A Brief History of Apple Records
[These album-by-album features have become something of a regular feature for us. And especially when it comes to classic discographies, it’s a whole lot of fun to research and write about too. For this article, I split the album write-ups with my then-colleague Jacob Matzen, and wrote the intro myself. As this was part of a greater campaign bringing the Apple Records catalogue to streaming, it was pretty cool working directly with the label and hearing their glowing reaction to the finished product.]
The story of Apple Records’ heyday is as brief and brilliant as the band that started it.
In 1967, following the death of manager Brian Epstein, the Beatles founded Apple Corps as an umbrella company for all of their creative endeavors, with sub-divisions that included Apple Retail, Apple Publishing and Apple Electronics. A year later, as the Beatles returned from their famous trip to India, the band founded Apple Records in London in 1968.
With a forward-thinking, artist-oriented philosophy, the label was designed to foster talent in a creative, nurturing environment, and provide an alternative to the traditional record companies that had dominated the British music industry since before World War II.
While never run on a wholly commercial basis, Apple Records was nevertheless a functioning and successful record label in its early years. Between 1968 and 1973, Apple issued around 50 singles and over a dozen albums by artists who weren’t known on a first name basis as John, Paul, George or Ringo.
It’s an electric, eclectic collection, spanning musical genres and drawing upon influences from around the world.
Especially in the beginning, most of the label’s signee’s were acts the Beatles personally discovered or supported, and in most cases one or more of the Beatles would be involved in the recording sessions. Artists including James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, Billy Preston, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Iveys (later known as Badfinger), Doris Troy and Jackie Lomax were all signed to Apple within the first year.
In 1970, Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein took over running Apple Corps, shutting down several sub-divisions and effectively dropping much of Apple Records’ artistic roster. Following the breakup of the Beatles, Apple’s releases were dominated by the individual Beatles’ solo material, and new signings to the label were rare, up to the recruitment of the individual ex-Beatles and requiring the formal approval of the other members.
Following the end of Klein’s contract in 1973, Apple Records essentially returned its focus back to the Beatles back catalogue and the later pursuits of the original Fab Four, with many of its artists going on to successful careers with other labels.
Though Apple’s days of recording and releasing new music are long gone, the iconic granny smith remains a recognizable stamp of quality. Below, we’ve highlighted a handful of notable releases from the Apple Records catalogue.
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James Taylor: James Taylor
Released: December 6, 1968
James Taylor’s self titled debut was the first recording by a non-British artist released on Apple Records. It was produced by Apple A&R head Peter Asher during the time Beatles were recording The White Album. After being shown the demos by Asher, Paul McCartney recalled, “I just heard his voice and his guitar and I thought he was great … and he came and played live, so it was just like, ‘Wow, he’s great.’”
Taylor’s folk rock album includes Taylor classics such as “Rainy Day Man” and “Carolina in My Mind”, where the latter includes Paul McCarthy on bass and (possibly) George Harrison on backing vocals. Asher had this to say about the album:
“While, in retrospect, I think the album could fairly be described as ‘over-produced,’ I was so anxious to make everyone pay attention to these remarkable songs and the genius of James’ musicianship that I suggested a lot of overdubs. Paul McCartney joined us to play bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’ (James recalls George Harrison contributed backing vocals, but I don’t remember that). I enlisted my friend Richard Hewson (a jazz trumpeter and brilliant composer) to write arrangements for the songs and for the ‘links’ we constructed to fill the musical interstices.”
Taylor also made his impact on the Beatles with the song “Something In The Way She Moves,” which inspired the opening line of Harrison’s Beatles classic “Something.”
James Taylor, 1968. (Apple Records) James Taylor, 1968. (Apple Records)
Mary Hopkin: Post Card
Released: February 21, 1969
When a virtuous young Welsh girl named Mary Hopkin came to the attention of the most famous new record label at that time, the 18-year-old folk singer was destined for instant success. Her debut album Post Card was produced by Paul McCartney and it is a musical treasure . The songs are part folk, part pop and part old-time show business.
Post Card includes a song by each Harry Nilsson and George Martin, both written for Hopkin at McCartney’s request, and three songs written by the folk singer Donovan: “Lord Of The Reedy River,” “Happiness Runs” and “Voyage Of The Moon.” As Hopkin later remembered the experience: ”I sang these straight from his beautiful book of handwritten lyrics… I thought Donovan was like a little elf, this magical person. They sat either side of me, him and Paul, playing their acoustic guitars. I was on a stool in between, sitting there like a tiny mouse, singing this beautiful music.”
The album reached the number 3 position on the UK charts. Apple would release Hopkin’s follow-up Earth Song, Ocean Song in 1971.
Jackie Lomax: Is This What You Want?
Released: March 21, 1969
Even though George Harrison produced the album, with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr also contributing, English rock and soul singer Jackie Lomax never achieved great commercial success with Is This What You Want? The album contains some very Beatle-esque songs like “Fall Inside Your Eyes,” which reminisces a sonic atmosphere of a floating psychic love connection between two people in mutual silence.
Today, the album is mostly known for its list of guest musicians than for the songs themselves, which is a shame, because the album contains some long-lost treasures like, “The Eagle Laughs At You” and the standout Harrison-penned “Sour Milk Sea,” originally written during the White Album sessions.
Even though Lomax’s Apple adventure was for a brief one, he has fond memories from his time at the label: “George was a champion,” Lomax says. “He made time for me and was protective even, inviting me to his home. I felt really privileged. It was incredible. To have my name associated with The Beatles – what better thing could happen to a budding artist?”
Billy Preston recording in Abbey Road Studios, London, 1969. (Apple Records) Billy Preston recording in Abbey Road Studios, London, 1969. (Apple Records)
Billy Preston: That’s The Way God Planned It
Released: August 22, 1969
That’s The Way God Planned It was the fourth studio album from the brilliantly talented American musician Billy Preston. A true testimony to musical passion, the album is a heady cocktail of energetic funk, explosive love and electric gospel, which David Fricke called “church-infused soul.”
The album was produced by George Harrison and followed Preston’s collaboration with the Beatles and their single, ”Get Back” – famously known as the only Beatles song to be credited to another artist (“The Beatles with Billy Preston”), and leading to John Lennon suggesting Preston join the band permanently as the “Fifth Beatle.” Other contributors to the album include Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Doris Troy.
The title track became Preston’s breakthrough hit when released as a single in the U.K. in July 1969, marking the beginning for a long and beautiful musical journey for Preston. Explaining the title’s significance, he said in 1986: “Everything that’s happened to me has been the way God’s planned it ’cos I never auditioned, I never worked any other job but music and people would call me to play with them. I never like begged or asked, you know, and I feel it was a blessing. And this is the way God planned it.”
Doris Troy: Doris Troy
Released: September 11, 1970
American soul singer Doris Troy’s self-titled album was her first and only on Apple. Despite being Troy’s most personal and reflective album, it is far from a one-woman project. It features songs co-written by Troy and the like of George Harrison, Stephen Stills, Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr. The album also guests prominent musicians like Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton.
Doris Troy was the result of an “typical” Apple all-star collaborative effort, and in 1970 George Harrison commented on the work process of the album’s opening track: “We did her single, ‘Ain’t That Cute,’ which we wrote in the studio, actually. This is a good exercise because… I wouldn’t consider going in there and just making it up on the spot, which is what we did with ‘Ain’t That Cute’. We didn’t have a song, so we made it up, and I just pinched the chords from (Leon Russell’s) ‘Delta Lady’ and away I went. We wrote that, and it’s very nice, with Pete Frampton playing guitar.”
The album was critically acclaimed, though it failed to chart.
Doris Troy, Olympic Studios, London, 1970. (Apple Records) Doris Troy, Olympic Studios, London, 1970. (Apple Records)
John Tavener: The Whale + A Celtic Requiem
Released: September 25, 1970 + May 14, 1971
British neo-classic composer John Tavener may be responsible for the two most eccentric and extraordinary records ever issued on Apple Records. The Whale is a “dramatic cantata” loosely based on the biblical allegory of Jonah and the Whale. And A Celtic Requiem is a requiem written for soprano, children’s choir and orchestra.
In 2004, Travener said this about his debut album: “The Whale is [a] piece written by an angry young man. I was angry because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms. I was also angry because what I saw of so-called classical music in those days was very po-faced. I wrote The Whale as a reaction in a way. The piece is very fantastical.”
On the other hand Celtic Requiem was a theatrical, evocative and daring work, which consists of a strange combination of dinner gongs, Aeolian bagpipes, electric and bass guitar, high soprano and children’s choir. There may not be much point in trying to describe the soundscape of the two albums, but there is certainly a point in listening to them.
Tavener went on to become one of the most popular composers of his generation, and was knighted Sir John Tavener is 2000.
Badfinger: Straight Up
Released: December 13, 1971
As the first act signed to Apple Records, the Welsh rock and power-pop band Badfinger was pegged as “the next Beatles.” Even though they would never come close to out-shadowing their label’s flagship act (a quixotic pursuit even at the time), Badfinger would become one of the most successful acts on the Apple roster.
Badfinger’s third album, Straight Up, is widely considered as one of the band’s best. Due in part to Apple Records’ intervention, the album marks a departure from the group’s more rock-oriented sound to a warmer blend of Beatles-esque ’60s-pop and radio-friendly power pop, while retaining their timeless songwriting. Straight Up includes three popular singles, “Day After Day,” “Baby Blue” and “Name of the Game.”
Due to certain circumstances regarding the Concert for Bangladesh the album is co-produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren. As guitarist Joey Molland recalls of recording “I’d Die Babe”: “[George] was dancing around in the control room as we recorded it. But I was going to drop it because I couldn’t get the words. After the opening phrase, ‘You give me loving like crazy,’ I had a gap, and George said, why don’t you say ‘You make my daisy grow high’? So I did. I guess that’s a collaboration between me and George!”
Badfinger’s next album, Ass (1974) ,would be the band’s fourth and final on Apple, as well as Apple’s last release by a non-Beatle signee.
Badfinger, 1969. (Apple Records)