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Hardly Strictly Jazz

A Few Frames Of Public Access Art

By Published: July 23, 2012
"This is how the furniture companies get into the record business. Now, the furniture companies knew the Victrolas were expensive and they weren't gonna sell to poor people 'cause poor people didn't have any money. So they made a bunch of lousy records, recording all the trash kind of junk... The only thing that was worth anything in the days between 1902 and 1920 was some of the opera stuff with Caruso and things like that. They recorded just trash to try to sell to white people, these big rich people so they could listen to the trash they listened to.

"In 1920, an innovative furniture company, the Okeh Furniture Company of New York, recorded 'Crazy Blues' by Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith
1883 - 1946
vocalist
, and the Okeh Furniture Company found out 'Oh my god, these poor people bought 75,000 copies of this record!' All of a sudden they were in the music business."

While Phil is a tad stylized in his telling of this evolution, he is far from wrong. Look closely at the early history of record production. Start with Ralph Peer, who came to the record business because he excelled at selling gramophones in his father's Missouri furniture store. It was Peer who produced "Crazy Blues" for Okeh, then moved to Victor, for whom he would sign and produce Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. There was also Art Satherly, a Brit who worked for the Wisconsin Chair Comapny, where he made cabinetry for Edison's phonographs. From that job, he went to Paramount Records, where he worked in the sales department, promoting records of blues artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
1883 - 1929
vocalist
and Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
1886 - 1939
vocalist
. By 1930, he was at Columbia, for whom he would sign and produce pretty much all of their important artists up into the early 1950s, including Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Hank Penny, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Floyd Tillman and Bill Monroe. These early champions of poor people's music were indeed from the world of furniture, men for whom the music stuff started as a tangental industry, at best. And both proved crucial to the development of American music.

(RCA Victor, incidentally, had a cabinetry division in their Camden, NJ factory well into the 1970s, mostly for the production of televisions, and also for console unit stereos. If you bought any of their record players or stereo units, the retailer generally threw in at least one LP from their RCA Camden budget line.)

In the course of this show, Phil also plays and sings some of the best country blues ever caught on camera. Poker Party had it all.

Because so much of show business—music included—is traditionally launched from Los Angeles, many key figures in the evolution of rock'n'roll (starting well before Elvis) began here, and because the quality of life keeps a person here, Fein could and did reach back to the early days. The show was made by a self-appointed historian who often enough met his overlooked heroes, and many episodes featured people did canonical work but whose names aren't generally recognized. Engineers, producers, songwriters, promotions people—people who turned ideas into songs, songs into records and records into hits. PP enthusiastically gave these people the same thirty minutes of respect that a big star was given. Often, it was the only time they told their stories on camera in any sort of comprehensive way. My favorite example of this was when Art had Richard Berry on in the late 1980s.

Although most famous for composing "Louie Louie," Berry pops up all over the L.A. scene as singer, songwriter, pianist and seemingly anything else there for which there was call between 1952 and 1961. He was extremely versatile and had a gift for working in other people's styles, whether doing answer records (his "Rockin' Man" answers to Etta James
Etta James
Etta James
1938 - 2012
vocalist
' "Good Rockin' Daddy") or flat-out imitations (his Willie Mabon
Willie Mabon
Willie Mabon
1925 - 1986
piano
impression on "Riot In Cell Block #9"). And he was a great songwriter besides. While "Louie" is his obvious calling card, he wrote several classics, among them "I Am Bewildered," "Have Love, Will Travel" and Jennell Hawkins' 1961 classic "Moments To Remember."

By 1953, when Berry was 18, his early doowop group The Flairs were recording for Modern Records, one of the best rhythm'n'blues labels of the era. Modern is also where Etta James made her first records. Her breakout hit was "Dance With Me Henry," an answer record made in response to Hank Ballard
Hank Ballard
b.1936
' "Work With Me Annie."

"I was doing a lot of writing and recording for Modern Records," Berry explained, "and before 'Louie Louie' I did 'Dance With Me Henry' by Etta James—"

"What did you do?" asks Art, very quickly.

"I was Henry," says Berry, nodding, as he starts singing "Hey baby! What do I got to do!"

Art looks on with wide eyes and shakes his head, admitting, "I had no idea."

"I did 'There's A Riot Going On In Cell Bock #9'—" Berry starts.


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