Rupe, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, died on Friday (April 15) at his home in Santa Barbara, California, according to the Arthur N Rupe Foundation. A cause of death has not been disclosed.
Born Arthur Goldberg, Rupe was raised outside the Pittsburgh area. According to the foundation, he “attended college at Virginia Tech and Miami University of Ohio, and in 1939 set off for Los Angeles to make his way in the world.”
He changed his surname to Rupe after moving West, after learning from his grandfather that it was the family name before Goldberg was adopted at Ellis Island.
During World War II, Rupe worked at Terminal Island testing ships. However, with a passion for blues, gospel and R&B music, he formed Juke Box Records with partner Ben Siegert in 1944. The label had a regional hit with the Sepia Tones’ ‘Boogie No. 1’.
Two years later, in 1946, Rupe parted ways with Juke Box and founded Specialty Records. “Over the next 15 years, Specialty became one of the most prominent independent recording companies, with worldwide distribution,” per the foundation. “Rupe’s work at Specialty played a key role in the emergence of the new musical genre of rock ‘n‘ roll.”
Little Richard was the label’s biggest hitmaker, starting with the classic ‘Tutti Frutti’ in 1955. Other Specialty hits by Little Richard included ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Rip it Up’.
In a 2011 interview for the Rock Hall archives, Rupe said: “There was something in Little Richard’s voice I liked.”
Elsewhere, Sam Cooke recorded some songs at Specialty in the mid-1950s after wanting to expand his appeal beyond gospel; one of those tracks included ‘You Send Me’. Other artists that recorded for Specialty included Lloyd Price, Roy Milton and Percy Mayfield.
Specialty’s masters were acquired by Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Records in 1990. Today they’re owned and distributed by indie music giant Concord.
Tributes are being paid to Rupe on social media, including one from Grammy-winning musician and rock ‘n‘ roll historian Billy Vera, who wrote: “It is with great sadness I report the passing at 6:30 this morning of my friend and one of the great men I’ve known, Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records and who discovered Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price and other great artists. RIP my friend.”
It is with great sadness I report the passing at 6:30 this morning of my friend and one of the great men I’ve known, Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records and who discovered Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price and other great artists. RIP my friend. pic.twitter.com/fVDPHx06It
— Billy Vera (@billybeater) April 15, 2022
You can see other tributes below:
Rock and roll as we know it would not exist without 2011 Inductee Art Rupe. As founder of Specialty Records in 1945, Rupe brought R&B and soul into the mainstream and helped ignite the rock revolution. pic.twitter.com/7eQO9Zmuyl
— Rock Hall (@rockhall) April 16, 2022
— Team Love Records (@teamloverecords) April 15, 2022
Please join us in remembering legendary label executive and producer Art Rupe, who passed away yesterday at the age of 104. He founded Specialty Records in 1944 and helped launch the careers of early rock and R&B icons, including Little Richard. 🤍
📸: Michael Ochs Archives pic.twitter.com/MwdzVmN8Us
— Craft Recordings (@CraftRecordings) April 16, 2022
Two things I learned today. Art Rupe of Specialty records just died at 104; PG Wodehouse’s grandfather fought at Waterloo pic.twitter.com/Ef2NdUv16q
— David Hepworth (@davidhepworth) April 17, 2022
Rupe is survived by his daughter Beverly Rupe Schwarz, son-in-law Leo Schwarz, and granddaughter Madeline Kahan.