Canyon Records celebrates 60 years

By Levi Long
Special to the Times

PHOENIX, Feb. 23, 2012

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(Courtesy photo - Canyon Records)

TOP: Left to right, photographer John Running, Marty Butler of Canyon Records, Ron Joaquin of the Waila group Southern Scratch, and R. Carlos Nakai, cut the cake for the record label's 60th anniversary.

SECOND FROM TOP: Ron Joaquin and Radmilla Cody, recordings artists with Canyon Records.

THIRD FROM TOP: Mary Boley and her husband Ray founded Canyon Records in 1951.

BOTTOM: Ray Boley, who founded Canyon Records with his wife Mary, working with the label's first recording artist, Ed Lee Natay

A s a child, R. Carlos Nakai grew up listening to his father, former Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai, who at the time had his own radio program in Flagstaff.

Over the airwaves, the young Nakai would hear traditional songs and drum beats from various tribes throughout the Southwest. Most of the recordings came from Canyon Records, a newish record label established in the 1950s.

"That was my first introduction to music," said Nakai, now a multi-Grammy nominated artist and musician, whose decades-long career playing a traditional cedar wood flute has taken him around the world. "That's where it began."

Nakai is among a cluster of award-winning Navajo and other Native recording artists who got their start through Canyon Records, a Phoenix-based record label, music distributor and production company now celebrating its 60th year in business.

To commemorate the anniversary, the company has been hosting special concerts, dance and music festivals, and artist-meet-and-greets in the Phoenix area.

Under the theme, "Traditions and Transformations," Canyon Records is planning a showcase at the upcoming Heard Museum Guild Indian Art Fair and Market and will feature concerts at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Organizers for the recording label said the theme celebrates Canyon Records' philosophy of respect, preservation and established musical traditions of Native American tribal cultures through artistic and contemporary modes. It connects to the past, expresses the present, and leads to the future.

"The reason we've lasted goes back to the founders of this company and that is, we've always listened to the Native community and what they want instead of dictating what they should do," said Robert Doyle, Canyon Records president.

"It's putting the artist first, the community first and that keeps us from losing touch with the vitality of the culture," he said. "Our job is to help people in expressing their artistry, traditions and keeping ourselves invisible as collaborators in the process."

Canyon Records was founded in 1951 by Ray and Mary Boley, music engineers who operated a local recording and film production studio.

The couple was introduced to Native American music at the request of the Phoenix Little Theater, which asked them to record Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay, a drummer and singer who was working on a musical soundtrack for the theater company.

Attracted by Natay's voice and singing style, the Boleys decided to record a collection of his singing. That recording became "Natay, Navajo Singer," which today remains one of Canyon Record's bestselling albums.

The Boleys promoted "Natay, Navajo Singer" at the 1951 Arizona State Fair. For many fairgoers, it was the first time they'd heard recorded Native American music. Encouraged by positive feedback, the couple realized there was potential in the little-known musical genre.

Doyle said prior to Canyon Records' founding, recorded music by Native American tribes was mainly the province of scholars and academics. Over the decades, that has changed immensely, he said.

In 1971, the Boleys sold their film production company and expanded the music operation. They opened a retail store in Phoenix called Drumbeat Indian Arts, which became a well-known retail outlet for Native American music and products. It was sold in 1984 and in 1992, the Boleys sold Canyon Records to Doyle.

Since then, Canyon Records has seen a wave of change and publishes a wide span of music by Native Americans, ranging from powwow to Native American Church music, world and New Age, and classical. The label has also produced a few rock albums and one rap album.

"The arch of our company, though, is very much related to the Navajo people, beginning with Natay and continuing with Nakai. Each are very special artists in their own way," Doyle said.

The label has just released "Pathway to Destiny" by Navajo singer Louie Gonnie, a multi-choral version of music from the Native American Church.

The long list of other Navajo recording artists at Canyon Records includes such noted figures as the Chinle Valley Boys, Delphine Tsinajinne , Sweethearts of Navajoland, Talibah Begay, Sharon Burch and Radmilla Cody.

"For 60 years, Canyon Records has remained a reputable record label in the industry," said Cody, who has released four albums with the label.

"I'm honored to be a part of the Canyon Records family," she said. "They are very family oriented and have a great respect for Native music in every aspect and I'm very proud of them. They've been in place for 60 years and will likely be around for 60 years or more."

Doyle said the future holds a lot of promise, along with challenges related to Internet distribution, social media, and getting people to buy products. Canyon Records takes a long-term view, he said.

"We did well in our bricks-and-mortar model with CDs and cassettes. Now we're trying to figure out how to monetize the (digital) process," Doyle said, "but with people sharing files illegally, it's a different world and we're trying to master it. It's the number one challenge in how to promote and go with our music and give artists their royalties.

"In today's music industry, surviving is an accomplishment in itself," he added. "The reason we've lasted - and it's because of what the founders of this company have always done - we've always listened to the Native community and we listened to what they want instead of us dictating what they should do."

Information: or 1-800-268-1141.