A 24 feet by 22 feet image of Mississippi Fred McDowell looms large at the center of the Malaco Music Group offices in Jackson — a tribute to the blues singer whose music set a path that holds true today.

Known as “The Last Soul Company” (a title taken from music critic Peter Guralnick’s writing), Malaco has survived in a tumultuous, fickle field by catering to a passionate niche audience rather than chasing hits and trends.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker stands at the gate of the recording studio that was founded on Northside Drive in 1967, and remains the home of Malaco Records, sharing the story of one of the foremost labels in Southern soul, blues and gospel music.

Malaco Inc. was officially created a year after the studio building opened. Details aren’t set, but plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary include special vinyl releases, a coffee table photo book, a gospel celebration concert and other events throughout the year.

“While we’re celebrating the last 50, we’re still moving forward,” says Malaco president Tommy Couch Jr.

The legacy is intact.

“They took up the mantle for what we call deep soul at a time when a lot of the larger companies had abandoned it (in the mid-’70s),” said blues music historian Scott Barretta. Sounds long identified with Stax and Hi ebbed, displaced on the charts by newer waves, including disco. But “not everyone stopped liking that kind of music,” Barretta said, and Malaco kept those fans in mind.

Certificates citing Malaco’s scores of Grammy nominations line the walls, and movie posters represent Malaco songs used on film soundtracks. The studio bears a reminder of a scene from the James Brown bio-pic Get On Up that was filmed there.

Malaco’s struggles, as well as its successes, are part of the lore.

The seeds for Malaco were set at Ole Miss, where Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers Tommy Couch Sr. and Wolf Stephenson booked bands for dances. Later in Jackson, Couch and brother-in-law Mitchell Malouf started Malaco Attractions. Stephenson joined them in concert promotion, and the recording studio followed.

Music was the focus “and that’s about as pointed, I guess, as it was,” Couch said. They recorded just about anything at the outset, including country music and lectures by University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Dr. Arthur Guyton.

“‘Anesthesia Rounds,” said Stephenson, who became Malaco’s vice president, recalling an early title.

At some point, a favorite thread became a direction. “The rhythm and blues, soul music — whatever the name du jour was at the time — was what we liked better and what we were probably more successful at,” said Couch.

Inside Malaco Records Credit: Photo by Ron Blaylock

Prompted by another studio’s success with Delta blues, Stephenson suggested recording Fred McDowell. The McDowell sessions were released to Capitol Records, and his album was nominated for a Grammy, scoring Malaco a bit of national attention.

Jingles, concert promotions, band booking and studio rental were the studio’s mainstay, but in 1970, New Orleans producer-arranger Wardell Quezergue, who had artists and songs, needed a studio, musicians and funds to record.

“And he would share the spoils with us,” Stephenson said.

A week of recording music tracks and a marathon weekend of recording artists, who traveled from New Orleans in a borrowed school bus, paid off. Eventually.

The Stax and Atlantic labels turned down the Malaco crew’s top picks on first listening, leaving them dejected. Determined, they decided to put out one of the recordings themselves on a 45.

“We picked King Floyd. … To show you how really sharp we were, the one we picked out for the A side was not the hit,” Couch recalled with a laugh.

Floyd took the record to his buddy, a top New Orleans soul disc jockey, who took it home. There, the B side stayed in constant rotation at his teen daughter’s slumber party. On Monday morning, he called to predict, “Man, have you got a hit. This Groove Me song is unbelievable!’”

“When he put it on the radio, it just exploded,” Stephenson said. Atlantic called and made a deal for distribution. The Malaco crew scrambled to finish an album to follow. Stax, recalling its initial pass, circled back to release Jean Knight’s Mr. Big Stuff, which also blasted off.

Groove Me and Mr. Big Stuff sold approximately 2 million copies apiece, Couch said.

“We thought it was going to be easy after that,” Stephenson said. “It was — for a minute.”

The Pointer Sisters from Atlantic, Rufus Thomas and others from Stax and, in 1973, Paul Simon (for There Goes Rhymin’ Simon) all recorded at Malaco.

The fire was lit, but it started fading around 1974 and lean times returned. Malouf left the company.

“Then we recorded Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue and sort of the same thing happened,” Couch said. “We couldn’t get anybody interested in it.”

It was on the shelf for a year, with disco starting to dominate the music scene. They got the song mastered and pressed with “enough money to send it out with first-class postage and that was about it,” Stephenson said. But they got it on the radio in Jackson and a number of small stations, and it took off. TK Productions of Miami handled distribution.

Misty Blue was an R&B and pop hit, selling more than 2 million and earning a Grammy nomination. Moore earned another for I Believe You. Fern Kinney’s mid-tempo Together We Are Beautiful hit big in England, then other countries in Europe. A disco remake of Groove Me was successful, too.

Writer/producer Frederick Knight brought Anita Ward to Malaco in 1979 to record.

“There was one song on there, we thought was a cute song. Everybody else eventually thought that was a have-to-have song, and that was Ring My Bell,” a huge hit, Stephenson said.

Stewart Madison joined the company in 1979 as director of business affairs, while Couch and Stephenson focused on the creative end.

Pioneering African-American promoter Dave Clark, well respected in black radio circles, was hired in 1980 and was instrumental in bringing Z.Z. Hill and others to Malaco.

Malaco Records recording studio Credit: Photo by Ron Blaylock

Z.Z. Hill’s Down Home Blues “broke the mold” on blues’ “brown-paper-bag/under-the-seat” reputation at the time, Couch said. It signaled recognition of a market for old-style blues and soul music, which had become a subgenre of R&B with Malaco the leader in the field, Barretta said.

Artists Hill (until his 1984 death), Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Little Milton Campbell, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland, Shirley Brown and Tyrone Davis, key songwriters and the house band’s soulful grooves cemented Malaco’s dominance in Southern R&B, blues and soul.

“We had our hands full, producing all these soul and R&B artists, up through the ’90s,” Couch said.

“At the same time, since 1975, we were up to our ears in gospel music,” Stephenson added. “Just like Dave Clark had done with the blues artists and soul artists, (Jackson Southernaires’ and Malaco gospel director) Frank Williams had the same effect on the black gospel artists. Almost all of them came because of him.”

Williams also founded the Mississippi Mass Choir.

Stewart Madison, left, Wolf Stephenson, Tommy Couch Sr. and Tommy Couch Jr. of Malaco Records Credit: Photo by Ron Blaylock

That’s the other piece of “The Last Soul Company” title, said Tommy Couch Jr., who joined the company in 1992. “Malaco wasn’t trying to be anything else. It was just concentrating on what it did really well.”

Tommy Couch Sr. has an explanation: “We were one of the last companies that made black music for black people. And, if it spilled over or crossed over, it kind of did it on its own.”

Malaco’s challenges since mirror those across the music industry.

“People really don’t buy records anymore,” Tommy Couch Jr. said.

Counterfeiters and bootleggers were the problem in the 1990s, then illegal digital downloading as technology changed.

“Like everything, we kind of took a step back and realized where we were at the time and embraced it,” he said.

Now they’re direct with digital outlets across the country and in other parts of the world.

Acquisitions also were good moves for Malaco, including part of Select-O-Hits, Savoy Records (placing Malaco with the world’s biggest gospel catalog), Atlanta International and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and publishing.

Malaco Records on Northside Drive in Jackson Credit: Photo by Ron Blaylock

When an April 2011 tornado destroyed most of Malaco’s offices and studio, “44 years worth of experiences were gone in 44 seconds,” Stephenson said. About 20 people on the property escaped injury. Thanks to a tape vault built, “in our infinite wisdom,” to withstand a tornado, so did the masters.

It brought an opportunity to lay things out and get ready for the coming decades. Best thing? Great insurance. They rebuilt.

“As a lot of people say, especially in the last five years, content is king,” Tommy Couch Sr. said. “We luckily have a whole lot of content here, both publishing and masters.”

And, as licensing for commercials and TV or movie use, “that’s forever valuable,” Stephenson said.

Tommy Couch Jr. glanced across the table at his father and Stephenson.

“Just the fact that these guys were talented enough to make great records and smart enough to understand the business and to keep the important things important is really why we’re still here and actually thriving,” he said.

“We’ve become pretty good at embracing changes and been pretty blessed along the way, too.”

Wolf Stephenson works the soundboard inside the studio at Malaco Records. Credit: Photo by Ron Blaylock

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.