Irving Green co-founded Mercury Records, one of the premier U.S. labels of the postwar era -- home to everything from classical music to psychedelia -- the company was the launching pad for acts spanning from Sarah Vaughan to the Platters to Lesley Gore, as well as Quincy Jones, whom Green appointed the first high-ranking African-American executive on a major label payroll. Born February 6, 1916 in Chicago, Green attended St. John's University for two years before returning home to work for his father's paint contracting firm. He later founded his own sheet metal business, but following the U.S. entry into World War II the company shifted into plastics manufacturing -- when President Franklin Roosevelt restricted shellac use to the military, Green invented the plastic 10" record, building the music industry's first automated pressing plants in Chicago and St. Louis. After the American Federation of Musicians went on strike in 1942, record production ground to an immediate halt -- the strike continued for two years, and when the war ended in 1945, Green and Chicago showbiz impresario Berle Adams co-founded Mercury Records, inaugurating the imprint with the Four Jumps of Jive's "It's Just the Blues," featuring future blues icon Willie Dixon. Instead of servicing traditional radio outlets, Green exploited his extensive mob connections to place Mercury releases in jukeboxes: "I used all the jukebox guys, like Wurlitzer distributors, because we made records and they were the first people to use them," he told the Palm Springs Desert Sun in early 2006. "I made my distributor the distributor that had a jukebox route. So, if they had a 200-box route, you know the first 200 records went on their boxes. The competition -- Victor, Decca and Columbia -- they didn't have that privilege."
Mercury also separated itself from the competition by eschewing pop in favor of blues, jazz, R&B and country -- while Chicago acts comprised a significant part of its formative roster, most notably singer Frankie Laine (who charted with 1945's "We'll Be Together" and rocketed to superstar status with "That's My Desire" two years later), the label quickly assembled a stable of artists from across the nation, and by 1950 had opened offices in New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Mercury's technological innovations were myriad: in 1947, budgetary constraints forced singer Patti Page to record her own "answer" vocals for the single "Confess," effectively introducing overdubs into the studio lexicon. In 1951, producer C. Robert Fine introduced a single-microphone monaural technique for Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Pictures at an Exhibition -- the New York Times compared its sound to "being in the living presence of the orchestra," and in response, Green launched Mercury's renowned Living Presence series, a collection of classical releases that remain a touchstone for audiophiles. And in 1955, Mercury revolutionized stereo recording, employing three omni-directional microphones to capture performances to three-track tapes -- label engineers refined the process six years later, abandoning half-inch tape for 35mm magnetic film, which minimized print-through and pre-echo while expanding frequency range and transient response. As Mercury grew, Green launched a series of subsidiary labels including Fontana, Smash, and Wing, and in 1961 signed an exchange agreement with the Dutch label Philips that guaranteed their countless releases distribution throughout Europe and beyond. The following year, Green acquired the Chappel music publishing catalog for $42 million -- he sold it a dozen years later for $110 million.
But Mercury's most significant and radical innovations remain cultural -- while other major labels shunned R&B and country releases, dismissed in the industry trades as "race records" and "hillbilly music," Green actively courted both markets, enjoying a series of crossover hits via acts including vocal harmony quintet the Platters and bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Green also encouraged his friend Ed Sullivan to book blues and jazz artists on his television variety showcase Toast of the Town, and in 1957 he arranged for Frankie Laine to become the first white singer to duet with an African-American network star when he appeared on Nat King Cole's eponymous NBC series. Most important was Green's relationship with trumpeter Quincy Jones, whom he appointed vice-president of A&R in 1964. At first Jones worked with Mercury's jazz acts, but Green pushed him to expand into pop, beginning with Lesley Gore's chart-topping "It's My Party." In 1969, Green sold Mercury to PolyGram, itself the product of Philips' merger with Deutsche Grammophon. As a result of music industry consolidation, the Mercury name and logo today exist only in spirit, appended to back catalog and reissues but otherwise inactive. After leaving the music business, Green turned his attention to real estate, building some 18,000 homes in Iran before the Shah's overthrow forced him to flee the Middle East in 1979. He then settled in Palm Springs, California, where he founded the housing development firm that remained his focus until his death from natural causes on July 1, 2006.