"Elektra came to the attention of British fans...also as a result of John Peel, who was a major, major Elektra fan" (Jac Holzman talking to David Hepworth on a Word magazine podcast, 2011)
Elektra Records was founded in 1950 by Jac Holzman and Paul Rickholt. During the 1950s and early 1960s it developed under Holzman's leadership into a respected and successful independent label with a roster of artists drawn from the American folk music revival, among them Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Phil Ochs. In the mid-1960s the US popular music scene was shaken up by the arrival of The Beatles, and the folk revival began to seem staid in the light of their musical inventiveness, youth and wit. In response to this, Elektra decided to broaden its outlook, and after unsuccessful attempts to sign the Lovin' Spoonful and The Byrds, issued its first "electric" pop releases in 1966 with LPs by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Love.
It was at this point that the label first came to the attention of John Peel, then working as "John Ravencroft" on radio station KMEN, San Bernardino, and attending gigs in the clubs along Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, where groups like Love and The Doors regularly performed. As he later told John Walters on Peeling Back The Years, he featured The Doors's first single, "Break On Through (To The Other Side)" on his programmes. As KMEN was a Top 40 station, he may well have played Love's hit singles, "My Little Red Book" and "Seven And Seven Is", as the latter track made the station charts in summer 1966.
After his return to the UK he started work on Radio London in March 1967. By this time Elektra had opened a London office and the label was building an underground reputation in Britain, among both folk fans and those looking for new sounds in pop music. It was one of the few labels aware of the existence of a new "hip post-teeny bopper audience", mentioned in an ad for The Doors' first LP and Love's second album, Da Capo in International Times which also expressed support for the paper after it had been raided by the police. Peel's Radio London colleague Kenny Everett obtained a copy of Love's Da Capo, and was particularly taken with the track "The Castle", which he played regularly on his shows. It became a favourite on Peel's late-night Perfumed Garden show, and on the final Perfumed Garden he credited Everett for drawing his attention to it. It was later used as the theme tune to BBC1 TV's "Holiday" programme, and appeared in the 1967 Peelenium.
The Perfumed Garden became something of a showcase for Elektra artists. The label's newer artists - Love, The Doors, Tim Buckley - mostly came from California's emerging hippy culture and were encouraged by Jac Holzman to be musically adventurous and experimental. Elektra albums stood out for their production values, in contrast to the hastily thrown-together LPs so common at the time. Attention to detail even included LP sleeves, with full-colour photography, imaginative designs and full and readable track listings and credits. The label's records therefore suited the ethos of the late-night programme and were enthusiastically received by Peel.
Furthermore, his enthusiasm came to the attention of Clive Selwood, then head of Elektra's UK office and struggling to find airplay for its material on the BBC and the commercially-oriented pirate radio stations. Selwood was later to become Peel's manager and lifelong friend, but at first, grateful for Peel's support, he supplied him with more Elektra singles and albums for his programmes. Peel made the single version of The Doors' "Light My Fire", a US chart-topper, his Radio London "climber"; it made the Fab 40 and got plenty of airplay on the station's daytime shows, but did not feature in the national charts.
Judy Collins' In My Life was a wide-ranging collection of contemporary songs with orchestral accompaniment, and a break with her earlier folk-based records. She was one of the few female artists regularly heard on Peel's shows at this time, especially with her versions of Stan Kelly's "Liverpool Lullaby" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne". The first two LPs by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the debut album by David Blue also became part of Peel's playlists. He was able to present an exclusive of the Incredible String Band's The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, playing sides one and two of the LP on successive nights in July 1967. Elektra's other July 1967 release, the astrology-themed LP Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, won a hippy cult following due to its exposure on the Perfumed Garden.
After the closure of Radio London, Peel, now managed by Clive Selwood, was given work on Radio One and gradually found his niche there, playing Elektra tracks regularly as the label's status grew. With limited time on the BBC he tended to feature singles rather than longer LP tracks - in late 1967, Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory" (from the LP Goodbye and Hello) and The Doors' "People Are Strange" (from Strange Days). After February 1968 Peel was sole presenter of Top Gear and was free to play more Elektra material on the show. The label was reaching a commercial and artistic peak, with The Doors now the first US "underground" rock stars and LPs like The Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Love's Forever Changes and Judy Collins' Wildflowers winning critical acclaim.
Elektra artists also began to appear in session on Peel's shows in 1968. As well as established favourites The Incredible String Band, there were new British signings Eclection and visiting Americans Tim Buckley, David Ackles, Spider John Koerner and Tom Rush. Peel promoted The Doors' third album Waiting For The Sun (which received a mixed critical reception) and compered their famous Roundhouse concert with Jefferson Airplane in November 1968. He contributed sleevenotes to the 1968 sampler album Select Elektra, full of praise for the label's artists and its "non-commercial" policy.
After 1968 Elektra began to face increasing competition in the USA from larger record labels, eager to demonstrate their "hip" credentials by offering artists bigger budgets and more generous advances than it could afford. By 1969 it was still releasing many albums, but of uneven quality. Peel continued to support the label's best-known artists - Love, The Doors, Tim Buckley, Judy Collins, The Incredible String Band - but of its new signings, only the MC5, The Stooges and the early 1960s rock'n'roller Lonnie Mack gained his lasting approval. (He played a few tracks from the first LP by Bread, who in the 1970s would become one of the label's most successful signings, but showed no further interest in them.)
In 1970 Elektra was bought by Warner Communications. To some, this seemed the end of an era and of the label's identity, but Clive Selwood was still involved with the UK Elektra office, and a deal was done to distribute some of the LPs released by Peel's Dandelion label in the US. However, much of the 1970s Elektra catalogue was the kind of easy-listening singer-songwriter music - Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, Mickey Newbury - which had little appeal for Peel. Exceptions were Plainsong, a band including his friend and former Liverpool Scene guitarist Andy Roberts, and the little-known US band Crabby Appleton.
The Elektra connection also led to what Ken Garner (The Peel Sessions, p.272) identifies as one of the more unlikely sessions for Peel's programmes. The early 1970s saw a revival in the ragtime music of Scott Joplin, now regarded as a serious composer, a change of view which owed much to Joshua Rifkin's recordings of Joplin's work for Elektra's classical music label Nonesuch Records. Rifkin recorded four tracks for Peel's show in late 1973; although he is primarily a classical musician, he was also arranger for the Judy Collins albums Peel had played in 1967-68.
In 1972 Elektra merged with Asylum Records, with Jac Holzman stepping down in favour of Asylum founder David Geffen, who pursued a more commercial, less eclectic policy. New directions for the label were indicated by the Nuggets compilation of 1973, which sparked a revival of interest in 1960s garage-band psychedelia, and Television's 1977 album Marquee Moon, a new wave version of the Elektra group "sound" pioneered by Love and The Doors. Both gained airplay on Peel's shows, but by the late '70s the label was no longer at the cutting edge. It revived in the 1980s and 1990s; Peel played tracks from the 1990 double album Rubáiyát (Elektra's 40th Anniversary), which consisted of cover versions by newer artists of material from the label's catalogue and showed that Elektra was still influential. A deal with 4AD Rocords indicated that the label was still interested in music beyond the mainstream, but at the end of the 1990s it found itself in financial difficulties.
A recently revived Elektra still exists as a label, while the Elektra Nonesuch imprint maintains a tradition of quality, but numerous back-catalogue reissues seem to confirm that its vintage period was the late 1960s. Albums by many of the artists then featured on the label, and on Peel's early programmes, are still available; label founder Jac Holzman remains a respected music industry figure and has published a book on the period, Follow the Music. In addition, therre are interesting chapters on Elektra and Dandelion in the memoirs of Peel's manager Clive Selwood.