Active between 1965 and 1975, Dunhill was a pre-eminent American pop label that released some of the most iconic songs of its era.
In 1964, Dunhill was founded as a Los Angeles-based firm by a group of entertainment industry veterans which included TV/Broadway producer Pierre Cossette, film producer Bobby Roberts and experienced music executive Jay Lasker. However, first among these equals was Lou Adler, a man just beginning an extraordinary career. He'd already co-managed Jan and Dean with Herb Alpert and written or co-written several songs, including the Sam Cooke hit "(What A) Wonderful World" (another collaboration with Alpert). Dunhill would lead him to even bigger success.
Dunhill began as a production company that licensed recordings to other labels, including the early hits by blue-eyed soul singer Johnny Rivers (on Imperial) and an album of Beatles interviews (on Vee Jay, still smarting over having lost the Fab Four's American rights to Capitol). By 1965, Dunhill was ready to become a label in its own right, so the four founders signed a distribution deal with ABC-Paramount; the first release was a single by Adler's then-wife, actress Shelley Fabares. Some Early-Installment Weirdness followed, including a spoken-word single by Dick Clark, three albums by The Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blainenote , and many releases by instrumental Easy Listening group The Brass Ring. However, by the end of the year Dunhill would have its first #1 single — a release that had big implications for its future, some of them unexpected.
Adler had hired P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri as artists and songwriters. One of the songs they brought in, a solo Sloan composition titled "Eve of Destruction", had already been rejected by The Byrds and recorded as an album track by The Turtles. A take on the Protest Songs that singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were doing then, it was dark to the point of nihilism, with lyrics passionately decrying man's inhumanity to man and the various injustices occurring at the time (and all too often, before and since). At Dunhill, "Eve" was recorded by gravel-voiced Barry McGuire, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels; he gave a ferocious performance, while Adler, Sloan and Barri oversaw the Folk Rock backing. "Eve" was controversial from the moment of release — it was widely criticized and even banned in some areas — but a lot of people around the world were ready to hear it. It topped the charts in the US, Canada and Norway, hit the top 5 or 10 in several other countries, and became one of the songs that defined the 60s.
McGuire didn't sustain his popularity and became a One-Hit Wonder, but he made another contribution to Dunhill's success by bringing The Mamas & the Papas to Adler's attention. McGuire recorded John and Michelle Phillips' song "California Dreamin'" with the group on backing vocals; Adler liked it so much that he withdrew the M&Ps' intended debut single, "Go Where You Wanna Go", and replaced it with McGuire's recording of "California Dreamin'", only credited to the group and with Denny Doherty's lead vocal replacing McGuire's. Not only did the result hit #4, but the M&Ps had several other hits and became one of Dunhill's most enduringly popular acts.
By 1967, Adler sold Dunhill to ABC and left to start Ode Records (among many other ventures), but it continued as a highly successful label. Its best-selling acts were:
- Jimmy Buffett. The king of the Parrotheads released three early albums on Dunhill; the first two (Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean) languished in obscurity at the time, but the third (A1A) charted at #25.
- Four Tops. They were once one of Motown's top acts, but then their fortunes began to decline, and they finally quit Berry Gordy's hit factory when he moved it from Detroit to LA. They experienced a Career Resurrection at Dunhill; their label debut, "Keeper of the Castle", became their first top 10 hit since 1967. Their other Dunhill hits include "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)", "Are You Man Enough", "Sweet Understanding Love", "Midnight Flower" and "One Chain Don't Make No Prison".
- The Grass Roots. A hitmaking Revolving Door Band with a confusing history. The project started as a group name for Sloan and Barri to record their songs. They didn't want to tour, so they recruited an existing band called the Bedouins to serve as the Grass Roots; this arrangement lasted only a short while, since the Bedouins wanted to do more original material. Eventually, another group called the 13th Floor (no relation to The 13th Floor Elevators) became the new Grass Roots; instead of relying solely on Sloan/Barri material, they worked with other songwriters and even did some originals. However, none of this turmoil affected their chart performance; they wound up having three top 10 hits ("Let's Live for Today". "Midnight Confessions" and "Sooner or Later") and 18 other singles that made the Hot 100. They also set a record by being on the Billboard charts for 307 consecutive weeks.
- Richard Harris. Irish actor/singer who tried his hand at an artsy, ambitious variety of orchestral pop music. Like Barry McGuire, he had one huge hit that he could never follow up: an epic rendition of Jimmy Webb's Break-Up Song "MacArthur Park", which despite its 7:20 lengthnote peaked at #2.
- Smith. No relation to The Smiths, this was a Blues Rock band which, like labelmates Three Dog Night (see below), had several lead vocalists and did a lot of Cover Versions. Another Dunhill act with only one major hit, their version of The Shirelles' "Baby It's You" hit #5 in 1969; Quentin Tarantino later included it in Death Proof. They're also known for their cover of The Band's "The Weight", which made it to the Easy Rider soundtrack album when rights issues made the original unavailable.
- Steppenwolf. Canadian expatriates who wound up in LA, their brand of politically aware Hard Rock made them stars among the hippie counterculture, while being catchy enough to resonate with more mainstream listeners. Best known for their top 10 hits "Rock Me", "Magic Carpet Ride" and their Signature Song "Born to Be Wild".
- Three Dog Night. Dunhill's most popular act, this seven-man ensemble consisted of three rotating lead singers (Danny Hutton, Chuck Negrom and Cory Wells) and four instrumentalists. They specialized in well-chosen Cover Versions of obscure songs from talented writers such as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Laura Nyro and Paul Williams, which they turned into slick but emotionally appealing pop singles. It was a winning formula that dominated the charts; the band enjoyed 21 top 40 singles, three of which ("Mama Told Me Not to Come", "Joy to the World", "Black & White") reached #1 while eight others made the top 10.
- Joe Walsh. Formerly of ABC band The James Gang, later of Eagles, Walsh recorded his first three solo albums for Dunhill. Barnstorm's sales were just okay, but the next two (The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get and So What) were major hits. Walsh also had a modestly successful single for the label with "Rocky Mountain Way", which peaked at #23.
Although Dunhill was a successful label for a long time, the hits started to dry up by the mid-70s, and it didn't help that ABC Records itself was in financial trouble. In an attempt to bail itself out, in 1975 ABC shut Dunhill down and transferred its roster to the main label. However, this didn't help much, as ABC itself was bought out by MCA in 1979. Today, Universal Music Group administers the Dunhill catalog through its Geffen label.
Note: The Dunhill label existed only in the USA and (after 1971) Canada. From 1965 to 1970, RCA Records was the international licensee; after that, Canada got a new hybrid label called ABC/Dunhill, while in the rest of the world Dunhill joined its corporate parent at the EMI-associated Stateside and Probe labels.note
Dunhill performers with TV Tropes pages:
- Steve Allen
- Jimmy Buffett
- Dick Clark
- Shelley Fabares
- Four Tops
- Barry Gordon
- Richard Harris
- The Mamas & the Papas
- Kenneth Mars
- Dusty Springfield
- Van der Graaf Generator