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City native Art Rupe, shown outside his Specialty Records office in Los Angeles in the 1950s. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rupe died Friday at age 104. (Courtesy Arthur N. Rupe Foundation)
Arthur N. Rupe—McKeesport native, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame record producer, oil and gas entrepreneur, and philanthropist—died Friday at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 104.
Born Arthur N. Goldberg on Sept. 5, 1917, to a Jewish working-class family in Greensburg, Art Rupe grew up in nearby McKeesport.
Growing up in an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood in McKeesport, Rupe developed a keen interest in rhythm & blues and gospel music.
In an interview more than a decade ago with Tube City Almanac’s Jason Togyer, Rupe said his first exposure to Black gospel music came on Sunday mornings, when he would hear Black choirs performing at local Baptist churches around his neighborhood.
Following his 1935 graduation from McKeesport High School, Rupe 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. Years later, he would complete his university education at UCLA.
It was upon arrival in California that he changed his surname to “Rupe”; he had learned from his paternal grandfather that this was in fact the family name, “Goldberg” having been adopted at Ellis Island.
During the Second World War, Rupe worked on an engineering crew testing Liberty ships on L.A.’s Terminal Island. As the war was winding down, realizing he would soon be unemployed, he resolved to go into business as a record producer.
He therefore chose to specialize in what were then called “race records,” music made by and for Black Americans.
In late 1944, with Ben Siegert, Rupe formed a company called Juke Box Records. His first record, called “Boogie #1,” produced on a low budget with only three musicians, sold 70,000 copies, a regional hit at the time.
In September 1946 Rupe set out on his own, launching a new label, Specialty Records. Over the next 15 years, Specialty became one of the most prominent independent recording companies, with worldwide distribution.
Rupe’s work at Specialty played a key role in the emergence of the new musical genre of rock & roll. The label featured such artists as Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Lloyd Price, Little Richard and Sam Cooke.
At age 93, Art Rupe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007 and was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Lloyd Price, a singer, bandlander, entrepreneur and record executive who accepted the award on Rupe’s behalf, credited Rupe with helping to dissolve the color barrier between Black and white audiences.
“Art longed to bring that feeling of gospel music to secular records,” said Price, who died in 2021.
“His idea (was) that spiritual sound could touch everyone that wasn’t about who you were, where you lived, how much money you had, or what race you were, was to break down a wall and create a whole new musical movement in America.”
Beginning in the early 1950s, Rupe also began investing in oil and gas production, eventually starting his own oil company. Initially operations were centered in Texas, but later the company shifted its focus to drilling in West Virginia and then Ohio. With his Ohio-based partners he remained active in the industry until the end.
Rupe devoted the last decades of his long life to his philanthropic foundation in Santa Barbara. The Arthur N. Rupe Foundation pursues “creative solutions to societal issues,” primarily by supporting public policy research, education and advocacy.
It has historically sponsored public debates on controversial issues both in scholastic and public settings. Significant resources are also devoted to supporting family caregivers for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Arthur N. Rupe is survived by his daughter Beverly Rupe Schwarz; her husband Leo Schwarz; his granddaughter, Madeline Kahan; and her husband Kyle Kahan.
Editor’s Note: Most of this article was supplied by the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.
Originally published April 18, 2022.