Warner Bros. Loss Leader Series: The Big Ball (1970)

The Big Ball, Warner Brothers’ 1970 Loss Leader Series release, turned up on a recent vinyl run and got us deep into the Warner groove.

Looking through some crates at a local vintage/resale shop that regularly turns up interesting vinyl I came across it: The Big Ball, a two-record sampler from Warner Brothers’ Loss Leader Series. Instantly I was blasted back into the mid-1970s when I would regularly see these samplers advertised on the inner sleeves of various records that I purchased from Warner Brothers and their subsidiary, Reprise.

In the 1960s all of the major record labels were caught off guard by the sudden youth movement and popularity of rock and roll music. Over at Columbia, Mitch Miller had kept the company’s offerings in the middle of the road, easy listening market until it was apparent that there was a new audience demanding new music that was out there for the taking. 

Warner Brothers Records was in a similar boat, having been known largely as the home of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Sinatra had started Reprise in 1960 to allow him more artistic freedom in his recordings, and of course, he signed several of his Rat Pack pals to the label. 

But in 1963 Sinatra sold the label to Warner Brothers as part of a movie deal and under the guidance of label head Mo Ostin they began to actively pursue the youth market. Reprise led the way for Warner and helped solidify the label. Warner Brother Records had been in serious financial trouble as early as 1960, only two years after the studio had started it up. 

With signings of The Fugs, Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead, Warner/Reprise put itself square in the middle of what was happening in the world of rock music. They promoted their records like any other label, but they were also looking for grassroots ways to do so. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, they wanted to do it inexpensively. Second, the community of music fans they were promoting to, around 1970, still saw itself as rebellious and anti-establishment, untrusting of large companies or record labels and their marketing ploys.

The Big Ball Warner Brothers Compilation, 1970

Stan Cornyn was head of Warner’s Creative Services department, and he came up with the marketing idea behind the Loss Leader Series and wrote some of the irreverent, un-corporate copy that was used to promote it. Besides record sleeves, Warner also advertised these samplers in music magazines of the day, particularly Rolling Stone. 

You couldn’t buy these in stores, you had to mail away for them at the price of $2 for each two-record set (not even charging shipping and handling). The cost of producing these was down to the actual physical pressing and packaging costs since the label had the rights to use all of the tracks anyway. Warner continued releasing Loss Leaders through 1980, the birth of the CD era. 

“Loss Leaders are compiled from new stuff, NOT old tracks dredged out of our Dead Dogs files. No selections are used on more than one album…Warner/Reprise is not 100% benevolent. It’s our fervent hope that–after hearing one of the Loss Leaders–you’ll be encouraged to pick up more of what you hear on these special albums, at regular retail prices. That’s where the profit lies. We think.”

Warner Liner Sleeve advertising, The Big Ball

That kind of sums up the record industry circa 1970, and for a good many years after.

I was pleased to pay $7 for The Big Ball, three times what it was worth in 1970, the year this compilation was released. These things are really like archeological finds, giving the flavor of the music and artists of the time, both well established and relatively obscure. 

For example, The Big Ball‘s opening track features The Fifth Avenue Band, and their self-titled 1970 Warner release is the only album the group ever made. It’s folky and jazzy, and the track “Nice Folks” sounds a lot like a lost Laura Nyro song. We get John Sebastian from his first solo album, Geoff & Maria Muldaur doing a New Orleans blues from their first album. Norman Greenbaum from his only album, performing “Jubilee.” 

You’ve got some established artists with songs from their recently released, later to become classic, albums: Van Morrison “Caravan,” Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green “Oh Well (Parts One and Two),” Jethro Tull “Nothing Is Easy,” Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi,” Neil Young “The Loner,” Randy Newman “Momma Told Me Not to Come,” James Taylor “Fire and Rain.”

Then we have the Zappa contingent. Zappa reformed the Mothers of Invention and released three records that year. The track here, “WPLJ” comes from Burnt Weenie Sandwich and is a cover of the Four Deuces doo-wop song. WPLJ refers to white port and lemon juice, and Zappa said he couldn’t have written a song with a more absurd lyric himself. The Big Ball also includes a group of artists from Zappa’s orbit: G.T.O.s, Wild Man Fisher, and Captain Beefheart.  (The G.T.O.s and Wild Man Fisher tracks were not available for Spotify playlist. Also excluded were tracks by Dion and Savage Grace that were unavailable).

It’s a pretty amazing transformation for a label to go from Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin to these artists who were among the more experimental artists in the rock arena in a few short years. There’s a charming stick-to-the-wall test marketing about the whole project and, in addition, the music is pretty great and you get to experience the vibe of the year the sample was made.

Of course, the Loss Leaders Series is collectible, but you can still get most of the volumes at very reasonable prices–below $10 in the bins and below $20 online. Sometimes they are listed online for much higher prices, but it’s part of the fun to find a copy in the wild like this and get it at a good price. 

I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of these. Having vinyl copies is such a rich experience–you not only have great sounding masters of the music but also the great liner notes that list the artist, the album that the song comes from, the producer. It’s amazing that the label went to all of this trouble to produce a top-notch product that they were essentially giving away but this was marketing in the pre-Internet world.

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