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History in Native American music

About Canyon Records

Ray Boley and Ed Lee Natay


Celebrating 50 years in Native American music

Listen as KJZZ's Chris Chesron reflects on Canyon's humble beginnings as the first Native American record label by interviewing Canyon founder Ray Boley.


Canyon Records of Phoenix, Arizona has produced, and distributed Native American music for 58 years, and is one of the oldest independent record labels in existence. Canyon was founded in 1951 by Ray and Mary Boley who had opened the first recording studio in Phoenix, Arizona Recording Productions, in 1948. The Boley's involvement with Native American music began when Ray was asked by the Phoenix Little Theater to record a Navajo singer named Ed Lee Natay. Boley was so taken with what he heard that he recorded a collection of songs titled Natay, Navajo Singer, an album still in active release (and earning royalties for Natay's family).

To promote the album, the Boleys took a booth at the 1951 Arizona State Fair. For most of the fairgoers, the recording was only a curiosity, but for Native Americans it was a revelation. They had never seen any of their music available on record before, and the album was well received within the Native community. Before the close of the fair, a Hopi jeweler at a booth next to the Boleys suggested they record Hopi music.

The Boleys took the idea to heart and soon began recording music from tribes throughout the southwest. Their new label, Canyon Records, was a sister company to Canyon Films, a company also founded in 1951 specializing in documentaries and commercial work.

From the beginning Canyon Records had a different focus from the few other record labels releasing Native American music. Prior to the Boleys' efforts most recordings were produced and released for the benefit of scholars and academics. The Boleys saw their Native American neighbors as customers and tailored their releases to fit the needs and requests of the Native community. In an era when Native Americans were a little-understood, often ignored, and a frequently oppressed minority, Canyon Records served as an important validation of the music, artists, culture, and community.

In 1971, the Boleys sold Canyon Films and expanded the efforts of Canyon Records. They opened a retail operation in Phoenix, and began building a distribution network. This development was laborious, and involved extensive travel by motor home across the country. Many store owners didn't see the potential of selling Native American music. One shopkeeper in Bemidji, Minnesota (adjacent to a significant reservation) responded with, "Indian music...who wants it?" and thus ignoring the potential customers passing his door. Despite this resistance, the Boleys persevered and a built a distribution network throughout the western United States and Canada to sell Canyon titles as well those of other Native American music producers.

In 1984, in an attempt to semi-retire, the Boleys sold their store and distribution company (which still operates under the name Drumbeat Indian Arts) to focus solely on production. Semi-retirement didn't happen. At this time Boley made contact with a Native American flutist named R. Carlos Nakai (Boley had known Nakai's father, Raymond Nakai, who played Canyon music on his Navajo language radio program before becoming Navajo tribal chairman). R. Carlos Nakai had produced a recording of solo flute music called Changes, and Boley asked to distribute it. Nakai, who had been turned down by several record labels, agreed and a new era in Native American music began.

Prior to Changes, most of Canyon's sales were to the Native American community. With the release of Changes Canyon began to place this recording in gift shops, art galleries, and new age oriented retailers. As it became clear that Nakai's music had significant cross-over potential in the gift/tourist and new age markets, Canyon began to build new distribution. The soothing, transporting quality of Nakai's flute music was instantly attractive, and for non-Native listeners, his recordings quickly defined Native American music. Nakai's music would lead the expansion of Native American music into mainstream retailing in the 1990s and Nakai would release more than thirty-five albums and publish a book with Canyon.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the growth of other styles of Native American music such as pow-wow, peyote (Native American Church music), and contemporary fusions (rock, rap, new age) as the Native American community increased in population and acculturation. The non-Native community began to share greater interest in Native American culture, fueled by major media productions like Dances with Wolves, Geronimo, 500 Nations, and others.

In 1992, Boley sold Canyon to his long-time executive assistant, Robert Doyle and retired (Mary passed away in 1991, Ray would pass away in 2002). Canyon continued to develop its relationship with Nakai and both traditional and contemporary artists. In 2000, Canyon, needing more warehouse space, purchased its present location as well as acquiring a commercial recording studio (Jack Miller Productions) and adding a website management and graphic design company (Nile Graphics).

Canyon has earned the only two gold records for Native American music, both by Nakai, for Canyon Trilogy and Earth Spirit. Additionally, Canyon albums have received twenty-two Grammy nominations with one win for Primeaux & Mike's Bless the People. Canyon has won four INDIE Awards (the Grammy for independent record labels) as well as twenty-five Native American Music Awards (Nammies).

Canyon is at the forefront of developing new forms of Native American music by such artists as Louie Gonnie; Cheevers Toppah, Alex Smith & Kit Landry; Randy Wood; Jay & Tiinesha Begaye among many talented performers. Canyon also continues to work with the very top artists of pow-wow music (Black Lodge, Northern Cree, Tha Tribe, Elk Soldier, Warscout} Native Church Music (Verdell Primeaux, Kevin Yazzie, Louie Gonnie, Gerald Primeaux) and chicken scratch (Thee Express, Southern Scratch).

Now in the middle of its sixth decade of intimate involvement in the Native American community of North America, Canyon Records continues its commitment to assist both traditional and contemporary Native American artists in achieving their artistic aspirations and fulfilling their cultural responsibilities.

From: NAPRA Review / Jan.-Feb. 2002
Reviewer: Bette Timm
Title: A Golden Anniversary

For 50 years, Canyon Records has led the effort to preserve Native American music traditions. For 50 years, it has given Native people an outlet to express their musical creativity in contemporary ways. And for 50 years, it has survived and even thrived as an independent label - a rare feat in the fluctuating business climate of independent music. Congratulations are due to Canyon for all of these accomplishments and more. "We've struck to what we know best," explains Robert Doyle, president and owner of Canyon Records. "We created a marketplace and we've prospered." While other labels have come and gone, Canyon has thrived by remaining true to its original mission: to accurately represent the Native American community and its artists as they express their cultural and musical aspirations.

Native American music is vast and varied, and incorporates many subgenres - a diversity that is reflected in Canyon's catalog. "We are an artist-focused label with no preconceived notions about what Native American music should be," says Doyle.
Quality recordings of intertribal peyote songs that are traditionally performed during rituals, as well as powwwow, sweat lodge, and sundance ceremonial songs, form an anthropological archive to serve current and future generations. Since Doyle, a longtime employee, purchased Canyon in 1992, the label has broadened its musical offerings and shifted marketing directions. It now provides a larger and more diverse selection of modern music, attracting new distributors and appealing to a wider audience.

The label currently represents 25 performers. These include award-winning artists Sharon Birch (Navajo), Robert Tree Cody(Maricopa-Dakota), the Black Lodge Singers (Blackfeet), and R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo-Ute), and a number of powwow drum groups. Perhaps the best known Native American artist, Nakai exemplifies Canyon's scope with his distinctive expression of both traditional and contemporary musical styles. He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Nammys (Native American Music Awards) for 20 years of creating innovative music, for spurring the Native flute renaissance, and for fostering cross-cultural understanding - achievements that are shared in part by the label.

Canyon has forged close professional and personal relationships with its artists, many spanning three generations, as they now record the children and grandchildren of some of their first musicians. Doyle and his staff were also instrumental in attaining further recognition for the genre through their diligent support of the new Grammy Native American music category (initiated in 2000). They have also championed the Nammy awards program, now in its fourth year, which brings the industry together to recognize and celebrate Native American artists specifically.

Canyon Records kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with a series of three concerts at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, two of which have already taken place. The third, planned for February 15, will feature the Native American band Medicine Dream. Hailing from Alaska, this group combines rock and progressive sounds with traditional Native American vocals and instruments to create a sound that is both diverse and unique.

From: The Arizona Republic- Oct. 29, 2000
By: Betty Reid
Title: Spinning Native music songs

It was Dec. 2, 1972. Raymond Boley wanted to figure out a way to give back to Arizona's Native American community for recording and selling their songs under Canyon Records Productions for nearly 25 years.

He threw a powwow near the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, where he planned to stand up and give thanks to the Indians for their help. He got a huge turnout: Some 6,000 Native Americans showed up.

But there was one hitch: Before Boley got a chance to express his gratitude, the Indians stole his thunder. They thanked Boley instead, gave him gifts and declared the powwow a recognition event for him.

"The whole thing turned into and honoring thing for us," Boley recalled. "It was a humbling kind of thing."

Creating Canyon Records Productions, today a 49-year-old Valley recording studio, required energy and enthusiasm. In its infancy, Boley and his late wife, Mary, found themselves on rural Indian reservations in search of Native music. They slept beneath inky blue skies as drums pounded during a Sun Dance in Pine Ridge, S.D. They played Ed Lee Natay's Navajo songs during the 1952 Arizona State Fair. Boley even traveled to a Tarahumari community in rural Mexico in a little two-seater airplane that shook as it landed on a rugged strip of land. And Canyon Productions became a primary source of Native recordings, spanning from the United States to western Canada and northwestern Mexico.

Boley, now 85, is retired; in 1992, he sold the business to Robert Doyle, whom he'd met in the 1970's and hired a decade later. Doyle held degrees in music and business, but actually started in the company by typing and loading trucks.

Today, Doyle pays homage to the legacy the Boleys left. Because of their respect for Native American music and their approach to the musicians, they received permission from tribes to record in the 1950's, when the more common view of Indians in urban America was that of either noble savages or drunks. The couple gave validity to Native Americans by commercializing their music for the world to listen to, Doyle said.

"Both the Boleys had simple human respect for Native Americans," he said. "It was definitely rare: Let's treat these people like anyone else."

In retrospect it seems hard to believe, but in the beginning, Boley, a Pittsburgh native, was not really one to seek out Indian people. At one time, his knowledge of tribes was limited to what he saw in TV and movies.

A former KOY radio employee, he opened a recording studio in 1949 called Arizona Recording Productions, located at 834 N. Seventh Ave. Newspapers at the time deemed the new studio as donning "the latest in modern radio equipment," and the studio could handle recordings such as musical organizations, orchestras and speeches.

Canyon Records wouldn't spin off until after Boley met Natay, a Navajo singer from Standing Rock, N.M., in 1950. Phoenix Little Theatre asked him to find an Indian singer to match a Native skit. Boley recorded Natay with one microphone as he sat on a step with a water drum and a rattle. And Natay's voice gave birth to Arizona's Native American recording business.

Natay's voice gripped Boley.

"It's pure sound," he said. "His voice was a rich one. I felt his song was a prayer."

Cindy Natay-Curley, 38, is the daughter of the late Navajo singer, who died of a heart attack in 1967. Boley and Natay's friendship existed because the two men carried a passion for business, she said.

Though they did not have a close father-daughter relationship prior to his death, Curley is proud of her dad. She lives in Tucson.

"It makes me feel good that my dad accomplished things such as recording his songs on albums, especially at a time when it was rare to find people who gave tribes an opportunity to show their talent," she said. "It opens doors in Navajo land because everyone knows my father's voice. It's great to have a dad who accomplished so much and was so talented."

The business became Canyon Records in 1951, and the blueprint for a new building at 4143 N. 16th St. resembled nothing so much as a coffee-house. Boley and a good friend had a vision of creating a loungelike ambience where people sipped coffee and listened to Native music as they gazed out a giant window. The friend, a famed Hopi artist, designed the building and carved out a round, brown oak table as its centerpiece.

The table, however, turned into a place over which plans materialized to build a Native recording business. Though Canyon Films was added to the business in 1952, Boley sold that part of the business in 1975, wishing to focus more on finding and recording Native music.

His searches for such music led him far and wide. One venture led him into Mexico, but he wasn't aware that pilots often created their own landing strips in Tarahumari country. Boley, hearing twigs snap and seeing leaves slap the window as the pilot landed the two-seater airplane, recalls the pilot expressing doubt that he could land successfully. And indeed, the tree leaves slapped the windows and twigs snapped as the pilots avoided homes below.

"You do the flying, we'll sing the Hail Marys," Boley told the pilot as they braced for stability. "I thought, 'this can't be real.' But we made it in time for the ceremony."

Today, though the elderly man shuffles and walks with the aid of a walker, the fire in his eye lights up when Native issues are raised. His living room is a shrine to Indian artists of yesteryear, and he wears a black cotton vest with yellow and turquoise zigzag designs.

Just as the Boleys did, Doyle siad Canyon's mission is to continue to help Native American artists fulfill their artistic aspirations. The company's hard work paid off with R. Carlos Nakai, a Ute-Navajo flutist, who has sold 500,000 records and who received recognition in 1999 as the first Native American to be nominated for two Grammy awards, one for his solo album, Inner Voices, and one for Inside Monument Valley, a partnership with Paul Horn.

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