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RACE RECORDS AND THE AMERICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY, 1919–1945: An Illustrated History
By Allan Sutton
388 Pages / 208 Illustrations
6″ x 9″ Quality Paperback
$39 US (Free Shipping)
$59 All Foreign (w/ Insured Airmail)
From the Preface:
Race Records and the American Recording Industry is the story of those remarkable companies and individuals who gambled on a new and often unpredictable market in the face of racial prejudice and entrenched business practices, and in doing so made the American recording industry more inclusive, and far more interesting, than it once had been.
This work takes a broad view of what were once termed “race records” — recordings intended primarily for the African-American market, which often were segregated in specially numbered series and not listed in the record companies’ main catalogs. Many modern writers associate race records solely with blues and gospel, the equivalent of assuming that rural whites bought only records of mountaineer tunes, or that Italian immigrants bought only opera. While blues and gospel made up a large portion of race-record offerings, they were only part of a broad spectrum that also included religious material of all sorts, jazz and dance music, mainstream pop, comedy and novelty selections, concert and classical material, and even the occasional country-music offering, all of which are explored in this work
Because the music itself has been amply covered elsewhere, this work instead focuses on the making, marketing, and distribution of race records prior to the late 1940s, exploring the ways in which those activities affected, and were affected by, conditions within the nation and within the recording industry as a whole. That is why (to respond in advance to inevitable criticism by Robert Johnson’s legions of fans) an entire chapter is devoted to Mamie Smith, whereas Johnson is covered in several pages. Were this a musical rather than a business and social history, the ratio, of course, would be reversed.
But Mamie Smith’s early records, whatever their musical shortcomings, had a profound impact on the recording industry, revealing a huge untapped market, opening the way for many other black artists to make records, and encouraging aspiring black entrepreneurs to get involved with record production, which until then had been completely controlled by whites. On the other hand, although Robert Johnson is now revered by mass-media rock stars and the pop-culture establishment (as much for the hoary legends surrounding him as for his music), in the 1930s he was just another talented but obscure local artist whose records went largely unnoticed outside of his home region, and who had no significant impact on the recording industry or American musical culture at the time his records were issued. Johnson receives as much coverage as he does mainly because his story provides an excellent example of how the record companies handled, or mishandled, their race artists.
The book also debunks many common myths and misconceptions that stubbornly refuse to die, having been perpetuated for decades by writers who are content to parrot anecdotal material from questionable secondary sources. Some long-standing discographical errors have been corrected as well, based upon examination of primary-source materials that have been missed by earlier researchers…