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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.

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