Casablanca Records: The Label Disco Made

Early years

It all started with a man named Neil Bogart and his partners, Cecil Holmes, Larry Harris (Bogart’s cousin) and Buck Reingold.  The company had a rough start, but it quickly found the sound of the 70’s and became the label of both disco and excess, churning out hit after hit. 

Until September 1973, Bogart had overseen the Buddah record label that was owned by Viewlex Corporation. He tired of conforming to Viewlex’s requirements and left the company to start his own record label. Initially he used his relationships at Warner Bros. Records to obtain and arrange funding for his new venture. He brought with him his cousin, Larry Harris, along with a few other friends and colleagues from Buddah, Cecil Holmes (who would also go on to found the Casablanca subsidiary, Chocolate City Records) and Buck Reingold   Initially Bogart wanted to name the company Emerald City, but the name was already taken by another label, that later ended up as an Atlantic subsidiary.  He named the label Casablanca as an homage to one of his favorite films and whose protagonist was named, Humphrey Bogart. Given that Warner Bros. owned the rights to the movie, he wasn’t worried about getting sued for copyright infringement.

At first, the prospects of the new enterprise looked good; the first band that signed to the new label was a rock act called KISS and shortly thereafter the company had some minor success with one of their first single releases, Bill Amebury’s “Virginia (Touch Me Like You Do)” and shortly thereafter they had their first Billboard Top 40 hits with “Butter boy” by Fanny and then the Hudson’s Brothers’ “So You Are a Star.

Going Independent

Relations between Casablanca and Warner rapidly became strained as Bogart realized that Warner’s distribution unit was focusing primarily on inhouse bands and limiting Casablanca’s distribution reach. When Casablanca’s management team discussed the matter with Warner Bros. CEO, Mo Ostin, Ostin decided to let the label go its own way. In return for Bogart’s pledge to pay back Warner as quickly as possible, Ostin cut the Casablanca loose and it became a totally independent label.

The label’s first big project after the going independent was to release a double album of audio highlights from the hugely popular Johnny Carson show. While the record went gold, it was ultimately a commercial failure with many of the albums being returned by vendors. The company management joked about it, stating “it shipped gold and came back to the label platinum.” Things were starting to look dire for the fledging company.

Disco and KISS

Then, the label hit gold and platinum. Their signed artists began making hit after hit. KISS, had a slow start with their first three albums having limited sales and no effect on the charts at all. At the verge of having to put Casablanca into bankruptcy, Bogart took a final chance on the band, who had begun to create a following, and released their live double album in 1975. It paid off, the album was both Casablanca’s and KISS’ first gold album. Their next three albums released in 1976-77 all went platinum.

The label had also signed Parliament at its inception in 1973. In 1974, the band released “Up for the Down Stroke” the title song gave the band their first top 10 R&B chart single. Their follow up album, “Chocolate City” was did reasonably well, but their third album released in 1975, “Mothership Connection” went gold and then platinum. At that point, it was on for Parliament, with every following album going either gold or platinum through 1980. Casablanca made a point of keeping George Clinton happy funding his side project Parlet along with a string of extravagant tours.

At this point Casablanca realized it had made it as they watched additional signed artists blow up the house. Donna Summer was signed in 1975 and her first release with the label “Love to Love you Baby” went gold and she became the company’s most prolific artist on the singles charts, with eight top 5 charting singles in a 19 month period along with 10 singles going gold. She was crowned the “Queen of Disco.” And brought both Grammys and Oscars home to the Casablanca.

The hits kept coming. Their artist, The Village People, focused on Disco’s gay audience but ended up having tremendous appeal across all sectors of the dance fans with In the Navy,” “Go West,” “Macho Man,” and the ubiquitous “Y.M.C.A.

LIPPS, Inc. signed on with Casablanca in 1979 and they released their first single, “Rock it” from their album “Mouth to Mouth” which did well enough, but it was their single “Funky Town” from that album that went on to etch the band into the permanency in DJ’s playlists forever. The song spent four weeks in the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and within a few months of its release the 7 inch single of the song sold over 2 million units.

The Label expanded handing Cecile Holmes the reins of their subsidiary label, Chocolate City Records, whose signed artists included Cameo (originally the New York City Players), 7th Wonder, and Funkateers.

The company expanded into the entertainment industry merging with a burgeoning production company called Filmworks. The new company was called “Casablanca Record and Filmworks.”

Extravagance and the End

In 1977, Polygram Records bought a 50% interest in Casablanca for approximately $15 million. No one realized it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end of the Neil Bogart reign, although he would remain in power for three more years. Bogart was a brash and bold man, who loved extravagance. By the late 70’s people driving by the Casablanca building often asked if “that was a Mercedes dealership on Sunset.” The response was always, “nope, that Casablanca.”  The label had always gone in for huge record launch parties, large over the top tours, expensive events and lavish spending on promotion. The artists who had signed with the label loved this about Casablanca and they had the gold and platinum records to prove that their approach worked. But the spending hit the bottom line of the company’s profit hard and Polygram was upset. To rectify what they saw as the problem, Polygram purchased the remaining ownership interest in the label and promptly let Bogart go. The label is still in existence today with a focus on dance and electronic music. It was never as successful after the release of Bogart and folded in the mid-80’s only to be reborn in 2000.

Bogart took some of the money he received from the sale of the business and created Boardwalk Records, which became known for launching the solo career of Joan Jett, originally of the Runaways. Sadly, Bogart passed from cancer 1982 and Boardwalk folded.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]