Roy Rifkind, who with his brother, Julie, ran influential R&B label Spring Records for decades, signing stars like Millie Jackson and Joe Simon and charting one of the first-ever hip-hop hits, Fatback’s 1979 “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” died Monday at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 94.
Roy and Julie Rifkind formed Spring in 1970 with veteran promo man Bill Spitalsky after the trio ran a management company, Guardian, working with the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, the Strangeloves, comedian Flip Wilson and others. They shifted to the label business “when we discovered the major record companies weren’t handling product properly, especially Black product,” Roy Rifkind told Billboard in 1978.
Although Spring signed an early distribution deal with another record company, Polydor, the Rifkinds were “very entrepreneurial,” says Jaimie Roberts, Roy’s son, a veteran music-business attorney.
Millie Jackson told Billboard in 1978: “I had a date in Las Vegas that Roy helped me get and I was in the middle of buying a house and it was just crazy, and finally I had to tell Roy to handle the closing for me so I could just sing. Can you imagine me calling the president of CBS and telling him, ‘I’m stuck in Vegas, please handle my closing for me?’ Spring is like a family.”
Born in New York, Roy Rifkind grew up in Brooklyn and served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. His father, Harry, managed The Boulevard and other city nightclubs, and Julie followed his father into the business, representing radio DJ Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls as rock ‘n’ roll was taking off. Soon Julie and Roy were co-managing artists who played their father’s clubs.
“They were so close,” Roberts says. “Julie said, ‘Let’s be partners,’ and they just grew from there.”
Julie Rifkind died in 2014.
The brothers developed deep connections in the entertainment business. Julie, who was close with Polydor’s first U.S. president Jerry Schoenbaum, helped James Brown sign his long-standing record deal with the major label, for which he would record classics through the ’70s and ’80s. The brothers rode the train to the city from their Long Island homes — not far from each other, of course — with an early-career Neil Diamond and future record mogul Doug Morris.
They employed future civil-rights activist Al Sharpton in In their second-floor office on 54th Street in New York, according to Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
Soon, they were working in a second-floor office on 54th Street in New York, where future civil-rights activist Al Sharpton also worked, according to Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. The Rifkinds knew Morris Levy, whom Charnas describes as “the notorious owner of Roulette Records who had ties to the Genovese family,” although the brothers did not share those kinds of connections. “I used to come in with my dad to the city. People would wave: ‘How ya doin’?'” Roberts says. “He and Julie were well-known and well-respected.”
Spring Records’ entry into hip-hop was almost a coincidence. According to The Big Payback, the Rifkinds weren’t enthusiastic about “King Tim III,” fearing radio DJs wouldn’t play a song that sounded like radio DJs, so they put it on the B-side of “You’re My Candy Sweet.” But pioneering radio DJ Frankie Crocker, a Julie Rifkind friend, found “King Tim” and made it a smash a few weeks before the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out. Later, the Rifkinds signed future hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons to a production deal involving early rapper Jimmy Spicer.
Roy Rifkind was a “joker” who roasted his friends, family members say, inviting them to black-tie parties and laughing as they showed up in tuxedos when everybody else was in jeans. “He was a wise guy,” says Steve Rifkind, Roy’s nephew and Julie’s son, who co-managed hit boy band New Edition with Roy in the ’80s and restarted the Spring Records imprint as Spring Sounds a year ago with his son Alex. “The funniest human being you ever met in your life.”
In addition to son Jaimie Roberts and nephew Steve Rifkind, survivors include son and label veteran Randy Roberts, daughter Debby Grandis and grand nephew Alex Rifkind.