Native American

KAUT producer Paul Atkinson reports on the 50th anniversary of the Phoenix company Canyon Records. Arizona Illustrated, December 31, 2002 RealPlayer. time 10:24

Bill Buckmaster: A Phoenix record company celebrated its 50th anniversary this year in the recording industry. Canyon Records is one of the oldest independent labels in the nation. As producer Paul Atkinson shows us, the Phoenix company was one of the first to record and market Native American music.

Curtis Hamilton Young Bird: The main core of this concert, our drum beat is nonstop.

Paul Atkinson: The drum group Young Bird is in Scottsdale celebrating Canyon Records 50th anniversary.

Curtis Hamilton Young Bird: Canyon Records is the number one Native American recording [that] everyone would like to be with.

Paul Atkinson: The concert features a half dozen of the 25 or so active artists and groups on the Canyon Records' labels. One of the better known canyon artists is Robert Tree Cody.

Robert Tree Cody: Canyon Records has given many other Native American artisans the opportunity to display skills Native America has to offer to the world.

Paul Atkinson: Like many of the artists on the Canyon Records' label Cody grew up listening to music produced by the Phoenix-based company.

Robert Tree Cody: I always knew I wanted to do something with Canyon.

Paul Atkinson: That day came in 1988.

Robert Tree Cody: I walked in and I said Good afternoon gentlemen. My name is Robert Tree Cody, I'm a Native flutist and I'm damn good.

Paul Atkinson: Many Canyon artists also approached the record company but others like the Oklahoma-based group Young Bird were sought out by Canyon Records.

Curtis Hamilton Young Bird: We were approached after being together for six months. It was shocking someone came to us that early in time.

Paul Atkinson: Canyon Records gave Native American artists a stage, a stage they didn't have before.

Robert Tree Cody: And so, by working with Canyon Records they've opened many doors for a lot of Native Americans and they have succeeded with this. A fine example of success, is R. Carlos Nakai. A very very world reknowned Navajo flutist. Unbelievable flutist.

[background voice] Here we go.

Paul Atkinson: R. Carlos Nakai was an unemployed school teacher when he recorded some songs on tape. He had to beg the Heard Museum to let him sell cassettes during an Indian art show. Nakai soon got a call from Canyon Records.

R. Carlos Nakai: People were saying a man is calling you and wants to talk to you about your recording. I said oh no, obviously I have infringed on somebody's copyright. It turned out that they wanted to market my recording instead.

Paul Atkinson: That recording was released on the Canyon Record label in 1984. Since then, Nakai has become Canyon Records' top artist with more than 3 million copies of his music sold. Not bad for an out-of-work teacher who once pleaded with Indian trading posts to sell his music.

R. Carlos Nakai: I thought, you know I've been going all over the place trying to find people to take it on consignment and most of the trading posts all over the Four Corners said no, it's not traditional. You're a Navajo and a Ute, they never played flutes. We don't know if they want it. Now I go to Gallop, Santa Fe, and Albuquerue and Cortez, and Durango, and they all have my music in their shops.

Paul Atkinson: Canyon Records got its start in 1951 thanks to a Navajo singer named Ed Lee Natay. The Phoenix Little Theater wanted to use Natay's songs in a play and asked a Phoenix film producer Ray Boley to record the singer.

Robert Doyle: After the recording of Natay, Ray was so struck by the beauty of the man's singing they decided to release the music. Now Ray did not have a record label, he was simply struck by the beauty of the artist, Natay, and tracked him down, and released an album at the 1951 Arizona State Fair. That was the beginning of Canyon Records.

Richard Haefer: Ray Bouly, after he started producing a few records here in the Southwest, other Indian peoples would realize this was happening because they went to places where there were tribal gatherings, pow wows, things of that nature, the Indian fairs-the Gallop Indian Fair. Pretty soon Indian cultures from the northwest, from Canada, the northern plains, Great Lakes, people were driving down to Phoenix or seeomg him at some kind of a pow wow event and saying, We want to be recorded, too, can you record us?

Paul Atkinson: By the 1970s, Ray Boley and his wife Mary put away the camera and began recording Indian music full-time. But not all Native Americans wanted their songs recorded.

Robert Doyle: There were certain tribes absolutely did not want to record because they had justifiable concerns that they would lose control of it once it was recorded. And once it was recorded it was out of their control. And the Boleys always respected that.

Paul Atkinson: Robert Doyle began working at Canyon Records in the early 1980s while finishing a masters degree at ASU.

Robert Doyle: When I came to work for Ray, it was with the understanding with I would be the next generation at Canyon. [We need a little more feeling. Just flare it.]

Paul Atkinson: Doyle took over Canyon Records when the Boleys retired in 1992. The timing could not have been better.

Robert Doyle: 1992 was a critical year for Native American music in general. It was right when general interest in Native American themes was developing, fueled by such things as Dances with Wolves and the all the big television specials on Native Americans. People were beginning to turn their attention there.

Paul Atkinson: Doyle made the most of the opportunity by broadening the genre of music recorded by Canyon Records.

Robert Doyle: That required increasing the quality of our graphics and our recordings because we were no longer competing against other Native American oriented labels or independents, we were competing against the majors. Our product had to be equal to or superior to theirs to survive in the marketplace.

Paul Atkinson: The commitment to quality has not gone unnoticed. Canyon Records' artists received numerous Grammy nominations the past few years. The duo of Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike won a first Grammy in 2002.

Robert Doyle: The critical acclaim is important in terms of affirming the artists and the importance of something like the Grammys is not that it increases the sales, but it becomes a validation from the greater culture to the Native American culture saying are you important in our eyes.

Paul Atkinson: The celebration of Canyon Records 50th anniversary is not necessarily about the company but its impact on Native Americans and their music.

Richard Haefer: As far as in the 50s and 60s, it was a means of validating, if you would, Indian identity. Someone is producing our sounds. We can buy our sounds, we can hear them, we're real. We're real and we're interested in this music. And, other people are interested in the music as well.
Paul Atkinson: The success of Canyon Records extends beyond the number of records sold.
Robert Tree Cody: I think working with them and finding that the true heart and soul of what they are as a recording company is not just in mass marketing and popular media at the moment, but to demonstrate to everyone, especially the indigenous tribes is that you have to record what remains, you have to put it down in viable form because younger people in the future will need this information desperately.

Paul Atkinson: In 50 years Canyon Records has put out more than 500 works of music. Some of the songs new, others centuries old.

Robert Doyle: In a way we don't own this music, we're only caretakers until it goes to some other place. I think that's what keeps us grounded and what is the basis of our longevity and hopefully our longevity into the future.

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