Mark Carpentieri is the man behind M.C. Records, which he started in 1991. Previously a radio presenter on a weekly blues program in New York, Mark started the label to record his own band, Somethin’ Blue, in which he was a drummer. After signing Mississippi bluesman Big Jack Johnson in 1996, M.C. Records has gone from strength to strength, distributing all over the world and being recognized for the quality of its recordings. Punching far above its weight, the label has made a big contribution to the blues scene, and has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, and has won or been nominated for over 30 Blues Music Awards. In 2006, M.C. Records received The Blues Foundation Blues Label of the Year Award.
I got talking to Mark recently to find out more about the work M.C. Records has done over the years. I started by asking Mark first of all what the focus of the label is, what his philosophy or approach to music was, and he told me that for him it has always been about trying to discover what the artist is really passionate about in what they’re doing, and trying to help them articulate that.
“So, you might have two different types of blues releases, from, say, a Joanna Connor, which is blues rock, and then a Kim Wilson, that’s really retro Chicago blues, and they’re quite different, but they both represent those genres in the best possible light.” Mark tries to facilitate his artists doing what they do in the best possible way. And he’s pleased about the reputation that M.C. Records has gained.
“We don’t release a lot of records. I like to say they are all killer, no filler! That’s really important to me – that whatever I put out, people would really respond to it. And people do tell me that. And I’m really happy when I hear that.”
And he’s been doing this for a very long time – over 30 years, quite a feat for an independent label in today’s music industry. This industry has changed beyond all recognition since M.C. Records started up, so I put it to Mark that there must have been times when he thought that the rate of change was just was too much, that it was all getting too hard.
“It certainly has been challenging, especially over the last ten years. Things have really changed a lot. It’s been helpful to have the right kind of artists that people love and the artists themselves are proud of the work that they do. And they tour a lot so they can sell their CDs on the gigs and that always helps.
“But I think, especially around, 2009, 2010, things became very difficult. Odetta passed away in 2008, and then another artist that I had worked with very closely, Marie Knight, passed away in 2009. We were about to go in the studio with her again, and I was going to be in her touring band, and I was really looking forward to it. We had had so much nice love for the Marie Knight record. That was a challenging time, I must admit. I think it was really around that time, I had to think whether I wanted to continue the label or not.”
Marie Knight was a gospel singer, born in 1920, who toured with Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1940s, before going solo as a gospel singer and then recording some R&B songs in the 50s and 60s. She returned to gospel music in the 1970s. Her album Let Us Get Together is an album of Rev. Gary Davis songs and features Larry Campbell doing wondrous things on guitar accompaniment, outplaying Gary Davis, if that’s possible. Campbell is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, who was part of Bob Dylan’s band for many years, and the combination of Knight and Campbell on this album brings out the very best in these songs.
“I was working with Marie. I had been her manager for years and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to record her because I was her manager. So, I was trying to figure out what we were going to do, and she only wanted to do gospel. She didn’t want to do blues, she didn’t want to do any of that. And so, as I was looking around, the idea of Rev. Gary Davis came to my mind, and ironically, he’s buried in my hometown of Lynbrook New York.
“So I listened to these gospel songs and I sent them to her, and she loved them. And then it was about trying to figure out who could work with her. At the time she was booked by Concerted Efforts. And the owner, Paul Kahn, suggested I contact Larry Campbell. I didn’t know if that would be possible – Larry had worked with Bob Dylan, you know, he was a big guy! But he really wanted to do it. So, we ended up recording, and then Kim Wilson guested on two tracks. It’s a record that really stands up. I mean, I listen to it not just because I made it but because it’s really enjoyable. It’s really well played. Larry plays the guitar, and also plays the violin. Catherine Russell’s on that record too [Russell is a wonderful American jazz singer]. She sings two tracks with her, which is great.”
When Marie Knight made Let Us Get Together, she was getting on, maybe around 87 years old – Mark said she never would admit to her age! – but her voice sounds great, strong and confident, and she really imbues these songs with a great deal of life and joy. I asked him about working with Marie and how he’d met her.
“Well, what happened was we were doing the tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Shout, Sister Shout, [a set of various top artists covering Rosetta Tharpe songs] and that was back in 2002. We were recording it and I forget who suggested it, maybe Maria Muldaur, and she said, you should contact Marie Knight. And of course, I said what everyone else would have said, is she still alive? Because she was a contemporary of Sister Rosetta. So I ended up getting a phone number and got speaking to her. But I was thinking, how do I know she’s going to be able to sing?
“Anyway, I talked to her and she didn’t sound weak or frail. She was cautious, but interested. She was very vibrant, so I just said, okay, let’s do it! Let’s see if this works. And I just took a leap of faith and she came down to the studio and she brought her piano player in, her piano player from the church. She was great, and a lot of people think that’s the highlight of the record; her version of Didn’t It Rain is so authentic.
“And then I was managing her, and she would do shows and she would take the bus and was determined to travel by herself! She was something else! So, it was really kind of amazing. I used to visit her in the hospital after she had her stroke. But the last time I saw her was in January of 2009, when we went to the BBC in New York City and she did an interview. Afterwards we had lunch and I said, I’ll see you later. And that was it.
“She was supposed to sing at Odetta’s Memorial service, and the day before we were trying to contact Marie. It ended up her sister called me up, saying that she had had a stroke, she’s in the hospital, and she never recovered after that. She passed away in August.”
I asked Mark if he had the sense that Marie had a strong faith?
“Oh, absolutely. She had a very strong faith. She really dedicated her life to God and she really felt that power. And I think that’s why she only wanted to sing gospel songs. She had some minor R&B hits in the fifties and early sixties but she just didn’t want to do that. She just didn’t feel comfortable singing those songs. I was glad I was able to find an outlet for her through Rev. Gary Davis.”
I was keen to hear about Mark’s experience with Odetta. Ian Zack has just written a terrific biography of Odetta (Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest), which brings out the absolutely massive contribution that Odetta made to American music, which is very often overlooked. Mark Carpentieri comes into the story and the book towards the end, with him working with Odetta when she was in her late sixties, long after her time in the limelight as an icon of the folk world had passed. Working with Odetta, Mark told me was “a joy and a privilege.”
“At a certain point around 1998, my wife and I had the idea of reaching out to Odetta. We were both big fans and I knew she had done a blues record before. That was back in the sixties. So I reached out and contacted her manager, Doug Yeager, and he was interested because I don’t think she’d formally recorded in the studio for years. We all ended up meeting – my wife and I went to see her and it worked out really well. We got along very nicely and then we put this idea together of an album of blues songs.
“We started to look for piano players, someone who would be an arranger and all that. And just like Ian Zack says in the book, I would get blues piano players, and Odetta didn’t like any of them! It wasn’t that she didn’t like their playing, she said, it was just ‘I know what they’re going to play before they play it.’ She wanted something else.
“Doug, I think, ended up suggesting Seth Farber, who is on all three records that we did together, and really did most of the touring with her during that time, and it worked out great. He came from a background of singer-songwriter, Broadway, things like that. And it was just fantastic. I would feed them songs and ideas, and then they would work out the arrangements and it just worked out really well. And, getting her her first Grammy nomination in decades was really great…I was so proud of that.”
With M.C. Records, Odetta recorded three albums, Blues Everywhere I Go, her first full-length studio recording for fourteen years and it featured Dr. John on a couple of tracks; an album of Lead Belly covers, Lookin’ For A Home and a live gospel album, Gonna Let It Shine, with the Holmes Brothers. These are excellent recordings, some of the best work that Odetta has done. The material really suits her, she’s in fine voice and two of them were recognized by Grammy nominations. Listen to the first blues album, Blues Everywhere I Go and you’ll realize you’re listening to what is a classic blues record.
Mark told me he had more material from the first blues album recordings that is as yet unreleased, some of it with Dr. John playing, but at the time unreleaseable because of contractual issues. Dr. John, who was a long-time friend of Odetta, had flown in from Australia the night before the recording and, said Mark, “he comes in and he just sits, and he would have played all day. But they actually just started making music. It was so wonderful working with Dr. John, you know, that was very special.”
Odetta clearly enjoyed the whole experience of making these albums at M.C. Records, but given her age and her health, it wasn’t easy, Mark told me. “It was tough for her. She would sometimes be very weak. But when she sang it didn’t matter. As long as she was there, once she started singing, that was it. There were no bad takes. So, it wasn’t like, Oh my gosh, she’s too tired. If she was going to sing, she was singing!”
Blues Everywhere I Go was nominated for a Traditional Blues Album Grammy, but, unfortunately for her and Mark, B.B. King won it that year for Blues on the Bayou.
Mark said, “It always seems rough when you’re up against B.B. King and you’re never going to beat him! But it was really exciting. We all went out together to the ceremony. And it was so nice to see so many people who hadn’t seen Odetta in years. It was just really wonderful, people congratulating her, and I think she was really proud of that.”
Mark was clearly proud of his work with Odetta and spoke very warmly of their relationship. “It was nice that we developed a friendship. I mean, my wife and I would always take her out to lunch around Christmas time. And she came to my house several times for dinner parties, her and her sister. They were hysterical – complete opposites. It was just great. It was like it was a show! Jimmy, her sister, and Odetta would just be poking at each other. Like they were little kids, it was a lot of fun. I wish I could have videotaped it. But it was just so wonderful to have that kind of relationship, not just the music, but on a personal level, and really, it was such a wonderful time of my life.”
I wondered who Mark was working with at the moment that he thinks is particularly noteworthy or exciting?
“Well, working with Joanna Connor has been wonderful. It was nice that she came back and we ended up releasing those two records [Six String Stories, 2016 and Rise, 2019]. I love working with Joanna and of course, Kim Wilson. He was my musical hero when I was 16. I bought that first Thunderbirds record in the seventies. So we just released Kim’s new album, Take Me Back, in October and it’s really doing well, and we have plans to do more work, which I’m really excited about. We have several projects that we’re working on different than what people would expect from Kim Wilson. And that’s what I’m excited about. And I’m hoping to work again with Guy Davis. I’m really honored to be working with these artists because they’re just great musicians.”
For a small label, M.C. Records has done exceptionally well in garnering multiple Grammy and Blues Music Award nominations, which is testament to both the fine artists Mark works with and the quality of the work they do.
“Back in 2000, after we’d recorded that Memphis Barbecue Session, with Kim Wilson and Big Jack Johnson, Kim said he thought he was being ignored by the Blues Foundation. And I said to him, listen, Kim, if you work with me, I guarantee you, I’m going to get you wins from the WC Handys, you got to trust me. And he did. And you know, the first two records we did, were both nominated for Grammys, and multiple Blues Music Awards. Now, ever since that, he’s always there every year, nominated or winning. So, I think people respect the work that I do. Because it’s about the music, it’s not really me per se. I think over the years people understand that when I release something, it’s thoughtful, it’s not just about, ‘I have to put out six records this year’ or anything like that.”
As Mark looks around the roots music and blues scene, he thinks there is reason to be optimistic, although he says it’s not always going to be necessarily straight blues. In terms of the blues, he says, “Yes, there’ll be people who will look want to play this music and play it at a high level. But you know, straight ahead blues is harder because it’s hard to beat the people who came before. So what we’re seeing more and more of is this roots sound coming along, people taking the blues and gospel and making it their own.”
But, he thinks, “there’s a limited pool of those kinds of things that can really transcend the blues genre. I think Kim Wilson is one of those. I guess Joanna again, combining the rock, putting that edge to it, but not forcing it – you know, just to try to sell records. And I think if you can do that, you’re going to be OK. If you try to force something, or chase after the next thing, it’s going to be really difficult.”
Finally, I asked Mark what he is looking forward to this year at M.C. records? He told me, beyond the record label, he’s looking forward to playing gigs again. Mark is a talented drummer who has been performing for many years. His band, Back On Bourbon Street, plays cool New Orleans’ inflected jazzy blues and he can’t wait to get back on stage with them.
“Emotionally, you know, music is about being with people. I think that’s what people miss most. But maybe we’ll have like a good end of the summer, if people just do the right thing and there’s a vaccine.”
Here’s hoping Mark.