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For 60 Years, Canyon Records Has Been Introducing the World to Native Music

A story about Canyon Records.

In 1951, the Phoenix Little Theater asked Ray and Mary Boley, owners of a small recording studio in Phoenix, to record a performance there by a Navajo singer, Ed Lee Natay. The Boleys were so mesmerized by Natay’s show that they decided to record an album of his music. That album, Natay, Navajo Singer marked the birth of Canyon Records.

Sixty years later, that album still earns royalties for the Natay family. It was the first of many success stories that have made Canyon one of the most prosperous producers and distributors of American Indian music in Indian country today.

After recording Natay, Navajo Singer, the Boleys got a booth at the 1951 Arizona State Fair, where they sold the artist’s music. The album sparked curiosity from fair-goers as well as appreciation from the Native community—many American Indians had never seen their music available on a professional produced album. When a Hopi jewelry maker in the adjacent booth suggested that the Boleys record Hopi music, they decided to take that suggestion much further and record the music of many other American Indian tribes.

For the next 20 years, the Boleys traveled to reservations to record for Canyon Records; they also ran Canyon Films, which provided Native music to the film industry. Ray produced and recorded the music; Mary produced, edited and oversaw accounting and royalty disbursement to their artists.

In 1971, the Boleys sold Canyon Films and opened a retail store for their music in Phoenix, and began building a distribution network across the country. In the early 1980s, they began working with Jack Miller, a respected sound engineer. In 1984 they sold their retail store and distribution company to focus on producing quality music.

In the early 1980s, Ray, who was considering retirement, came across the American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Ray had known Nakai’s father Raymond, who had long played Canyon Records music on his popular Navajo-language radio program. Boley made a deal with Nakai to distribute an album Nakai had recorded entitled Changes. With the addition of Nakai’s Changes to their catalog, Canyon Records made their crossover into the mainstream market.

In 1991, Mary passed away and in 1992, Ray sold Canyon Records to Robert Doyle, who had worked closely with the Boleys for more than a decade. In 2002, Ray Boley joined his wife on the other side, leaving behind an incredible legacy of American Indian music.

Since acquiring Canyon Records, Doyle has continued to carry forward the Boleys’ passion to bring American Indian music and culture to the rest of the world. He has instituted innovative marketing programs and artist career development initiatives.

He has also worked with R. Carlos Nakai and international artists to establish the American Indian flute as a world-recognized instrument. Nakai performed and recorded with such artists as Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog, Hawaiian Slack Key guitarist Keola Beamer and renowned percussionist Will Clipman. Nakai has also performed with more than 30 symphonies and chamber ensembles.

An abundance of talented Native artists have recorded for Canyon Records, including such iconic names as Northern Cree, Radmilla Cody, Kevin Yazzie, Louie Gonnie and Grammy winners Primeaux & Mike. The musical genres covered by Canyon include pow wow, peyote (Native American Church) and contemporary fusions of rock, rap, world and New Age music.

Additionally Canyon has the only two gold records (500,000 units sold) for American Indian music, both by R. Carlos Nakai (his Canyon Trilogy album is nearing platinum status with 975,000 units sold). It has also received 30 Grammy nominations and won one with Primeaux & Mike’s Bless the People, plus 33 Native American Music Awards.

The Here and Now

A portrait of Ed Lee Natay hangs in the lobby of the Canyon offices, where racks display every album Canyon has produced. There is also a Navajo doll crafted by the late Kaibah (Kay Bennett), many photographs of Native artists, and a dusty case containing a Grammy, multiple Native American Music awards and Nakai’s gold records for Earth Spirit and Canyon Trilogy. The facility now has three recording rooms and a video editing suite, a kitchen, a lounge with a television and couches. There is also a toys area for artists and their families, which has an amazing array of items.

Canyon is a bastion of tradition, a label that preserves styles that have been played by generations of American Indians but might be lost if left in the hands of Sony, Warner and Universal. But talk to Doyle about the future and he sounds like any forward-thinking label executive. “Canyon has moved with technological changes for 60 years and has released albums in all formats,” he says. “We use the latest


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One of the biggest issues facing Native music is the Recording Academy’s decision last year to eliminate the Native American category and throw Native music into a catchall group with Cajun/Zydeco, polka and Hawaiian music. “While we understand the numerically driven process that [the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS)] used to shape this decision, we are nonetheless disappointed,” Doyle says. “The prime benefit that the Grammys gave Native American music was major media validation of the music, artists and community. We understand the numbers—submissions, membership and votes—were less than NARAS wanted, but these metrics overlook the much larger role that Native American culture plays in the American imagination.” Doyle says that the newly created Regional Roots category is a “logical fallacy.” “How can such diverse kinds of music as Native American, polka, Hawaiian and Cajun/Zydeco be fairly compared?” he asks.

Voices of the People

To celebrate six decades of Canyon Records, ICTMN asked Doyle and several esteemed Canyon artists—Nakai, First Nations Northern Cree leader Steve Wood, flutist (and five-time world champion hoop dancer) Tony Duncan of Estun-Bah, guitarist Aaron White and Randall Paskemin from the Blackstone Singers—to reflect on the company’s accomplishments—and challenges.

What is so special about Canyon Records?

Wood: No other label can do what they do for us. Stuff would happen when you are traveling as a group and your vehicle might break down, or you might run short on money. You can always count on them. Canyon does it for more than financial gain—there is more meaning to it for them, just like it is for us when we are singing the songs that we’re singing. I always tell [producer] Steve Butler, “You are an Indian man trapped inside a white man’s body.”

Paskemin: Canyon has given me the great opportunity to show my singing and song-making style not only to my Native people from North America but also to people across the world.

White: I get to control a lot of where my music is going, and Canyon is always open to ideas of where we can take Native American music.

Doyle: What has been distinctive about Canyon is how the company was operated in the beginning and the philosophies established by the founders, Ray and Mary Boley. The Boleys were media pioneers in Phoenix. They approached Native American music not because they had a cultural agenda, but because they liked the music and the people. At a time when Native Americans were marginalized by the larger society, the Boleys treated everyone with basic human respect and without viewing anyone through an ethnic lens. This philosophy of ‘devotion to the music and respect for the individual’ has been infused in the company for over 60 years.

Duncan: One of the things that I really like about Canyon is that they seem to be very family-oriented.

According to Robert Doyle, on any given day, you will encounter at least one dog—Spock—and a group of children playing throughout the building. Tell us about what it’s like to be part of the Canyon Family.

Duncan: If you ever go to the Canyon Records building, they have a little area that is just for kids. If I bring my son or daughter, there is an area for them where you can pop in the Toy Story video. They allow families to be there and it is a very good atmosphere to create music in. It is a fabulous creative process.

Doyle: The most memorable moments are the most personal, especially when we have the opportunity to interact with artists, their families, friends of Canyon and customers. It’s a deeply satisfying moment when, for example, we’re doing a field recording of Northern Cree in Canada and get an unexpected visit from an artist who recorded with Canyon decades ago. Or when a member of a family of a deceased artist expresses gratitude when we can send them a picture of their loved one. Or in the studio, when we finish a production we know has helped an artist reach a new level or form of expression.

Wood: When we were in Phoenix, someone took us to the Musical Instrument Museum. When you go into the North American exhibit with Elvis Presley and all of the great artists of the time, they have a video that comes on, and it shows you the music, and you are hearing it on your headsets. Who do you think is playing in that exhibit? We are! Canyon had a lot to do with that. They are really helping not just us, but all of the aboriginal peoples across Turtle Island.

Do you encourage young artists to sign with Canyon?

Nakai: If there are new American Indian artists out there who want to become involved, I don’t think that they could find a better involvement than with Canyon Records, because they are very receptive, very honest and caring about the artists that they represent. Much has changed as far as technology and keeping up with what is ongoing today, but as far as their work with indigenous or Native musicians, not much has changed there. There is a lot of contemporary music based on the traditions of the various tribal communities represented there. Canyon Records is not locked into the past. They are keeping up with changes from one day to the next.