Arthur Rupe, a Santa Barbara–based philanthropist, oil tycoon, and pioneering R&B music producer who’d been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, died this week of natural causes. He was 104.
Until COVID struck two years ago, Rupe went to work every Monday through Friday at the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation located on State Street, giving away about $5 million a year to a host of programs that attempted to illuminate social policy debates or addressed the needs to dementia. To that end, he chaired a great debate series at UCSB and endowed a chair there to study the social effects of mass communications. At Santa Barbara City College, he underwrote a nursing assistants’ program.
But it was as the owner of Specialty Records, an independent recording company in Los Angeles that “discovered” the likes of Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and Percy Mayfield, that Rupe cut his teeth. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Rupe focused on Black musicians who had “a big band sound expressed in a churchy way.” In the mid-50s, he stumbled onto Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, whose “Tutti Frutti” would shatter the sound barrier.
In news accounts, Rupe is typically described as a shrewd businessperson who was not particularly generous in sharing the proceeds of his success with the musicians who helped make him wealthy. Rupe left the music business in 1960 just as “the payola scandal” — record makers had to bribe disc jockeys to get air play — was becoming big news, taking his proceeds to invest in oil in Ohio.
Rupe and his third wife, Dorothy Rupe, moved to Santa Barbara in the early 1990s. Her struggles with Alzheimer’s — and his to find her treatment and care — helped inspire the direction of his philanthropy.