Impulse! Records is an American jazz record label, originally established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor as a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount Records, based in Santa Monica. John Coltrane was among Impulse!'s earliest signings and thanks to the consistent sales and critical kudos generated by his recordings, the label came to be known in retrospect as "the house that Trane built".
Impulse's parent company, ABC-Paramount Records, was established in 1955 as the recording division of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). ABC had benefitted from the US government antitrust actions of the 1940s and 1950s, through which major broadcasters and film studios were forced to divest parts of their companies. In the early 1950s ABC acquired the Blue Network of radio stations from NBC and later merged with the newly independent Paramount Theaters chain, formerly owned by Paramount Pictures.
The new recording division was originally headquartered at 1501 Broadway, above the famous Paramount Theatre in Times Square. Under the leadership of ex-Paramount Pictures executive Leonard Goldenson, ABC "sought to establish itself as a cross-media force in television, theatres and sound recordings" and it enjoyed early success in TV with The Mickey Mouse Club, a joint venture with the Disney corporation.
In order to market music from the hugely successful TV show, ABC-Paramount established the Am-Par Record Corporation and the ABC-Paramount label in early 1955, appointing former Boston record distributor Sam Clark as president, with sales manager Larry Newton and A&R director Harry Levine, and the new recording company enjoyed Goldenson's full support. Producer-arranger Sid Feller, the company's first salaried employee, started work on 14 July 1955. The label scored some notable early successes in the pop field with acts such as Paul Anka.
In 1960 Am-Par established a new jazz subsidiary and hired noted producer Creed Taylor, who had previously worked with the New York-based Bethlehem Records label, as its inaugural house producer and A&R manager. Taylor initially decided on the name "Pulse", but shortly before the label was launched it was discovered that there was already a label with that name, so Taylor added a prefix, becoming Impulse. In the mid-60s, Impulse headquarters were moved to 1130 Avenue of the Americas.
Being almost exclusively an album-based label, Impulse! was able to exploit the new format to the fullest and its LPs are noted for their distinctive visual style. The label's trademark black, orange and white livery was devised by original art director Fran Attaway (then known as Fran Scott), whom Taylor also credits with establishing Impulse's tradition of using cutting-edge photographers for its covers. The Impulse colour scheme was chosen for its brightness and because no other label used this combination.
The label's striking logo featured the Impulse name in a heavy sans-serif lower-case font, followed by an exclamation mark that invertedly mirrors the lower-case "i" at the beginning. During the 1960s, Impulse! covers and disc labels featured variations on this colour scheme (a notable exception to the colour scheme is the John Coltrane album A Love Supreme, possibly the most iconic release of the label's catalogue, which uses the usual design in black and white only); for most of the 1960s the front cover of Impulse! albums typically featured the Impulse logo, usually (but not always) in orange letters in a white circle, with black-and-orange exclamation marks above it and the album catalog number below it. The classic design of the disc label, used for most of the 1960s, featured alternations of the Impulse name and the "i-and-exclamation-mark" logo in white-and-orange, set in a black ring, which encircled the label details, most of which was printed in bold black lettering on an orange circle, with some details printed in white. Around 1968 the circular front-cover badge was replaced by a new one-colour design, featuring a simplified Impulse! logo and the ABC Records logo side by side, within a divided rectangular border.
Like its contemporaries Blue Note and Verve, the front covers of Impulse's LPs often featured stylish large-format photographs or paintings, usually in full colour, which were typically 'bled out' to the edges of the cover and printed on glossy laminated stock. Many of the best-known Impulse! covers were designed by art director Robert Flynn and photographed by a small group that included Pete Turner (who also shot many renowned covers for the Verve, A&M and CTI labels), Chuck Stewart, famed portraitist Arnold Newman, Ted Russell and Joe Alper (also known for his early '60s photographs of Bob Dylan). The distinctive, sparse black and white back cover designs bore the slogan "The New Wave of Jazz is on IMPULSE!"; most Impulse! LPs were issued in a gatefold sleeve with photographs and liner notes or an essay inside or, in some cases, multi-page insert booklets.
Impulse!'s founding house producer and A&R manager Creed Taylor scored early success by signing Ray Charles, who had just ended his contract with Atlantic Records. Charles' debut for the label, Genius + Soul = Jazz provided Impulse with its first major hit, and became the fourth-highest charting album of Charles' career. Other early successes included the album Out of the Cool by composer-arranger Gil Evans, who had risen to prominence through his work with Miles Davis. Taylor also set the scene for the label's most successful period with his far-sighted signing of another former Atlantic artist, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who had also risen to fame during his stint with Miles Davis in the 1950s. Another significant early Impulse release was The Blues and the Abstract Truth by composer-arranger Oliver Nelson, who led an all-star group that featured Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes. Nelson played an important role in the label's early years before relocating to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand arranger for film and television. Creed Taylor left Impulse in the summer of 1961 after being approached by MGM to take over the running of Verve Records.
The Thiele Years: 1961-69 - Creed Taylor's successor Bob Thiele produced nearly all of the albums released during Impulse's 'classic' period in the 1960s. He had previously worked for Decca Records and its subsidiaries Coral and Brunswick, where his production credits included Alan Dale, The McGuire Sisters, Pearl Bailey and numerous hits for singer Theresa Brewer, whom he married. In the face of resistance from Decca executives suspicious of the emerging rock 'n' roll trend, Thiele scored a major coup by signing singer-songwriter Buddy Holly to Brunswick in 1957.
Although not initially familiar with the 'new jazz' movement, Thiele proved to be a relaxed, sympathetic and open-minded producer who backed the creative choices of his artists, afforded them unprecedented freedom in their choice of repertoire, and gave leading acts like Coltrane virtual carte blanche in the studio. During the period that Taylor and Thiele led the label, many Impulse! albums were recorded at the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio owned and operated by engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and this association lasted from the label's inception until around the time of Thiele's departure in the late 1960s.
Thiele's first Impulse! production was John Coltrane's Live! at the Village Vanguard, released in March 1962. In terms of its catalogue, Impulse! during the Thiele years is recognised as a key outlet for free jazz and the broad musical movement (sometimes referred to as "The New Thing") that was spearheaded by artists including John Coltrane and his wife Alice, Albert Ayler, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and McCoy Tyner. Alongside Impulse's groundbreaking avant-garde releases, Thiele also facilitated and produced the recording of two classic collaborations between Coltrane and two of their mutual heroes, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. Other notable performers who recorded for Impulse! during this period included Charles Mingus.
Aided by good promotion and ABC-Paramount's well-established distribution chain, Coltrane enjoyed the highest profile and the strongest and most consistent sales of any Impulse! artist. As well as its enormous artistic influence, Coltrane's classic 1965 LP A Love Supreme became one of the most successful jazz albums ever released-it sold more than 100,000 copies on its first release, and by 1970 it had sold more than half a million. It is also widely acknowledged that the music Coltrane recorded between 1961 and 1967 exerted an enormous effect on both jazz and popular music. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds has repeatedly stated that he listened to Coltrane extensively in this period, and that Coltrane's saxophone playing was a direct influence on his own 12-string guitar playing on The Byrds' landmark 1965 hit "Eight Miles High". In 1967, ABC-Paramount Records changed its name to ABC Records.
Coltrane's premature death from liver cancer in 1967 robbed Impulse! of its most prestigious, best-selling and productive artist, but Coltrane had recorded far more for the company than could be contemporaneously released and subsequent anthology collections were interspersed with new albums that featured previously unreleased recordings or alternate versions of previously issued tracks. Many of these recordings were co-produced by his widow Alice at the couple's home studio and issued through a distribution deal facilitated by Thiele.
Bob Thiele gradually severed his ties with Impulse! during 1969, setting up a short-lived deal to provide independently-produced recordings, before leaving the label entirely to establish his own imprint, Flying Dutchman Records. Thiele's departure was in part precipitated by the breakdown of his relationship with ABC Records president Larry Newton. One of Thiele's last major productions before leaving Impulse! was the classic Louis Armstrong song "What A Wonderful World", which Thiele co-wrote and produced for ABC's pop division shortly before Armstrong's death. Although the musicians were apparently unaware of the drama, the recording session is reported to have been the scene of a major clash between Thiele and Newton. When Newton arrived at the session he became upset when he discovered that Armstrong was recording a ballad rather than a 'Dixieland'-style number like his earlier hit "Hello Dolly". According to Thiele's own account, this led to a screaming match; Newton then had to be locked out of the studio and he stood outside throughout the session, banging on the door and yelling to be let in.\
Possibly because of this clash, the single was released with little promotion from ABC and it sold relatively poorly in the USA, although it fared extremely well in Europe, where it sold more than 1.5 million copies and went to #1 in the United Kingdom. Demand from ABC's European distributor EMI for a What A Wonderful World album forced ABC to issue one but they did not promote the album either so it did not chart in the U.S. Ironically, twenty years later, it became the most successful recording of both Armstrong and Thiele's careers, thanks to its inclusion on the hit soundtrack to the Robin Williams film Good Morning, Vietnam.
The 1970s - Under the guidance of Thiele's successor Ed Michel, Impulse! continued to issue notable recordings, including the debut album by the Liberation Music Orchestra, the first of four acclaimed collaborations between bassist Charlie Haden and composer-arranger Carla Bley. The company also acquired LPs that Sun Ra had recorded for his private label, making them more widely available for the first time.
In the early 1970s ABC restructured its recording division, merging the ABC label with its other pop-rock subsidiary, Dunhill Records -- whose roster included The Mamas & the Papas, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and Steely Dan -- and Impulse! was moved west to share headquarters with ABC-Dunhill in Los Angeles. By this time pop-rock acts dominated the company's output, with Impulse! releases accounting for only 5 percent of total sales. It was also during this time that Impulse! became the first all-jazz label to release a rock album when they issued Trespass, the second album by Genesis, in the U.S. in 1970, predating Norah Jones' signing to Blue Note by well over thirty years. (Trespass was reissued on ABC in 1974).
In 1974, ABC acquired the Famous Music labels and catalog from Gulf+Western, and subsequently, that company's jazz recordings were incorporated into the Impulse! catalog.
New recordings from the label ceased in the late 1970s, but ABC kept reissuing classic titles until the company was sold to MCA Records in 1979. The label name has since been revived for new recordings only for short periods. Impulse! has released new recordings by artists with historic ties to the label such as McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, as well as more mainstream and commercial artists like Diana Krall. Impulse! is now part of Universal Music Group's jazz holdings, The Verve Music Group.