The Little Label That Could

the little label that could
the little label that could
the little label that could

 For 37 years many lovers of musical theater, cabaret and the Great
American Songbook have considered Harbinger Records to be a kind of musical oasis.

The label, since 2015 a division of TMTP, includes 70 recordings ranging from studio sessions by legends like Maxine Sullivan and Peggy Lee to live performances and recordings by such top-ranked cabaret stars as Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano—plus rare archival recordings by Richard Rodgers, John Kander, Sheldon Harnick and other songwriters (including the “backers auditions” of musicals such as Barnum and I Love My Wife).

In this day and age, when countless labels are long gone, it’s amazing that a specialized one—with a name that conjures images of a songbird (Harbinger’s logo) and of good things to come —is releasing six recordings this year, including the recent first edition in a quarter-century of the 1969 original cast recording of Celebration by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and a fascinating Jones & Schmidt collection, Hidden Treasures, 1951–2001. This focus on the more obscure work of the
creators of The Fantasticks exemplifies the role of Harbinger as both connoisseur and
curator—making available to the public significant work that deserves to be heard.

Harbinger reflects the discernment and gumption of its founders, Bill Rudman and New Yorker Ken Bloom, who met in 1977 and forged an immediate bond in their passion for musical theater. Their tastes were “absolutely compatible,” said Bill and Ken, “and we decided we were destined
to produce recordings.”

In 1983 an opportunity presented itself: a recording of Geraldine Fitzgerald’s one-woman show, Streetsongs, that embodied another Harbinger tenet: “We want artists who can truly act the song,” said Ken, “not just make pretty sounds.” In 1976 Fitzgerald, a legendary actress on stage and screen, was packing in audiences at New York cabaret Reno Sweeney with a colorful array of numbers, from “Danny Boy” to Gershwin’s “Swanee” and the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.”

In 1979 Streetsongs scored a hit at the Roundabout Theater. Bill was a publicist for the show, and in 1981 he brought it to Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and had it taped in performance as a gift for Fitzgerald. “When the tapes turned out to be terrific, Ken and I worked on them in a Manhattan studio, and emerged with an album that won raves,” said Bill. “Miss Fitzgerald fills her performance with lusty, warm-blooded vitality,” wrote John S. Wilson in The New
York Times

By then Ken had relocated to New York from Washington, D.C., where he wrote and directed musical revues including Sweet and Hot: The Songs of Harold Arlen. Many of the numbers in that show were first performed in the 1930s at New York’s famed nightspot the Cotton Club. They became the inspiration for Harbinger’s second album. “We wanted to include previously unrecorded songs alongside standards like ‘Stormy Weather,’ ” said Ken.

Arlen biographer Ed Jablonski helped them unearth the lesser-known songs, and Bill and Ken set their sights on the jazz singer Maxine Sullivan, who headlined at the Cotton Club in 1940 with Louis Armstrong. They found her number in the New York City phonebook and called her cold. At 72, she eagerly joined the team, and Great Songs From the Cotton Club by Arlen ​& Koehler was released in 1984, followed by albums devoted to composers Burton Lane (1985) and Jule Styne (1987). The reviews for the three recordings were rapturous, and Sullivan received a Grammy Award nomination for the Cotton Club album.

For their next venture, the two men pursued the iconic song stylist Peggy Lee. Again, a phone call did the trick. Bill recalled: “I said, ‘Miss Lee, we have this idea for you. You will record an album comprised entirely of unknown, unrecorded songs by Harold Arlen.’” Her response was quick. “Oh, I would be interested in that.”

​When Held Lightly: Rare Songs by Harold Arlen was released in 1993, the reviews were rhapsodic for Lee, then 73—with special praise for two bittersweet songs: “Come On, Midnight” and “I Had a Love Once.”

Enlightening liner notes are another Harbinger hallmark. Among those who have written for the CD booklets are Stephen Sondheim, William Bolcom, Sheldon Harnick, Tom Jones, Jesse Green,
Marc Horowitz, Michael Feinstein and Ted Chapin. Harbinger’s archival recording of Sissle & Blake Sing “Shuffle Along” copped a 2017 Grammy Award for Ken and Richard Carlin’s liner notes, which provided a history of the trailblazing 1921 all-black show.

In the Harbinger pipeline are Hidden Treasures from Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, and Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta in a partnership with the Smithsonian. During this time of pandemic and loss, a niche record label is providing a bit of sweetness and light for music lovers everywhere.

Rudman and Bloom