label was again retired, and G. Love & Special Sauce was moved to Epic.
• The OKeh Laughing Record, which featured a man and woman laughing uncontrollably, was featured extensively in the Walter Lantz Productions cartoon short Sh-h-h-h-h, the last short directed by Tex Avery. The record was recorded in Germany by Beka Records in 1923, and would be issued in the UK as The Parlophone Laughing Record.
• Jean Shepherd also used the record many times as background music on his radio show on WOR.