Duke and Peacock were two record labels that were influential in shaping the course of American blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, and soul music after World War II. They were also notable as what music historian Roger Wood has called “the largest and most influential African American-owned-and-operated record conglomerate in the world during the 1950s and early 1960s.”
Houston businessman and nightclub owner Don Robey had become the personal manager of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1947 and felt that Brown’s label, Aladdin Records, had been insufficiently zealous in promoting the guitarist’s recordings. Convinced he could do a better job himself, Robey founded Peacock Records (named after the Bronze Peacock, his nightclub in the heart of Houston’s Fifth Ward) in 1949.
Over the next quarter century, Robey continued to expand his musical empire. In the early 1950s, the Peacock roster, in addition to Brown, included Memphis Slim, Marie Adams, Floyd Dixon, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whose 1953 recording of “Hound Dog” was covered by Elvis Presley. In April 1953 Robey acquired full control of the Duke label, founded by David J. Mattis and Bill Fitzgerald in Memphis in 1952, and with it the recording contracts of, among others, Bobby “Blue“ Bland, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace. Also in 1953 Robey moved his expanding record label operations from Lyons Avenue in northeastern Houston to 2809 Erastus Street, the site of his now-closed Bronze Peacock. He constructed his own studio facility there, though it served primarily as a rehearsal and demo studio. Robey used Houston’s ACA Studios to cut many of his finished recordings, and he often sent out recordings for mastering to Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studios in the city.
Ace, who accidentally shot and killed himself backstage during a show at Houston’s City Auditorium on Christmas Day 1954, was initially the most successful Duke artist. He had eight Top 40 hits in his brief career, including “My Song,” “The Clock,” and “Cross My Heart,” all of which reached the Number 1 spot on the R&B charts.
Bland proved even more successful, putting forty-six songs on the R&B charts from 1957 to 1972, including Number 1 hits “Farther On Up the Road” (1957), “I Pity the Fool” (1961), and “That’s the Way Love Is” (1963). His recordings are considered exemplars of the “Duke-Peacock Sound,” which has been described as “a combination of gospel-soaked vocal deliveries…and taut, brass-heavy arrangements from Joe Scott [Bland’s bandleader and arranger] and bandleader Bill Harvey.” Among the musicians who played on those recordings were guitarists Clarence Hollimon and Wayne Bennett, pianist Teddy Reynolds, bassist Hamp Simmons, and drummer Sonny Freeman.
Duke and Peacock also benefited from the managerial talents of Evelyn Johnson, whom Roger Wood called “the true genius” behind the enterprise. For more than twenty years, Johnson filled a variety of important but often unacknowledged roles at his nightclub, record labels, Buffalo Booking Agency, and Lion Publishing Company. Buffalo Booking Agency client B. B. King called Johnson “a remarkable lady” and “one of the pioneers” behind Robey’s enterprise and the recording industry in general. The gracious, soft-spoken Johnson often acted as intermediary between the hard-nosed Robey, who was frequently accused of unethical and even violent behavior, and his artists.
Peacock also had an extremely successful gospel division, which released recordings by such well-known acts as the Austin-based Bells of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Sensational Nightingales, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Inez Andrews. The steady sales of Peacock’s gospel artists kept the label afloat during the lean periods between secular rhythm-and-blues hits. The Dixie Hummingbirds won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance for their 1973 recording of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock.”
Robey’s holdings also included the Back Beat and Song Bird subsidiaries, founded in 1957 and 1963–64 respectively. Among Back Beat’s more successful artists were the Original Casuals, whose “So Tough” reached Number 6 on the R&B charts in 1958; Joe Hinton, whose version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny (How Time Slips Away)” hit Number 1 in 1964; Roy Head and the Traits, whose “Treat Her Right” reached Number 2 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1965; and O. V. Wright, whose “8 Men 4 Women” reached Number 4 on the R&B charts in 1967. Song Bird, a gospel label, had a substantial crossover hit with “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain” by Inez Andrews in 1972.
By then, however, the Duke-Peacock empire had yielded primacy in the R&B/soul field to the Motown and Stax labels, which had superior promotion and distribution networks. Robey was almost seventy years old; his children were uninterested in the music business, and he was entangled in a costly lawsuit with Chess Records.
On May 23, 1973, he agreed to sell his Duke-Peacock holdings, which included some 2,700 song copyrights, contracts with approximately 100 artists, and 2,000 unreleased master recordings, to New York-based ABC-Dunhill Records. In return, Robey reportedly was to receive $25,000 a year for four years and reimbursement of the cost of leasing a new Cadillac for his personal use. He served as a consultant to ABC, but he died just over two years later. Shortly thereafter ABC closed the old Duke-Peacock offices on Erastus Street. On April 16, 2011, the Harris County Historical Commission dedicated a Texas Historical Marker to Peacock Records at its original offices (now the Louis Robey Professional Building) on Lyons Avenue.