Canyon Records of Phoenix, Arizona, producer and distributor of Native American music, is one of the oldest independent record labels in the music industry as well as one of the oldest cultural institutions in the state of Arizona.
Canyon Records was founded in 1951 by Ray and Mary Boley. The Boleys had opened the first recording studio at Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt in Phoenix in 1948, and their 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 Natay’s singing that he recorded a collection of songs titled Natay, Navajo Singer. This album is still in active release.
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 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. They took the idea to heart and soon began recording music from tribes throughout the west. Their new label, Canyon Records, was a sister company to Canyon Films, a company also founded in 1951 specializing in documentaries and commercial work.
Prior to Canyon Records, the few producers of Native American music did so primarily for scholars and academics. In contrast, the Boleys tailored their releases to fit the needs and requests of the Native community. In an era when Native Americans were little understood, often ignored, and frequently oppressed, Canyon Records served as an important commercial outlet and supporter of the music, artists, culture, and community.
In 1992, Boley sold Canyon Records to Robert Doyle, who worked closely with Ray for more than a decade. Ray passed away in 2002 with Mary passing in 1991.
Doyle worked with closely with Nakai in assisting flutist’s aspirations to make the Native American flute an instrument for all people, to develop a career in classical music, and to explore the traditional flute in new cultural contexts. Nakai performed with the traditional Japanese ensemble Wind Travelin’ Band for Island of Bows, Tibetan flutist and chanter Nawang Khechog for In A Distant Place, Hawaiian slack key guitarist Keola Beamer for Our Beloved Land, and cellist Udi Bar-David for Voyagers, a collection of Jewish, Arabic and Native American music. Nakai has also had a long-term relationship with harp guitarist/luthier William Eaton and released seven recordings together (several with world percussionist Will Clipman).
During the first two decades of Canyon Records' existence, as much of the Boleys’ time was devoted to the demands of the film business, they nonetheless worked closely as a team in managing both their companies.
For the record label Ray produced and recorded, while Mary produced, edited, researched and wrote liner notes, and oversaw accounting and royalty administration. This made Mary a pioneer as she was one of a small number of women managing a record label in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the demands of operating two companies, whenever possible the Boleys would spend several weeks on field recording trips.
In 1971, the Boleys sold their film business and expanded the efforts of Canyon Records. They opened a retail store in Phoenix, and began building a distribution network, which was a laborious process involving extensive travel across the country. In 1983, wanting to semi-retire, the Boleys sold the distribution company and store, which became known as Drumbeat Indian Arts, to focus solely on production.
Semi-retirement didn’t happen. In 1984, Boley made contact with a Native American flutist named R. Carlos Nakai. Boley had known Nakai’s father, Raymond Nakai, who had played Canyon Records 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, having been turned down by several record labels, agreed and a new era in Native American music began.
Prior to Changes, most of Canyon Records’ sales were to the Native American community. With the release of Changes, Canyon Records 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 crossover potential in the gift, tourist, and New Age markets, Canyon Records 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.
Most notably, Canyon and Nakai collaborated on four classical recordings featuring the music of composer James DeMars. Nakai’s classical career has been extensive as he has performed with over 30 symphonies including the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as a number of chamber ensembles.
Canyon Records continues to release recordings of traditional music and contemporary music styles performed by Native American artists. Stephen Butler, Canyon Record’s producer, has been crucial in working with Native American artists to develop new styles of Native American music that expand upon traditional song form and performance. Especially notable are Butler’s unique productions of multi-tracked Native American Church music and round dance songs, innovative collaborations between traditional and contemporary musicians and singers, and state of the art pow-wow recordings with the premier groups of North America.
In 2000, Canyon Records acquired its present location and built a recording studio, which houses Jack Miller Productions. Since the early 1980s Canyon Records worked closely with Jack Miller, the dean of recording engineers in Arizona. Miller, who worked with the biggest names in the music industry at RCA, was instrumental in creating the “Nakai” flute sound that captivated millions of listeners and bringing cutting edge audio production to Canyon Records. Miller retired in 2012 and Russ Marsden now serves as Canyon’s engineer.
A closely affiliated, but separately owned, company onsite is Nile Graphics, a graphic design and web management affiliate. Most recently, in an effort to utilize the developing capabilities of the Internet, Canyon Records instituted the Canyon Warehouse Concert Series which offers live concerts streamed on the Internet.
Canyon Records has earned the only two Gold Records for Native American music, both by Nakai, for Earth Spirit and Canyon Trilogy. The latter has reached Platinum Record status (certification pending) with sales of over 1,000,000 units. Additionally, Canyon Records albums have received 32 GRAMMY® nominations in four categories with one win for Primeaux & Mike’s Bless the People. Canyon Records has won four Indie Awards (the Grammy for independent record labels) and 33 Native American Music Awards (Nammys). Ray Boley was honored by the Nammys in 1999 with a Native Heart award and Nakai with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Nakai also received the Arizona Indian Living Treasures Awards in 2009. Two Canyon Records artists, Nakai and composer James DeMars have received the prestigious Arizona Governor's Arts Award.
As the music industry faces unprecedented changes in how its intellectual property is distributed and used, Canyon Records maintains its commitment to assist both traditional and contemporary Native American artists in achieving their artistic aspirations and expressing their much-valued cultural heritage.