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The Label: The Story of Columbia Records by Gary Marmorstein

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In attempting to chronicle the labyrinthine story of Columbia Records, Gary Marmorstein has set himself a herculean task. Compacting nearly a century’s worth of wide-ranging facts and anecdotes, involving an ever-shifting matrix of artists, executives, music genres and technological advancements, into 540 pages is like wrestling a wriggling octopus into a pair of skinny jeans. There’s no question Marmorstein has done his homework; his attention to detail, though marred by a few too many small errors, is impressive, sometimes numbingly so. His focus is placed firmly on the army of technicians, sales reps, publicists, A&R chiefs and corner-office visionaries who built Columbia into the world’s most powerful label.

The artists who wove in and out of the Columbia stable serve largely to move the corporate story forward. If you’re looking for detailed career analyses of the A-list likes of Sinatra, Streisand, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson, turn instead to the shelves of books devoted to them. But if the genius, idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes of such disparate industry icons as John Hammond, Ted Wallerstein, Teo Macero, oboist turned pop Svengali Mitch Miller, self-aggrandizing starmaker Clive Davis and, most thoroughly, preening tastemaker Goddard Lieberson spin your platter, you need look no further.

The narrative’s structural awkwardness, with, for instance, a discussion of the relative quirkiness of Gould and Vladimir Horowitz segueing into a dissection of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” can be jarring, and some patches, particularly those involving more minor and transitory employees, are dry as a wishbone a week after Thanksgiving. Still, there’s plenty of choice meat here, much of it deliciously juicy.