Creed Taylor was a well-known and respected name in the jazz world long before he founded his famous CTI (Creed Taylor International) record label in the 1970s.
Read about Bob James/Three, one of CTI’s most sampled releases.
Taylor began his musical career as a trumpet player but soon got into the business end of music with Bethlehem Records, where he worked as head of A&R. There he recorded artists such as Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann, and J.J. Johnson. After moving to ABC-Paramount, he founded the Impulse! label in 1960. He was there long enough to sign John Coltrane to the label. Creed’s next job was with Verve records where he was very successful, producing Stan Getz’s famous bossa nova recordings as well as Wes Montgomery. Next Taylor moved to A&M where he worked with Montgomery and a young George Benson, bringing both artists a wider audience by utilizing string arrangements and popular songs of the day.
In 1970 he founded CTI and had a great deal of success with the label, balancing commercial success with artistic achievement. The label had an aura of sophistication due in part to its trademark arrangements, solid group of house artists, and distinctive cover designs and photography by Pete Turner.
George Benson recorded for CTI for quite a few years, recording what many consider his finest albums for the label. Other notable CTI session leaders included Hubert Laws, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joe Farrell, Milt Jackson, Freddie Hubbard, and Eumir Deodato. In addition, Taylor had at his disposal an amazing array of session musicians who played on many different CTI albums, including Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, and arrangers such as Don Sebesky, Bob James, and Pee Wee Ellis.
CTI artists sold better than most jazz artists while maintaining an air of class and of sophistication that made most CTI recordings artistically successful. Though the sound was fresh and updated, there was no sense that the artists involved were selling out. It seemed that Taylor had found a new and viable sound for jazz that didn’t violate its artistic sensibilities. Added to the mix was an exclusive arrangement with producer Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded all of the CTI sessions from 1973 to 1977 and some after that date as well. Van Gelder had created signature sounds for Verve, Blue Note, and Prestige and he did the same for CTI. Though the mix was unusual in many ways, it was distinctive and created the vibe of exotic beauty that Taylor wanted for CTI.
Unfortunately, Taylor became interested in distributing his own recordings to retailers, a notoriously difficult and expensive business, and rather than increasing sales as he had hoped, the strain threatened to bankrupt the company even as it was enjoying its greatest success–Deodato had hit it big with his fusion version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Taylor had to accept a distribution deal with Motown Records.
Other problems cropped up as well. Taylor’s roster of talent had attracted the attention of larger labels who began to lure his stars away with lucrative contracts. CTI Records lost George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, and Freddie Hubbard, but quickly replaced them with legends such as Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, and Gerry Mulligan. In addition, he was recording sessions with Bob James and other former backup musicians and arrangers as leaders.
By 1978 CTI Records was forced into bankruptcy, though Taylor managed to strike a new distribution arrangement and signed singer Patti Austin. By 1979, though, Taylor was releasing reissues of the classic CTI records of earlier in the decade. He entered into a distribution agreement with Columbia Records whereby Columbia produced and distributed CTI recordings and, in exchange, obtained ownership of the entire CTI catalog. The only exceptions were the Grover Washington Jr. catalog that Motown had previously obtained ownership of and several Bob James recordings that the keyboardist himself obtained ownership of in a lawsuit against Taylor.
Columbia (now part of Sony Music) retains ownership of the CTI catalog and reissued some of the label’s top titles in 2002. However, the reissue program was best described as sporadic and it seemed to sputter out. Many of the classic CTI titles are now available for streaming and downloads, and CTI vinyl records continue to show up in used record stores and online.