Elliott “Eli” Everett Oberstein (b 1902, d 12 July 1960) was a record producer, who was very successful during the Swing Era, then a colorful wheeler-dealer.
Oberstein, who worked for Okeh, was hired by Ralph Peer as a salesman in the late 20s to promote RCA Victor’s new catalogues. Peer thought Oberstein was after his job and that Eli had spread rumors about Peer’s padding his expense accounts and pocketing the money. They became enemies, and Peer, whose salary was based on copyright royalties, did not get many copyrights. While working at Victor, Oberstein in September 1930 founded Crown Records in New York City. This further strengthened Oberstein’s position because Victor manufactured his records. Peer left Victor in 1932 when David Sarnoff, worried about anti-trust trouble, sold Southern Music back to him. Oberstein took over for Peer and worked in the same fashion, recording Country music in various location throughout the United States.
Eli had been instrumental in forming Bluebird, RCA’s 25-cent discount label and making a big success; he produced hits by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and recorded new Country musicians like the Delmore Brothers, Ernest Tubb and the Monroe Brothers. Bluebird began trying to capture the Country market by recording the stars of the 1920s including Fiddlin’ John Carson, Allen Brothers, The Skillet Lickers and Bradley Kincaid.
He became head of popular Artist & Repertoire for Victor and Bluebird when Ed Kirkeby left in 1936. Oberstein pioneered some of what later came to be called payola "[a contraction of the words "pay" and "Victrola" record player involving extra fees] but was surpassed in greed by later generations and banned. Before he was suddenly fired with no explanation at the end of the decade, he had brought Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw to the label. When he left Victor, Eli tried to bring the artists he’s recorded and signed with him [as Jack Kapp had doen when he left Brunswick in 1934 bringing Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers and Guy Lombardo with him to Decca] but none did, and his record labels, including Varsity, under Crown Records soon went bankrupt.
During WWII Oberstein resurrected labels called Hit, Elite, Classic and Varsity and sold recordings made in Mexico. During the musicians’ union strike in 1942-3, he did pretty much as he pleased, and was one of the few people who ever got the best of James Petrillo, leader of the musicians’ union. Petrillo was furious with Oberstein, who said that making records in Mexico ‘may be bootlegging, but it’s legal.’ For a while Oberstein was selling records in Firestone stores, because during the war Firestone didn’t have any tires to sell to the public. Johnny Messner, the bandleader formerly on Bluebird whose mildly risqué recording of ‘She Had To Go and Lose It At the Astor’ had sold well over 100,000 copies on Varsity, conspired with Eli to start Tophat Records, specializing in the double entendre.
In February 1945 Obertstein sold his studios, pressing plant and masters for more than half a million dollars to the Majestic radio company, who wanted to start a record label. He worked for Majestic until June, but his flamboyance was probably not a good fit and he was replaced by bandleader Ben Selvin. After the War, Oberstein was hired back by RCA and in July lead the transition to pop singers like Vaughn Monroe and Perry Como. He was fired again in 1947, a scapegoat when the record business was in complete disarray. In 1948 he formed Wright Records, revived his Varsity label and started Rondo. Then in July 1949 he had a contract with Columbia to market their budget label, Harmony (which ended with lawsuits, because if there was a hit on Harmony Columbia would yank the artist back to the full-priced label). Oberstein had been sniffing around MGM, but when that company finally launched a record label it was Frank Walker who got the plum job.
When the Majestic label was formed it had looked like a sure thing, because the company had a ready-made distribution system of radio dealers, but the label didn’t last long. Many post-war labels died because of inflation in the cost of materials and the Battle of the Speeds, which began in 1947-8: small labels couldn’t afford to manufacture in two or three speeds. At the same time Majestic was probably also trying to expand from radio into the TV business. Mercury bought the remains of the Majestic label in 1948, probably to get singer/ bandleader Eddy Howard, who was making hits ('To Each His Own').Oberstein was later able to buy what was left of Majestic from Mercury, including, for example, eight tracks Majestic had made with Percy Faith. Oberstein spent the next few years recycling whatever tracks he controlled, which is why, when Faith became a big name at Columbia in the 1950s, his 1947 tracks appeared on labels like Royale, Varsity, Allegro and Rondo-lette. He merged his Wright Records with Allegro and Regent to become the Record Corporation of America (RCA!). He later sold out to Pickwick International, keeping the Rondo label, which he marketed until he died in 1960.