The Black Swan: A History of Race Records

The Black Swan: A History of Race Records
Karl Ackermann By

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Calling oneself or being referred to as a race man or race woman became a way to display pride in being an African American. —Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr
Montgomery, Alabama native Perry Bradford was an African-American composer and vaudeville musician when he approached General Phonograph Company, Director of Artists, Fred Hagar in 1920. Bradford was pitching Mamie Smith, a relatively unfamiliar pianist and singer from Cincinnati, Ohio, and Hagar agreed to a two-side recording deal. Widely regarded as a blues singer, Smith more frequently performed popular music and vaudeville tunes but her blues recordings earned her the title "Queen of the Blues." It is widely reported that the song "Crazy Blues" was Smith's debut on General Phonograph's Okeh label. Several sources confirm that her initial recordings were other songs that sold well enough for Okeh to give Smith an extension of her contract. In 1920 she recorded the Bradford written "Crazy Blues" with a transient group called the Jazz Hounds (also known as Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Band), a group that included saxophonist Coleman Hawkins; it sold an inconceivable seventy-five thousand copies in its first month of release and went on to sell about three-million copies. Smith's movable group included pianists Willie "The Lion" Smith and Clarence Williams, in its recording history.

The sensitivity around segregation in the music business of this era can be viewed from the perspective of national events. Bookending the birth and demise of Race Records were some of the worst incidents of white-on-black violence in American history. For two days in July 1910, a white mob in the East Texas town of Slocum attacked black residents based on unsubstantiated rumors of a fraudulent business deal. There are estimates that as many as one-hundred blacks were murdered and many survivors fled their farms and homes, cutting the African American population of the town by half. The massacre was characteristic of a national wave of violence against blacks that intensified through the years when jazz was born. Post-World War I saw a shortage of laborers in the Northeast and Midwest and spurred the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the industrial centers of the country. White troops returned home, the economy weakened, and white antipathy toward blacks led to vicious racial riots in East St. Louis, Illinois and Houston, Texas. The same labor issues led to the worst violence during the Red Summer of 1919. Not confined to summer, racial riots occurred in almost forty cities across the country from late winter through fall of that year, resulting in hundreds of deaths in black communities. In 1921, thousands of whites in Tulsa, Oklahoma attacked thirty-four square blocks of that city's Greenwood community, a national center of African American commerce known as Negro Wall Street of America. With guns, bombs, and even aircraft, Greenwood was left in ashes, the death toll never accurately counted. While acts of individual racism were routinely condemned by politicians and press, institutional racism was accepted as a matter of white entitlement.

In almost all cases, Race Records were subsidiaries of larger, white-owned labels, or related entertainment companies, that exploited black artists. These companies withheld royalties from black artists and often coerced artists to relinquish rights to their music. The paternalistic system was nothing new; the clubs, theaters, and dance halls where black bands played were typically owned by whites. The Race Record business met with mixed reactions. The black musicians appreciated that a market value was associated with their artistry, even though that value was rarely paid forward directly. Black audiences felt some measure of esteem as the Chicago Defender, the Atlanta Independent, New York Colored News, and other African American newspapers ran advertising that recognized their viability as a market. Throughout the 1920s, Race Records accounted for an estimated five-million dollars in sales, annually. Still, many white-owned record stores pushed back on carrying these recordings for fear of backlash from white consumers.

Despite the actual Mamie Smith, Okeh chronology, "Crazy Blues" was considered the first Race Record in American recording. The original recording was designated for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005. There were few record labels that recorded black artists in popular music, classical, Broadway musicals, spiritual and gospel genres but it does not appear that black ownership of a label pre-dates the 1920s. The blues and early jazz had a sizeable market among African Americans, encouraging labels to break the color barrier. Okeh had been founded by German-American Otto K E Heinemann in 1918, only two years before "Crazy Blues" was recorded. A subsidiary of Germany's Odeon Records, its initial business model was to market dance music to immigrant populations in the U.S. but Smith's unexpected success shifted the paradigm. In 1926, Columbia Records bought out Okeh and the label now exists under Columbia's parent company, Sony Music. Okeh, long after the "race record" epitaph was dismissed, was closed by Columbia in 1970, revived by Sony in 1993, shut down again in 2000, and relaunched in 2013. Artists including David Sanborn, Bill Frisell, and Regina Carter have recorded on the latest reincarnation of the label.

There were two dominating players in the early days of the Race Records. While Okeh promoted black artists in urban areas, Gennett Records prevailed in the Midwest. In 1923, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, with Louis Armstrong, recorded in the Gennett studio. Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Tommy Dorsey, Bennie Moten, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington recorded some of their earliest sides at Gennett as well. In 1925, Bix Beiderbecke and his Rhythm Jugglers cut "Toddlin' Blues" and "Davenport Blues," in Gennett's Richmond, Indiana studio. The Starr Piano Company in Indiana was the parent company of Gennett Records, a label that recorded without contracts and welcomed a diverse set of clients that included black jazz artists and blues musicians. They quietly bankrolled a cash-only, no-questions-asked, recording side business; it counted the Ku Klux Klan as a lucrative customer. With up to six-million members in the 1920s, the Klan produced thousands of records. In the late 1920s, the Indiana Klan faded away in the wake of a murder involving their leader. Shortly afterward, Gennett itself acceded to the Great Depression and the rise of radio.


Race Music and Race Records—as designations—have a nebulous history. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003) takes the view these labels were, at a point in history, associated with constructive images. The book's author, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., is a Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, and a pianist and composer. He writes, ..."the word [race] at one time represented a kind of positive self- identification among Americans. The black press routinely used 'the Race,' for example, as a generic term for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, calling oneself or being referred to as a race man or race woman became a way to display pride in being an African American..." It would have been illogical for the white-owned labels, hoping to capitalize on black musicians and consumers, to promote their products with a phrase that those consumers found offensive. But as a source of pride, "race" lost its appeal. Ramsey cites Paul Oliver's Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions On Race Records (Cambridge University Press, 1984), explaining that by the end of World War II, Race Records had been replaced by "Rhythm and Blues" as a category, but with little difference in the styles of music.

The Black Swan

Harry Pace was an overachiever. An African American, the Georgia native earned a degree from Atlanta University at nineteen and was valedictorian of his class. A successful insurance, and banking executive, he received a second degree in 1903 and went into the printing business with the sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP. Two years later the pair published The Moon Illustrated Weekly, the first illustrated weekly magazine produced by, and for, African Americans. The magazine focused on African American issues and events in Africa and the Caribbean Islands. From late 1905 through the summer on 1906, The Moon Illustrated Weekly published thirty-four issues but the magazine was under-funded and under-staffed and closed after just one year.

Pace's acuity for the written word was easily converted to his newfound interest as a lyricist. Living in Memphis, Tennessee in 1912, he met W. C. Handy and the two became friends. After collaborating on some compositions, they formed the Pace and Handy Music Company and relocated to Times Square in 1918. Capitalizing on Pace's business savvy and Handy's musical acumen, the company's launch was a highly successful one. Within months they had developed a catalog that included "Beale Street Blues," "The St. Louis Blues" and other popular pieces. In 1920, Pace and Handy contracted composers William Grant Still (known as the "Dean of African- American Composers") and Fletcher Henderson. As the company grew, the principals were no longer aligned on business practices and Pace resigned. Renamed as The Handy Brothers Music Company, the reconstituted company is now the oldest family-run business in the U.S.

In his brief time working with Handy, Pace was upset by the practice of recording companies purchasing music written by black artists, and allowing only white artists to record the pieces. He was also inspired by African American bandleader James Reese Europe, who advocated for blacks to establish their own identities in music, and control their business interests. Remaining in New York, Pace formed the Pace Phonographic Corporation in 1921. It was a common practice for phonograph companies to have their own record label and cross-pollinate the home entertainment market. Pace established the Black Swan label concurrent with his phonograph business. Named for singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called "the Black Swan," it was the first major record company owned and operated by an African American. Black Swan was not a Race Record label; that distinction was reserved for the companies who segregated their product based on the color of the target market. Pace did not burn the bridge to Handy, naming him to the board of directors. Black Swan promptly signed Ethel Waters to a recording contract and her associations with Louis Armstrong and jazz trumpeter Joe Smith brought immediate recognition to the fledgling label. In 1922, Pace purchased a pressing plant, increased production, and reduced consumer prices through those volumes of product. He exploited his Handy connections, hiring Henderson as recording director and piano accompanist and Still as an arranger.

Pace aspired to provide the black audience with a broad mix of sophisticated styles and genres, including concert songs, sacred music, and vaudeville tunes, providing the artists themselves were black. Despite modest initial success Black Swan quickly realized that jazz and blues sales would be their only viable source of revenue. Within the first eighteen months of business, Pace signed Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, and Don Redman, the uncle of saxophonist Dewey Redman, and great-uncle of saxophonist Joshua Redman. Dozens of blues artists were brought on board including Lovie Austin, Charlie Dixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roosevelt Sykes.



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