Canyon Records

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Description

The Phoenix music company is the oldest and one of the most prestigious producers of Native American music in the United States. Canyon Records began recording music of various Native American singers and pow-wow groups in the 1950's. Today, the record label features such artists as R. Carlos Nakai --regarded as the premier Native American flutist with two gold records and numerous Grammy nominations. The once mom-and-pop operation has earned the trust of Native American musicians, establishing itself as a major player not only on the Native American music scene, but also among independent record labels.

Transcript

Narrator:
R. Carlos Nakai was an unemployed schoolteacher when he recorded some songs on tape. He had to beg the heard museum to let him sell cassettes during an Indian art show. Nakai soon got a call from Canyon Records.

R. Carlos Nakai:
People were saying this man is calling you and he wants to talk to you about your recording. I said, "oh, no." I said, "obviously, I've infringed on somebody's copyright." But it turned out they wanted to market my recording instead.

Narrator:
That recording was released on the Canyon Record label in 1984. Since then, Nakai has become Canyon Records' top artist with more than 3 million copies of his music sold. Not bad for an out-of-work teacher who once pleaded with Indian trading posts to sell his music.

R. Carlos Nakai:
I thought, I've been going all over the place trying to find people who would take this on consignment, and most of the trading posts all over the four corners said, "nah, it's not traditional. You're a Navajo and a flute, and they never played flutes. We don't know if we want it." And now I go back to Gallup and Santa Fe and Albuquerque and Cortez and Durango, and they all have my music in their shops.

Narrator:
Canyon Records got its start in 1951 thanks to a Navajo singer named Ed Lee Natay. The Phoenix Little Theater wanted to use Natay's songs in a play and asked Phoenix film producer Ray Bolle to record the singer.

Robert Doyle:
And after the recording of Natay, Ray was so struck by the beauty of Natay's singing he thought, why don't we release an album of this music? Ray did not have a record label. He was just simply moved by the artistry of Natay, and later tracked him down, then released an album at the 1951 Arizona state fair, and that was the beginning of Canyon Records.

Richard Haefer:
Ray Bolle, after he started producing a few records here in the Southwest, other Indian peoples would realize that this was happening because he would go to places where there were intertribal gatherings, powwows and things of that nature, Indian fairs, the Gallup Indian Fair. And pretty soon Indian cultures from -- from the Northwest, from Canada, the northern plains, the Great Lakes, people were driving down to Phoenix or seeing him at some kind of a powwow event and saying, "we want to be recorded too. Can you record us?"

Narrator:
By the 1970s, Ray Bolle and his wife, Mary, had put away their film camera and began recording Indian music full-time. But not all Native Americans wanted their songs recorded.

Robert Doyle:
There were certain tribes that absolutely did not want to record because -- and they had justifiable concerns that they would lose control of it. Once it's recorded it's out of their control, and they didn't want that. And the Bolles would always respect that.

Robert Doyle:
Thrilling these longer notes, even finishing...

Narrator:
Robert Doyle began working at canyon records in the early 1980s while finishing a master's degree at A.S.U.

Give it the Nakai magic. A little --

Narrator:
Doyle took over Canyon Records when the Bolles retired in 1992.

The timing couldn't have been better.

Robert Doyle: '
92 was a very critical year for Native American music in general.

It was right when general interest in Native American themes was developing, fueled by such things as “Dances with Wolves” and then all the big television specials on Native Americans. People were beginning to turn their attention there.

Narrator:
Doyle made the most of the opportunity by branding the genre of music recorded by Canyon Records.

Robert Doyle:
And that required increasing the quality of our graphics and of our recordings because we were no longer competing against other Native American-oriented labels or small independents, we were really competing against the majors. And so our product had to be equal to or sometimes superior to theirs to survive in the marketplace. Overseas was your dream. Fighting for America.

Narrator:
The commitment to quality hasn't gone unnoticed. Canyon Records' artists have received numerous Grammy nominations the past few years. The duo of Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike won Canyon Records' first Grammy award in 2002.

Robert Doyle:
The critical acclaim is most important in terms of affirming the artists, and the importance of something like the Grammy's is not so much that it increases our sales is that it becomes a validation from the greater culture to the Native American culture saying, you are important in our eyes.

Narrator:
The success of Canyon Records extends beyond the number of records sold.

R. Carlos Nakai:
I think working with them and finding that the true heart and soul of what they are as a recording company is not just in mass marketing a popular media at the moment, but to -- to demonstrate to everyone, especially the indigenous tribes, you know, that you've got to record what remains. You've got to put it down in viable form because the younger people in the future are going to need this information desperately.

Narrator:
In 50 years, Canyon Records has put out more than 500 works of music, some of the songs new, others centuries old.

Robert Doyle:
In a way, we don't own this music. We're only caretakers of it until it goes to some other place. And I think that's what keeps us grounded and what is the basis of our longevity and hopefully our longevity with the future.