The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.
The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.
The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.
Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.
Ajax has been called “the forgotten race record label.” It was an odd creature, the product of Emile Berliner’s rebellious son Herbert, and his Canadian-based Compo Company; but the masters were recorded in New York (for the most part), and the records, although pressed in Canada, were intended for the African-American market in the U.S.
Although the “Ajax Record Company” was officially headquartered in Chicago, it was little more than a sales and distribution office, managed by Compo Company personnel. Unfortunately, Ajax never recorded there (the sides listed as Chicago recordings in some discographies were actually made in Montreal, as the surviving Compo ledgers confirm). Berliner instead brought locally available artists to his New York branch studio. Most of them were contracted by promoter and publisher Joe Davis (who oversaw the recording sessions along with Berliner), and few measured up to the Chicago-based artists that Paramount was promoting so successfully at the time. Nevertheless, there are some gems to be found in the Ajax catalog.
Although Compo’s files have survived, those of its Ajax subsidiary (which used a separate series of master numbers) have not. Therefore, this is a reconstruction, based in part on first-hand inspection of the now-rare original discs, and in part on what can be inferred from surviving documentation, including relevant portions of the Compo ledgers, and listing and release dates from The Chicago Defender,The Talking Machine World, and other period publications. Recording-date ranges have been extrapolated based upon Berliner’s monthly week-or-so absences from Montreal (as noted in the ledgers), which are believed to correspond with his visits to the New York studio, and which correlate very nicely with the confirmed release dates. Personnel listings are based upon the recollections of Louis Hooper, Joe Davis, and others who were present at the recording sessions.
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.In February 1920*, a vaudeville blues singer named Mamie Smith showed up at the General Phonograph Corporation’s Okeh studio, in the company of songwriter and publisher Perry Bradford, having been rejected by Victor a month earlier. Bradford was shopping around two of his new titles — “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”
Bradford recalled that Fred Hager, General Phonograph’s musical director, was interested in both songs, especially if Sophie Tucker would agree to record them for Okeh. She wouldn’t, so Bradford took a chance and instead pitched Mamie Smith to Hager, recalling:
“[I] handed Mr. Hager this new line of jive: ‘There’s a colored girl, the one I told you about up in Harlem. Well, she will do more with these songs than a monkey can do with a peanut; she sings jazz songs with more soulful feeling than other girls, for it’s only natural with us…
“May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerve and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which echoed aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’…
“After Mamie finished recording ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ that snowy morning in February 1920, I was itching to jump and yell, right there in the studio, ‘Hallelujah, it’s done!’ It was a happy moment, for I’d schemed and used up all my bag of tricks to get that date.”
Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie’s record, nor did it need to. During the five months it took the company to finally release the disc, Bradford made sure that news of the session reached The Chicago Defender and other black-owned newspapers, and word-of-mouth did the rest. When Okeh 4113 finally appeared in July, it found an eager audience.
Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie Smith’s first release. By the time this ad appeared in the autumn of 1920, her second release, “Crazy Blues,” was on its way to becoming a hit, and Okeh was promoting her aggressively.
The record’s release was a symbolic victory, if not a musical one. Accompanied by Okeh’s plodding Rega Orchestra (“Rega” being a pseudonym for Hager, as confirmed in the federal copyright registers), Mamie played it straight. There is little to distinguish her performances on these sides from those of Marion Harris and some other white comediennes of the period, who in turn were trying to sound a little black-ish.
MAMIE SMITH: That Thing Called Love
New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7275 – E) Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer
MAMIE SMITH: You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7276 – D) Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer
That would all change six months later, when Mamie Smith returned to Okeh and cut loose on Bradford’s “Harlem Blues” (renamed “Crazy Blues” for the occasion, a hastily made decision that would come back to bite Bradford, and badly; but that’s a story for another post). This time she was accompanied by the Jazz Hounds, a raucous little band that Bradford had thrown together for the session. They sorely taxed recording engineer Charles Hibbard’s patience, Bradford recalled, but produced what is generally acknowledged as the first true blues recording — or, perhaps more accurately, the first blues-like recording by a black woman. Whichever take you prefer, there’s no disputing that Mamie Smith’s records sparked the early-1920s blue craze and resultant birth of the race-record industry, which would provide opportunities for black performers that had been undreamed-of a decade earlier..
* When Was Mamie Smith’s First Session?
Okeh’s recording files for this period have long-since been destroyed, so we have to rely on circumstantial evidence — in this case, the weather reports. Discographies traditionally put the date at Saturday, February 14, with no source cited. But that’s almost certainly a bad guess, if Bradford’s recollection of a “snowy morning” is accurate. The weather in Manhattan on the 14th was fair and dry, as it had been (and would continue to be) for much of the month. It did snow there on Tuesday the 10th and Wednesday the 18th — either date being a far more likely candidate than the sunny-and-mild 14th.
Quoted excerpts are from Perry Bradford’s autobiography, Born with the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).
110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet With Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings
Victor announces the first Fisk Jubilee Singers releases (catalog courtesy of John Bolig)
On February 19, 1910, the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first recordings by a quartet from the Fisk Jubilee Singers — a widely celebrated group that nevertheless had been ignored thus far by the recording companies. They were not the first black vocal group to record, by any means (see Tim Brooks’Lost Soundsfor more on that), but those groups had failed to gain traction in the record market, and their names were mostly dim memories by the time Victor released its first Fisk records.
Blues-and-gospel purists often dismiss these records as pandering to white audiences with “sanitized” or “Europeanized” treatment of traditional spirituals. But that was precisely the strategy — to present black music and performers in a concert setting, in a bid to attract white audiences who might otherwise have never considered attending a performance or purchasing a record by a black artist — and it succeeded wonderfully. Victor’s initial Fisk offerings were outstanding sellers and are still among the most commonly encountered records of the period. The Fisk singers, with periodic personnel changes, went on to make dozens of recordings for Victor, Edison, and Columbia from 1910 to early 1926.
FISK UNIVERSITY JUBILEE QUARTET: I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray
Camden NJ: December 8, 1909
Victor 16448 (mx. B 8422 – 2)
Released February 10, 1909; Deleted 1923.
For their other February 1910 Fisk release, Victor slipped into more typical “good-old-plantation-days” mode, having the group record Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” and backing it with J. A. Myers’ recitation of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “When Malindy Sings.” Although Dunbar was African-American, and his work can be deeply moving at times, he employed stereotypical minstrel-show dialect that is almost unreadable, and difficult to stomach, today. Myers’ recitation is an anomaly among the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ recorded output.
From Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903). The book is notable for its photographs by members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, headed by Leigh Richard Miner; names of the individual photographers unfortunately were not given. (Mainspring Press collection):
“Waiting for a Train” (an October 1928 recording) was released on February 8, 1929, but was soon replaced by a dubbed version using a master that was transcribed on April 26, 1929 (easily identified by the “4R” marking in the wax, at the nine o’clock position; original takes show just plain 4). The -4R pressing are still quite common, but pressings from the original, unmolested master tend to be elusive, especially in decent condition. They’re well worth seeking out for the rich bass and “forward” quality that were lost in the anemic-sounding dubbing.
Austin, Texas (January 1930)
Hamlin, Texas (March 1929)
Huntsville, Alabama (July 1931)
H. C. (Henry Columbus) Speir is best remembered as the free-lance talent scout who landed recording sessions for the likes of Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, and other blues greats. His role in promoting white country music performers has been largely overlooked and will be the subject of a future posting. (Jackson, Mississippi, January 1929)
Jackson, Mississippi (January 1929). Note the offer to autograph records. Signed records still turn up today, mainly in the South, but forgeries likely exist. .
Marshall, Texas (May 1932)
On a roll at Victor — The ad picturing the ever-dour Carter Family is from September 1931, and “Blue Yodel” is from October. The latter of course is Rodger’s celebrated side with trumpet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong, recorded in Hollywood on July 16, 1930, but not released until September 11, 1931. Armstrong was still under exclusive contact to Okeh at the time, and Victor took pains to ensure his anonymity, leaving his name off the labels and not even listing him in the original recording ledger.
Rodgers with W. I. Swain’s traveling tent show, “In the Flesh” and sharing billing with “Plenty of Girls” (top: Pampa, Texas, May 1930; bottom: Camden, Arkansas, March 1931).
Hide the Band: The Coon-Sanders “Castle Farms Serenaders” Paramounts (1928)
Broadway pressing from NYRL mx. 20924 (with Joe Sanders’ last name misspelled), originally issued on Paramount 20668
Here’s a bit of “hide the band” activity that escaped Brian Rustand those who have copied his work — In November 1928, the Coon-Sanders Orchestra recorded Joe Sanders’ “Tennessee Lazy” for Paramount at Chicago’s Marsh Laboratories — on the sly, since they were under exclusive contract to Victor at the time — as the “Castle Farms Serenaders.” The alias had at least a bit of basis in fact, since the Coon-Sanders band occasionally played at Cincinnati’s Castle Farms (the name was used to cover other bands as well).
Three other titles on adjacent master numbers (preceded by a Big Bill & Thomps session, and followed by Richard Jones’ Jazz Wizards), were variously issued as the “Castle Farms Serenaders” and “Manhattan Entertainers.” Unfortunately, there are no Victor versions of these three titles for comparison.
Chronologically, there is no possibility that the Paramount was copied from the Victor by some cover band (not that any cover band could have produced such a perfect sound-alike anyway). Aside from the addition of Joe Sanders’ vocal, and the slightly slower tempo, the arrangement and solos are identical.
Brian Rust somehow missed the correlation in Jazz Records 6th Edition, listing the “Castle Farms Serenaders” on this session as an entirely unknown band. American Dance Bands on Record and Film erroneously credits the record to a Bill Haid group, with no source cited (banjoist Haid had been in and out of the Coon-Sanders Orchestra over the years, but by this time he had his own band, a so-so outfit). Earlier Paramount issues under the “Castle Farms” name still bear further investigation; the undocumented personnel listed by Rust and others for those sessions, although not disclosed as such, appear to be purely speculative.
Here are both versions of “Tennessee Lazy” for side-by-side comparison:
An updated edition of our 2010 publication, Vocalion 14000 Series includes a substantial amount of newly added data from the Brunswick-Vocalion transfer logs; the files of recording contractor Ed Kirkeby (who booked sessions for the likes of Charles Harrison and Fred Van Eps, besides managing the California Ramblers); the Record Research group’s extensive archival materials (now a part of Mainspring Press’ holdings); foreign-release data from catalogs in the British National Library and private collections; and other reliable documentation that has become available to us since the original edition was published.
Part 2 in the Vocalion Discography series — covering the vertical-cut and pre-1925 classical, operatic, and miscellaneous series — is in final fact-checking and editing for release this Spring. Part 3, covering the Brunswick-era issues, obviously is a much longer-range project.