Fantasy Records in Berkeley, California was the parent organization that birthed the Saul Zaentz Company and the acclaimed films that proceeded from it.
Fantasy was the world’s largest independent jazz label at the time of its acquisition in 2004 by Concord Records. By a stroke of Rock-and-Roll lightning, Fantasy had also launched hitmakers Creedence Clearwater Revival, which in the late 60s and early 70s boasted more singles on the charts than the Beatles.
Fantasy’s success with Creedence was also Saul Zaentz's springboard into films, allowing him to finance the company’s first motion pictures. They took on their own momentum after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) became a massive international hit.
Fantasy introduced Dave Brubeck and longtime label mainstays Cal Tjader and Vince Guaraldi, and recorded the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet. Fantasy also released recordings of folk artist Odetta, Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and comic Lenny Bruce. Through a series of strategic acquisitions led by label president Ralph Kaffel, Fantasy became the home of indispensible jazz recordings by Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.
Fantasy carefully fostered its vast catalog of jazz classics, keeping every disc in print, and the catalog continued to sell consistently year upon year. Fantasy’s beautifully designed CD box sets of remastered jazz albums have won awards and the admiration of collectors. In 1980 Fantasy released the first box set by a jazz artist, Miles Davis's Complete Prestige Recordings.
SAN FRANCISCO BEGINNINGS
In the 1940s brothers Max and Sol Weiss owned a plastics molding plant in San Francisco's South of Market District. With the introduction of the 12-inch vinyl LP in 1948, they began pressing records under the name Circle Record Company. One of the labels they pressed for was Coronet in San Francisco, which had produced the first records of pianist Dave Brubeck. In 1949 Coronet found itself unable to pay Circle for their pressings and the Weiss brothers took over the label. They renamed it Fantasy after the science-fiction magazine. Fantasy inherited Dave Brubeck’s masters and continued to release his sides. In 1951 the Weiss brothers started another jazz label, Galaxy, also named for a sci-fi magazine.
Saul Zaentz arrived in San Francisco in 1948, where he found his first job in the music industry as a bookkeeper at Melody Sales. In 1954 he moved to New York to work for Norman Granz, going on the road as tour manager for Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic series. He toured with Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz.
SAUL ZAENTZ JOINS FANTASY
Zaentz returned to San Francisco in 1955 where he began working for Fantasy as a sales manager. In 1958 Fantasy acquired the distribution rights to Debut Records when Zaentz married Celia Mingus, who had co-founded Debut with ex-husband Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach.
In 1963 Fantasy had its first hit record. Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” the B-side of a single from his Impressions of Black Orpheus album, crossed over to the Pop charts. This event was marked by the TV documentary Anatomy of a Hit, and by a famous full-page ad that Zaentz himself wrote for Billboard magazine:
After 13½ years without a hit single – we, at Fantasy, have been placed in a state of shock by our first Hit – “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
In 1963 Max Weiss discovered that John Fogerty, who worked in the Fantasy Records warehouse, played with his brother Tom in a rock band called the Blue Velvets. Impressed by the impact of the British Invasion, Max Weiss signed the Blue Velvets to Fantasy but renamed them the Golliwogs. Fantasy released a number of Golliwogs singles, and in 1965 their "Brown Eyed Girl" sold 15,000 copies.
ZAENTZ AND PARTNERS ACQUIRE FANTASY
In late 1967 Saul Zaentz organized a group of investors to acquire Fantasy from the Weisses, including his brothers and trusted record distributors. Zaentz brought on attorney Al Bendich, label president Ralph Kaffel and accountant Frank Noonan as partners. Zaentz became chairman of Fantasy, a position he held until its sale to Concord in 2004. The four continued as partners as they moved into film production. In 1968 they relocated the company from San Francisco to 30th and Peralta Streets in Oakland.
On Christmas Eve 1967 the Golliwogs changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival with Zaentz's approval. He produced their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival, which Fantasy released in July 1968. "Suzie Q," their first single, spent 12 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 11. Creedence released five more hit albums in the two-and-a-half years that followed: Bayou Country, Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, Cosmo’s Factory and Pendulum.
MOVE TO BERKELEY AND GROWTH
In 1970 Fantasy moved to Berkeley where it built a new headquarters at Tenth and Parker Streets. It included three custom-designed recording studios, Studio A, Studio B and Studio C, which Fantasy built specifically for Creedence. Fantasy soon used Studio A for mixing film soundtracks, adding a projection booth, pull-down screen and a portable mixing board.
Fantasy continued to add jazz and soul labels to its catalog, acquiring Prestige in 1971 and Milestone in 1972. It also acquired Riverside Records in 1972, whose co-founder, Orrin Keepnews, was affiliated with Fantasy as jazz A&R executive and producer until 1980. In 1977 Fantasy acquired the post-1968 catalog of Memphis-based soul label Stax Records, and its sister labels Volt, Enterprise and Gospel Truth.
In 1982 Fantasy hired Roy Segal from CBS Studios in San Francisco as vice president overseeing all album and film recording. Segal brought on Nina Bombardier to manage Fantasy Studios from her post at the Record Plant in Sausalito, and award-winning mastering engineer George Horn.
In 1984 Fantasy released the soundtrack of the Saul Zaentz Company film Amadeus, which dominated the classical music charts for two years and became one of the rare classical albums to attain gold record certification.
The acquisitions continued, with Contemporary Records/Good Time Jazz in 1984, Norman Granz’s Pablo Records in 1987, Specialty Records in 1991, and in 1995 Kicking Mule Records and Takoma Records.
CONCORD ACQUIRES FANTASY
In December of 2004 the Saul Zaentz Company sold Fantasy Records and the studio equipment to Concord Records, which became the Concord Music Group. In 2007 Wareham Development acquired the Saul Zaentz Film Center at Tenth and Parker, and renamed it the Saul Zaentz Media Center. Wareham licensed the Fantasy Studios name from Concord and purchased the studio equipment.