When rock music emerged in the late 1940s and early 50s the recording industry in America was dominated by a few major labels such as RCA, Columbia, and Decca and these labels focused on main stream popular music as well as classical music. Initially, these labels ignored niche music such as rhythm and blues (also known as race music). This meant that there was a market for smaller, independent labels to exploit and this market became very profitable once rock music began to gain popularity with white audiences. Several labels were established in the late 1940s and 1950s which were extremely significant to rock music. Some of the most important labels were Atlantic, Chess, Elektra, Imperial, King, Specialty, and Sun Records, followed later in the 1950s by Stax and Motown.
Atlantic Records was established in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson and focused on recording black rhythm and blues artists. Among the early musicians that recorded for this label were Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. Later on, Atlantic had a distribution arrangement with Stax Records and that added Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Booker T and the MGs, and countless others to the Atlantic family. The label was based in New York City.
Chess Records was founded by Leonard Chess in Chicago in 1947. The label was first called Aristocrat Records and featured a number of jazz and popular artists but Chess soon focused on the blues which were so vibrant at that time in Chicago. Among the great Chess artists were Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, and Bo Diddley. Chess also distributed artists who recorded at other studios such as Sun Records.
Imperial Records, based in Los Angeles, was founded by Lew Chudd in 1948. Major artists that recorded for Imperial included guitarist T-Bone Walker and Fats Domino.
King Records was founded by Syd Nathan in 1943 and was originally to have been a country music label. Early on Nathan switched to rhythm and blues and Wynonnie Harris, The Dominoes, The Royales, and The Platters were artists there early on. in 1956 Nathan signed James Brown to a subsidiary of King---Federal Records. King records was based in Cincinnati.
Sun Records (originally the Memphis Recording Service) was established in Memphis in 1952 by Sam Phillips. He saw an opportunity to record some of the up and coming black artists in the south and his label featured performers like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, and later; Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Roy Orbison. Phillips is best remembered for giving Elvis Presley his start in 1954. It soon became apparent that Phillips could not effectively represent an artist that was becoming as famous as Presley so in 1955 he sold Presley's contract to RCA.
Stax Records, also in Memphis, was founded by Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart and the label took its name from the first two letters of the last names of each of its founders. It was located in a converted movie theater and the studio band was Booker T and the MGs, a muscular sounding quartet that released many successful instrumentals in addition to backing up such singers as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave, and Joe Tex.
Elektra Records was founded by Jac Holzman in 1950 while he was still a student at St. John's University. Initially, the New York City based label focused primarily on folk artists and the roster included Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, and others. In the 1960s the label branched out with the signing of the Butterfield Blues Band, The Doors, The MC5, and the Stooges. The label was eventually acquired by Warner Brothers and Holzman broke his connection with the label in 1973.