Sgt. Fitch -The Legacy of Sarg Records
Exploring the advent and legacy of Sarg Records, SGT. FITCH reveals the stories behind Charlie Fitch’s independent label that launched the careers of some of today’s rock and country music legends.
About the Film
Sgt. Fitch explores the advent and influence of Sarg Records, a small independently owned record label cultivated by WWII hero, Sgt. Charlie Fitch. With his unconventional approach to the recording industry, Fitch redefined Texas music in the 1950s by mixing ethnic styles and different genres to create entirely new ones. Although, Sarg played a significant role in launching some of today’s rock ‘n roll and country music legends, the label’s legacy arguably lies in the overlooked and undervalued treasures from it’s relatively unknown artists.
The story of Sarg Records is a tale of minor enterprise in 1950s small town America. Luling is a South Texas oil town renowned for its petroleum and watermelon farms, but not for it’s music. Nevertheless, what began at the Luling Phonograph and Record Shop at 311 East Davis Street in 1953 produced or influenced music heard throughout the entire world today.
Charlie Fitch, the engine behind Sarg Records, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940. He served as a tail gunner on over one hundred battle missions in WWII, and became a war hero on his final mission when his B-17 bomber took a hit from a Nazi anti-aircraft missile over Frankfurt on the morning of November 5, 1944. Fitch took control of the situation, calming his young and inexperienced crew, systematically rigging their jump gear and seeing them to safety before jumping himself. He was captured on the ground and spent the next six months as a Prisoner of War in the notorious Nazi prison camp, Stalag Luft 4.
It was Fitch’s experience working on the electrical systems of his airplane in WWII that gave him the technical knowledge to open an electronics repair business upon returning home from the war. While stationed at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, his part-time job was to service broken radios, televisions and phonograph players. As fate would have it, he was called on to service jukeboxes for a local operator in South Texas. Sensing a burgeoning business in the jukebox trade, Charlie purchased his own jukebox with his Air Force re-enlistment bonus in 1946.
By the time Charlie was honorably discharged in May 1950, his foray into the jukebox business had flourished. He was now a full time jukebox operator (or ‘op’ as they were known in the trade) and eventually built up his business to include 25 jukeboxes spread across South Texas. He moved back to his hometown, Luling, where he and his wife, Bennie, took up residence at 311 E. Davis Street, formerly the site of a grocery store, with living quarters in the back. They had no special plans for the front room of the building, initially using it as a storage area for parts and records for the jukeboxes. The idea occurred to Charlie that he could use the space to sell the same records he was buying for his machines in a retail capacity . . . on October 9, 1950 the Luling Phonograph and Record Shop was open for business.
Charlie spent most of his time driving from town to town servicing his jukeboxes . . . collecting coins, making repairs and changing out records. Every couple of weeks he would travel to San Antonio and purchase the latest 78s and 45s from distributors for his jukeboxes and store. In the meantime, Bennie managed the retail store selling records over the counter, and because they lived in the back of the shop, she could keep an eye on the kids. It was a perfect arrangement for both of them.
Spending much of his time working his machines in country dancehalls and honky-tonks, Charlie encountered hundreds of local musicians, bands and singers. This inevitably led to other music related ventures. He started working as a promoter and booking agent for local concerts and dancehalls bringing stars such as Johnny and Jack, Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Webb Pierce to the area. Next, he hosted a live two-hour radio show for KCNY in San Marcos, TX adding ‘disc jockey’ to his resume’ that now included jukebox operator, record store owner and booking agent. However, it would be the next phase of the music business that he ambitiously embarked upon that would be his legacy.
Immersed in the local music scene, the idea struck Charlie that it would be good business if he had records of these unknown local acts to put in his store and jukeboxes to take advantage of their immediate fan base. The opportunity presented itself to him in the summer of 1953, when a local Luling woman approached Charlie and introduced him to her nephew, a young singer named Neal Merritt. Charlie was impressed with Merritt and helped to arrange a session to record his original tune, Korean Love Song.
Knowing nothing about the actual record manufacturing process, he chose to act as an agent and help Merritt land a record deal. He packaged the newly recorded material with a demo tape of another local musician he had encountered in San Antonio, 12-year-old child prodigy ‘Little’ Doug Sahm, and began shopping it to major labels. After a series of rejections, Charlie began to explore the possibility of starting his own label to record and promote regional talent.
With the confident assumption that he knew as much about what would sell to the public than those snide producers from Nashville, Fitch began drawing up plans for his new label. Although he’d handled records for several years by this point, and knew the trade as well as anyone in South Texas at that time, he still had little understanding of what went into the recording and manufacturing end of the business, however; undeterred, he jumped right in. There was no question as to what the label would be named. Everyone in Luling had called Charlie by his rank, “Sarg”, and he had sometimes referred to his jukebox and dance promotion business as ‘Sarg Productions’. Inevitably, with the release of Sarg 101 (Neal Merritt’s Korean Love Song) in December 1953, Sarg Records was in business.
Whereas most startup labels in the fifties were ‘copycat’ labels, relying on trends and. radio marketing, it was Fitch’s love of all types of music, regardless of marketability, that kept him afloat. Virtually every style of music performed in Texas was documented on the Sarg Label from western swing, country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, rockabilly, conjunto, waltzes and polkas, pop and jazz.
Although two Texas icons, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, made their earliest recordings for Sarg, the label’s legacy lies in the celebrated records by western swing pioneer Adolph Hofner, honky-tonkers Herby Shoelzel and Larry Nolen, rock and rollers The Moods and The Downbeats, and rockabilly mavericks Cecil Moore and Al Urban.
Over the next two decades, Sarg Records maintained a steady presence on the music scene in the multicultural milieu that is South Texas, eventually releasing over 150 singles over a twenty-year period. The label’s massive historical importance lies in the documentation of a time period and talent-laden region where ethnic diversity and new post war attitudes led to the birth of entirely new genres of music. By unintentionally creating this archive of sound, Fitch carved out a niche for himself and his artists in American music history.
Sources and Acknowledgments
Biographical information is based off of personal interviews with and documents maintained by Charlie Fitch, music historians and various Sarg recording artists. However, the producers would like to acknowledge the following bibliographic sources, and especially, the research and writings of Andrew Brown for his book accompaniment to The Sarg Records Anthology CD Box Set.
- Brown, Andrew. The Sarg Records Anthology. Book Accompaniment to CD Box Set: Bear Family Records. 1999
- Brown, Andrew. That’ll Flat Git It!, Liner Notes to CD. Vol. 18: Bear Family Records. 1999
- Gray, Christopher. “Charlie Fitch 1918 – 2006″. The Austin Chronicle. July 21, 2006
- “Texas Rockabilly”.
- Topping, Raymond. “The Sarg Records Story”. Liner Notes to CD. Texas Rockabilly. Ace LP 36. 1981
- Photographs Courtesy of Charlie Fitch