In the mid-’50s, Leonard and Phil Chess were riding high as the predominant blues label in Chicago. But there was another label in town – Cobra – that over its period of existence from 1956-59 had one of the strongest lineups of R&B and blues artists. It was the Cobra label that released the initial recordings of three West Side guitar legends in Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam.
Cobra Records was founded by Eli Toscano, operating out of his retail store AB Television and Record Sales at 2854 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Chicago.
Cobra was not his first label. Initially, he partnered with Joe Brown, starting up the Abco label. Brown acted as A&R director for the label, with his Lawn Music handling the publishing for the artists. Brown had previously been involved with the J.O.B. label that he initially started with St. Louis Jimmy Oden in 1949. With a limited budget, Toscano would lease studio time at Universal Studios downtown and record two or three artists in a single session.
The last recording session for Abco took place on July 11, the label recording four different artists in the session, including the first known sessions by West Side bluesman Otis Rush.
The partnership between Toscano and Brown didn’t last long, Abco only releasing eight singles between February and August in 1956, with those July 11 sessions left in the can. Joe Brown left, going back to J.O.B., while Toscano found a new business partner in Howard Bedno of All-State Distributors, and set up Armel Music for publishing.
From those July 11 sessions, Cobra released their first single with Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” https://youtu.be/d-ek5CIJp78 b/w “Sit Down Baby.” It immediately put Cobra on the charts.
“In four short months Cobra has grown to great stature thanks to the talents of Otis Rush,” Toscano was quoted in Cashbox magazine, as the record climbed into the top 15 on their R&B chart.
Cobra parlayed the Rush success signing a trio of West Side guitarists with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy both joining the roster. With A&R Director Willie Dixon on board, when Chess seemed uninterested in Magic Sam, Dixon brought him to Cobra, recording his first session in 1957 with Dixon, pianist Little Brother Montgomery and drummer Billie Stepney. When Toscano didn’t like the guitarist’s name Sam Maghett, “Magic Sam” was suggested.
The roster continued to fill up. Betty Everett had just moved to Chicago, Magic Sam discovering her and bringing her to the label. More blues artists were added with Sunnyland Slim, Guitar Shorty and Shakey Jake. R&B singers Harold Burrage and Gloria Irving came on.
Toscano had built a small recording studio at 3346 W. Roosevelt, enabling him to record more and profit from the studio as opposed to booking time at Universal.
A recession was looming in 1958, with Toscano’s prolific gambling habits getting in the way of business. Bedno parted ways with Toscano, heading over to Chess, forcing the start-up of subsidiary label Artistic Records as a separate business entity.
Dixon then brought Buddy Guy on board, releasing his first two singles on the Artistic label.
Financial strains and gambling debts caught up to Toscano and by August of 1959, Artistic was defunct.
And Toscano was dead.
He was found floating in Lake Michigan, “presumably from a boating accident.” According to the story on 78discography.com/Cobra.htm, “For years, blues researchers quoted various Cobra artists who said that the record owner died in a gangland slaying. Toscano had a bad gambling habit and reportedly borrowed money from the mob to pay gambling debts. As the story goes, his harsh rebuff to a loan-shark collector caused his murder in a gangland hit.”
After his death, record promoter and WGES disc jockey Richard Stamz, who had been active in promoting the Toscano labels, took over the studio and offices at 3346 W. Roosevelt, where he paid $300 a month rent to “hoodlums,” according to the Stamz biography Give ‘Em Soul Richard. When Toscano died, his wife didn’t know what to do with the business so Stamz took it over and started up his own Paso label.
With Cobra/Artistic going bust, Dixon and his cohorts Otis Rush and Buddy Guy headed over to Chess. While Eli Toscano’s life ended brutally, what he brought to the blues cannot be forgotten.
For a complete history on Abco, Cobra and other historic Chicago soul, jazz, doowop and R&B labels; the Red Saunders Research Foundation (www.redsaunders.org) has done deep and dedicated research.
1956 Arbee Stidham – I’ll Always Remember You b/w Meet Me Half Way (G100)
1956 Herby Joe – Smoke Stack Lightning b/w Dreamed Last Night (G101)
1956 Zono Sago’s Modern Sounds – Short Order b/w Jivin’ at Random (G102)
1956 Frankie Hall and His Aces – Can’t This Be Mine b/w Playing Hard to Get (G103)
1956 Louie Meyers and the Aces – Just Whaling b/w Bluesy (G104)
1956 The Rip-Chords – Let’s Do the Razzle Dazzle b/w I Love You the Most (G105)
1956 Morris Pejoe – Screaming and Crying b/w Maybe Blues (G106)
1956 Arbee Stidham – When I Find My Baby b/w Please Let It Be Me (G107)
1956 Otis Rush – I Can’t Quit You Baby b/w Sit Down Baby (5000)
1956 The Clouds – Rock and Roll Boogie b/w I Do (5001)
1956 Shakey Horton – Have a Good Time b/w Need My Baby (5002)
1956 The Calvaes – Mambo Fiesta b/w Fine Girl (5003)
1956 Harold Burrage and his Combo – One More Dance b/w You Eat Too Much (5004)
1956 Otis Rush – Violent Love b/w My Love Will Never Die (5005)
1957 Sunnyland Slim – It’s You Baby b/w Highway 61 (5006)
1957 Lee Jackson – Fishin’ in My Pond b/w I’ll Just Keep Walkin’ (5007)
1957 Gloria Irving – I Need a Man b/w For You and Only You (5008)
1957 Duke Jenkins – The Duke Walks b/w Something Else (5009)
1957 Otis Rush – Groaning the Blues b/w If You Were Mine (5010)
1957 Little Willie Foster – Crying the Blues b/w Little Girl (5011)
1957 Harold Burrage – Messed Up b/w I Don’t Care Who Knows (5012)
1957 Magic Sam – All Your Love b/w Love Me With a Feeling (5013)
1957 The Calvaes – Born With Rhythm b/w Lonely Lonely Village (5014)
1957 Otis Rush – Jump Sister Bessie b/w Love That Woman (5015)
1957 Clarence Jolly – Changing Love b/w Don’t Leave Me (5016)
1957 Guitar Shorty – You Don’t Treat Me Right b/w Irma Lee (5017)
1957 Harold Burrage – Stop for the Red Light b/w Satisfied (5018)
1957 Betty Everett – My Life Depends on You b/w My Love (5019)
1957 Duke Jenkins and his Orchestra – Where Can My Loved One Be b/w Shake It (5020)
1958 Magic Sam – Everything Gonna Be Alright b/w Look Whatcha Done (5021)
1958 Harold Burrage and Willie Dixon Band – She Knocks Me Out b/w
A Heart (Filled With Pain) (5022)
1958 Otis Rush and Willie Dixon Band – She’s a Good ’Un b/w Three Times a Fool (5023)
1958 Betty Everett – Ain’t Gonna Cry b/w Killer Diller (5024)
1958 Magic Sam – All Night Long b/w All My Whole Life (5025)
1958 Harold Burrage – I Cry for You b/w Betty Jean (5026)
1958 Otis Rush – It Takes Time b/w Checking on My Baby (5027)
1958 Jimmy Kelly and the Rock-a-Beats – Little Chickie b/w Bonnie (5018)
1958 Magic Sam – Easy Baby b/w 21 Days in Jail (5029)
1959 Otis Rush – Double Trouble b/w Keep On Loving Me, Baby (5030)
1959 Betty Everett – I’ll Weep No More b/w Tell Me, Darling (5031)
1959 Otis Rush – All Your Love (I Miss Loving) b/w My Baby’s a Good’un (5032)
1959 Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm – Box Top b/w Walking Down the Aisle (5033)
1958 Charles Clark – Row Your Boat b/w Hidden Charms (1500)
1958 Buddy Guy and his Band – Sit and Cry (The Blues) b/w Try to Quit You Baby (1501)
1958 Shakey Jake – Roll Your Money Maker b/w Call Me If You Need Me (1502)
1959 Buddy Guy – You Sure Can’t Do b/w This Is the End (1503)
1959 Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm – (I Know) You Don’t Love Me b/w Down and Out (1504)