The folks at tiny Rhino Records and Video have plundered the '50's and 60's, and now they're moving into the '70's

Rhino Records, America’s best-known purveyor of musical nostalgia from the ’50s and the ’60s, is venturing into uncharted territory.

Not that they’re not thankful for the memories, but the folks at the company that made its name by releasing novelty records (The Rhino Brothers Present the World’s Worst Records, complete with an airline sickness bag), a diverse catalog of compilations (Billboard Top Ten R&B Hits from 1955 to 1969), and a comprehensive reissue of the Monkees’ recordings are tired of being pegged as time-warping weirdos.

”We consider ourselves archivists, creative compilers, and we want to get away from the idea that we’re ’50s and ’60s,” says Rhino cofounder Richard Foos. ”We try not to get hung up with eras and think more in terms of music and genres.”

To that end, Rhino is moving forward — at least for them — and has just released the first five of what will ultimately be a 15-volume CD collection called Have a Nice Day, spotlighting early hits from the ’70s.

The inspiration for the series was Gary Stewart, Rhino VP of Artists and Repertoire, who drew on his own rosy recollections of an era reviled for its vacuous ”bubblegum” music.

”The music is producer-oriented… instantly catchy, with a good-timey feel,” he says. Indeed, such hits as Mungo Jerry’s ”In the Summertime,” Spiral Starecase’s ”More Today Than Yesterday,” and Billy Joe Royal’s ”Cherry Hill Park” have aged surprisingly well.

The second five volumes of songs by what Stewart describes as ”one- or two-shot artists” are due in late April, and the final five are set for the fall.

”This series is primarily for people who grew up with this music, who bought these records, loved them, and then — in many cases — discarded them when they bought Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes records,” Stewart says. ”You can get Three Dog Night songs on a Three Dog Night greatest hits, but you can’t get (Daddy Dewdrop’s) ‘Chick-a-Boom’ or (Edison Lighthouse’s) ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ — especially on CD. The last time anybody saw any of these records they were on K-Tel albums.”

Disdaining comparisons to K-Tel, a company known for its late-night TV marketing and hastily assembled hits packages, Rhino — which sells its records through stores — stresses its own determination to select thematically appropriate material, to remaster the music from the finest originals, and to wrap the results in witty, erudite liner notes that don’t trivialize their subject.

The label has a lengthy history of such efforts. Founded in 1978 when Richard Foos sold his West Los Angeles record store (also known as Rhino Records) to enter the label game with Harold Bronson, Rhino began licensing long-neglected records by influential artists. From Little Richard and Patsy Cline to Dionne Warwick and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the Rhino Brothers — as they call themselves — have moved their company through pop history like a 16-ton Dustbuster, sucking up songs that have fallen into the cracks.

They’ve issued compilations galore, covering every major pre-1970 subset and genre of pop, rock, and soul hits (in such collections as Frat Rock, The History of Surf Music, and Soul Shots), and anthologized countless semi-famous names, creating ”Best ofs” based on a handful of hits and, in many cases, critical or personal favorites (the Beau Brummels, Lou Christie, Rick Nelson).

Rhino’s biggest success came in 1987, when a double shot of Billy Vera and the Monkees gave the then-low-profile label a giant boost. Vera was the R&B veteran whose ballad ”At This Moment” was featured on several episodes of the TV show Family Ties. Also that year, the second coming of Monkeemania placed several of the company’s simian reissues, plus the Prefab Four’s new Pool It, on the charts. Since then, Rhino has seen annual growth of 25 to 100 percent, with more than $25 million worth of sales last year.

But once the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s have been reexamined — or rehashed — where will the company turn next?

To cater to record buyers a dozen years their junior, the graying Rhino Brothers — Foos is 40, Bronson is 39 — have had to defer increasingly to ideas conceived by younger staffers and have hired a new marketing manager to reach the elusive customer Foos calls ” ‘Joe Lunchbucket.’ He’s the person my age who hasn’t gone into a record store for five or six years.”

But things are getting tougher. While it would be unfair to say the barrel’s bottom is in sight, much of the choicest material already has been snatched up. To complicate matters, CD technology has inspired many major labels to hang onto material they might have licensed just a few years ago, with an eye toward in-house reissues.

So Rhino is turning its attentions to less obvious concepts. An era- spanning series on guitar legends of rock, the blues, and country music is in the works. Recordings due this month include a reissue of Orchid in the Storm (collected love songs performed by Aaron Neville) and Merle Haggard: More of the Best, released in conjunction with Capitol Records’ Best of package.

For the future, Rhino is expanding its video division and trying to get a feature film deal; there are always more artists to anthologize, always a dozen records to put out each month, and always new compilations to cook up. Entering the ’90s, Rhino is determined to have a nice day.