Race Records and the American Recording Industry 1919-1945: An Illustrated History
Mainspring Press, Littleton, Co.
2016: 366 +x pp
Allan Sutton is a noted historian of the American Recording Industry. I have read two of his three volumes detailing the history of the American Recording Industry from its inception in the cylinder days and the emergence of discs to the transition from acoustic to electric recording, as he detailed the rise and fall, bankruptcy, consolidation and more of the recording companies in the United States: "A Phonograph in Every Home," and "Recording the Twenties." A succinct description of this present volume is that it "is the story of the companies, and individuals, who within several decades, made the recording more inclusive, and far more interesting than it once had been." It is a history of the emergence of 'Race Records,' or a history of recordings that were intended primarily for black consumers.
In his introduction, Sutton notes that Blacks comprised only a minuscule portion of early record catalogs. Black songwriters fared somewhat better but their material was likely to be performed by whites often employing stereotypical 'darky' accents. The few black recording artists generally only recorded " carefully polished spirituals, antebellum plantation songs, close-harmony quartet songs or self-deprecating "coon songs," material that white audiences expected and found acceptable.
At the close of World War I, three companies dominated the recording industry, Victor Talking Machine Company, the Columbia Gramophone Company, and Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Victor catered to an upscale market as well as its founder and president believed part of Victor's mission was to refine public taste. Victor did issue recordings of the Castle House Orchestra, under the direction of James Reese Europe's direction, but his picture was not used in advertising and the company reportedly auditioned a Creole Jass Band, but nothing was ever issued. Edison, the smallest of the three, was hobbled by Thomas Edison himself who was nearly deaf (and had strong ethnic and racial prejudices) and insisted on auditioning his company's recordings and his veto was rarely challenged. Columbia was the most populist of the labels and released recordings of Bert Williams, W.C. Handy, and Wilbur Sweatman. Increasingly though Blacks were clamoring for better representation in record catalogs and with the success of Mamie Smith's recordings along with the efforts of George Broome's label and Harry Pace's Black Swan label, recording companies a more accepting attitude in pursuit of profit.
This somewhat detailed background (two pages of text in the volume) provides the context for the story Sutton provides here. He briefly chronicles the career of George W. Broome who was the first black-owned record company (First publicized in Tim Brooks "Lost Sounds —Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry"), who was manager for the renown African-American tenor Roland Hayes. Hayes, after not being able to interest Columbia in recording him, paid Columbia to record a number of his solos which he sold by mail. Broome started a label in a year, 1919, in which some newer labels had begun to record Black artists including Aeolian-Vocalion label who signed Fred Dabney, a popular Harlem composer, bandleader and associate of Jim Europe. Pathé recorded vocalist Noble Sissle and the Eubie Blake Trio as well as the Wilbur Sweatman Jazz along with Europe's 369th's Infantry Band. However these artists were still artists having appeal to whites. Broome recorded composer Harry T Burleigh making his only recording of "Go Down Moses," along with recordings by sopranos, a baritone and a violinist. These recordings however sold very little and in a few years Broome was operating a printing business.
Sutton next touches on the Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues," which resulted in part from the General Phonograph's Company's Okeh Records efforts carve out a niche with songwriter Perry Bradford's persistence as a song plugger and promoter of the blues and the talent of Smith, a stage and cabaret artist. After sufficient sales of her initial recording, on August 10,1920, she recorded "Crazy Blues" and another tune backed by the Jazz Hounds. This was released in October 1920 and the advertisements for it indicate it was sold to a general audience not simply blacks as some like Daphne Duval Harrison erroneously has written. Sutton also corrects the claims of 75,000 sales the first week and over a million that have been made over the years as sales records have not survived but also hard to reconcile with what we know generally of sales of recordings at the time. Still it clearly was a strong seller. The book thus plays a service in correcting some myths and providing more to the story of Smith and how her success impacted the other recording companies. and led to the blues craze although more conservative companies like Edison and Victor were resistant. In contrast, Columbia and smaller labels like Arto recorded acts like Mary Stafford and Lucille Hegamin.
Next discussed is Harry Pace, formerly W.C. Handy's partner formed his new venture, Black Swan, to hire only Black talent. With the Black press itself promoting Black Swan, Pace hired a young Fletcher Henderson to play piano on many recordings. Initially to present Black Swan as a reputable operation to investors, he produced cautiously records to appeal to Harlem's upper crust who viewed blues as distasteful, so initial releases were a black concert singer or concert soprano appropriately accompanied. But it was the recording of Ethel Waters doing popular numbers that led to a change. Her initial release of "Down Home Blues" and "Oh Daddy," sold well and the chapter details Harry Pace's sometimes excessive claims in promoting his company as well as follows some of the other artists Pace recorded like Trixie Smith, details his efforts to get his records distributed and the ultimate inability to obtain national distribution, a problem white start-up labels also faced. Sutton also describes efforts at getting manufacture of the records closer to home, forming a classical division and unsuccessful efforts to find capital. This lack of capital eventually led to Black Swan s acquisition by the New York Recording Laboratories (owners of the Paramount label) which was one of its most substantial creditors and many Black Swan releases became issued on a hybrid Paramount-Black Swan label.
After a chapter on other early Black Entrepreneurs and short-lived labels like G-B Record Company, the Spikes Brothers Sunshine label, SeeBee, Meritt and Blu-Disc (whose releases included The Washingtonians and Duke Ellington), Sutton discusses the Mass-Producing of the blues by labels such as Emerson (releases by Fletcher Henderson, Lena WIlson, Hazel Meyers and others), Vocalion (who signed Ethel Waters, Victor, Brunswick and even Edison (whose racist head still auditioned all his artists and recordings and also auditioned recordings from other labels), along with the efforts of Joe Davis to promote his artists and songs he published.
A chapter is devoted to Ajax Records that advertised itself as The Quality Race Record. It should be noted that while Race Records depicted the performers and expected market for a recording, the term "Race" was used by Black intellectuals who wanted to uplift "The Race" through various activities, including cultural ones. Ajax recorded a variety of jazz and blues, including Hazel Meyers, a few releases from Mamie Smith and even boxer Jack Johnson (depicted in an advertisement that is among the many illustrations in this book), but factors like poor distribution and lack of distinctive artists contributed to its failure like other labels of the time.
Attention is next directed to the recording activities in the Midwest and Gennett, who after recording the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings, waxed the classic recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Richmond, Indiana, as well as some of recordings in Chicago. Bessie Smith's recording career is also discussed and it is noted that despite being a race artist her recordings crossed over to a more general audience. In addition to the efforts of Gennett, the recordings for Okeh and other labels in Chicago are chronicled as are those of Paramount in recording Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as well as the recording of more rural sounding performers. These efforts are documented along with numerous examples of newspaper advertisements and discussion of efforts at promoting and distributing such material.
There is a full chapter on Paramount and the country blues and the success of artists like Blind Blake and Papa Charlie Jackson was highly influential and the the major labels themselves were in transition in how they recorded similar material. But such efforts are also contemporaneous with the recording of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven recordings. also labels like Okeh and Victor started traveling to remote locations to record race and old timey artists. The result of field recordings led to performers like Cow Cow Davenport, Victoria Spivey, Lonnie Johnson and Rev J.M. Gates being waxed, while in Chicago studios King Oliver and his Dixie Syndicators, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers and others were recorded. Sutton also notes shifts in the individuals holding management position of efforts at producing race records, their approach to producing recordings and how they sold and distributed such country blues records.
A chapter is devoted to the recording of "Shouting Preachers and Singing Evangelists' that included the Black Billy Sunday, Reverend James M Gates, and other preachers along with evangelists including Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. A further chapter focuses on 'Urban Blues, Hokum and Boogie Woogie' and the impact of such folks as Leroy Carr, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, and Roosevelt Sykes.
In the pivotal year of 1929 Victor was acquired by the Radio Corporation of America and it finally creating a race record catalog. It was a year Victor issued Blind Willie McTell, Jim Jackson, Johnny Dodds and Rev. McGee, while Louis Armstrong's recordings appeared to veer in popular music direction and a year Paramount first recorded Charlie Patton at Gennett's Richmond, Indiana studio while starting construction of its Grafton Studio.
Sutton chronicles the decline in the industry following the October, 1929 stock market crash which augured bad times ahead for the record industry. Labels like Paramount fell, others went into bankruptcy followed by the rise of cut-rate labels including Bluebird as well as the emergence of Decca Records and the emergence and demise of American Record Corporation that was owned by Consolidated Film Industries. Consolidated had acquired Columbia after the esteemed label fell into bankruptcy, and issued recordings on a variety of labels including Perfect, Romeo and Vocalion. While Robert Johnson was among those who recorded for the ARC labels, Sutton observes that he "made no impact on America's recording culture or its musical culture prior to his rediscovery in the 1960's." While ARC flourished in the late 1930's, it was eventually acquired by the Columbia Broadcast System, which would operate it for decades.
The next to last chapter concerns the rebound in the recording industry as reflected in the catalogs of various companies and describes changes in the production and sale of recordings. The final chapter considers the War Years, including the impact of the first Petrillo strike and the emergence of new independent labels relating to records directed primarily, not exclusively, at Blacks. An epilogue notes changes in attitudes leading to abandonment of the term, 'Race Records" and its replacement by Rhythm & Blues. One appendix lists the various race record series of the various record labels, while another one enumerates Race Series talent scouts, talent brokers, and artist and repertoire managers.
Sutton's monograph provides a concise, well-written, discussion. Its most immediate appeal will be to enthusiasts of blues and early sacred material. One might wish a bit more space had been provided on the black jazz and dance bands, along with vocal quartets. It was perhaps unavoidable otherwise one might have a considerably (and perhaps unwieldy) larger volume which likely would not added much more to understanding the history of race records. In any event, this volume likely belongs in any strong library relating to African-American music, and replaces Dixon and Godrich's "Recording the Blues," as the basic authority on the subject of the pre-World War II blues recording industry.
I purchased this book. It is $39.00 for US sales (postage included) and $59.00 for shipment outside the US (includes insured airmail). Visit http://www.mainspringpress.com/.