Grammy Museum Exhibit Celebrates 125 Years of Columbia Records

Rob Stringer Sean Wilentz Bob Santelli Neil Portnow Grammy Museum
Maury Phillips

Said Recording Academy president Neil Portnow of the release of the five-pound tome: "it's an understatement to call it a milestone -- it's a powerful testament to the brand of Columbia Records."

The 125-year legacy of Columbia Records was recognized at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Wednesday night with the opening of a new exhibit inspired by the just-released book 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story.

The five-pound tome, written by historian and Princeton profession Sean Wilentz and published by Chronicle Books, is a beautifully curated collection of anecdotes and images chronicling the storied legacy of the country’s first record label. Among the legends featured: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Leonard CohenBeyoncé and many more.

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To commemorate the release of the book, the result of two-and-a-half years of work and around 96 weekly conference calls, Columbia Records chairman Rob Stringer revealed, some 200 industry dignitaries gathered for an early look at the exhibit and to hear remarks by Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow and author Wilentz, whom Stringer called “a master storyteller [whose] words are truly poetic.”

The author himself joked of the book’s ever-growing word count. What was originally conceived as a 30,000-word book ended up at 90,000, mainly because “Columbia's story is so complicated,” Wilentz explained. “Not in the way you might think -- corporate skullduggery and back-stabbing and all the rest  -- there's plenty of that. We're in the Clive Davis Theatre, what can I say? Sorry I just couldn't resist.”

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Back to the serious subject at hand, Wilentz emphasized Columbia’s auspicious standing as the first record label and a driver of technology and went on to explain that the people who founded the label “were not music people -- they were business men who wanted to make the most money they could.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same? Not quite, it seems, seeing as the drivers of this project, Stringer and Columbia's Steve Barnett, have lived and breathed this book with the same passion they used to push the Adele album. 

The Columbia Records exhibit opened to the public on Nov. 7. See some of the highlights on the official Grammy Museum website.

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