Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records:
The Authoritative History
By Allan Sutton
Text from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (Mainspring Press, 2018)
This new account, incorporating previously unpublished information from internal company documents and Pace’s and Du Bois’ personal correspondence (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries) is a preliminary study for the author’s full-length Black Swan history and discography, currently in preparation.
Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Company was the second black-owned and operated record company (preceded only by George W. Broome’s short-lived venture), and the first to succeed commercially, if only briefly.
A 1903 graduate of Atlanta University, Pace initially worked in banking, but his interests turned increasingly to music. He and W. C. Handy collaborated on their first song in 1907, and in 1912 the pair formed the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. The company had its first major hit in 1914, with the publication of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and in 1918 it relocated to New York. Pace resigned in late 1920 to launch his recording operation, taking some key personnel with him. Handy recalled, “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace. Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”
W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)
On December 27, 1920, Pace wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois that he had formed a corporation to manufacture phonograph records. He held open the possibility of involving others, telling Du Bois, “I made the capital stock elastic enough so as to take others into it if the idea met very favorable consideration.” The letter makes clear that it was Du Bois who suggested the name “Black Swan,” in honor of the pioneering African-American diva, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Pace reported to Du Bois that he had already made test recordings by Ford Dabney’s Orchestra and was hoping to do the same with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert and a very young Marian Anderson.
Pace invited Du Bois to join the new company’s board and provide whatever funding he could. The Pace Phonograph Corporation was formally chartered as a Delaware corporation in January 1921, with Du Bois initially purchasing a single share. The officers at the time of incorporation were Pace (president and treasurer) and D. L. Haynes (secretary). Directors, in addition to Du Bois, included Levi C. Brown, T. K. Gibson, William Lewis, John E. Nail, and Emmett J. Scott. Pace and Du Bois found eager investors not only in Harlem, but in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, and other far-flung locations. Among them was comedian Bert Williams, who according to an advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.”
Harry Pace’s townhouse at 257 West 138th Street served as Black Swan’s first office. Among the employees Pace took from Pace & Handy Music was Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., a young pianist from Georgia whom Handy had recently hired as a song demonstrator. Henderson’s defection garnered him the position of recording director and house accompanist, although Pace later admitted he felt that Henderson was not fully qualified. William Grant Still, one of W. C. Handy’s staff arrangers, also made the move.
The studio in which Pace initially recorded remains a subject of debate. The location is not mentioned in any of Pace’s or Du Bois’ known correspondence, nor is there any suggestion in those letters that Pace equipped his own studio or hired a recording engineer. A New York Age article from June 1921 confirms that Pace did not yet have his own studio, reporting that the company was “planning to establish its own laboratory [i.e., studio] in the near future.” If any of Pace’s pre-production tests have survived, they have not been located for inspection. However, most of the early issued masters appear to have been recorded by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon physical and aural characteristics.
Black Swan records were in production by the early spring of 1921, with initial releases planned for May. Pressing was to be handled by John Fletcher’s Olympic Disc Record Corporation plant in Long Island City. Newly incorporated, Olympic commenced operations in March 1921, the same month in which the earliest issued Black Swan recordings are believed to have been made. Like Black Swan, Olympic advertised its first records as May releases, and their physical characteristics were identical with those of the earliest Black Swan pressings, confirming Harry Pace’s recollection that they were pressed in what he termed the “Remington factory” (the Remington Phonograph Company being Olympic’s parent corporation).
(Left) An early first-state Black Swan label, showing the sunken ring around the spindle hole and other tell-tale Olympic pressing-plant characteristics. (Right) A second-state label, pressed by the New York Recording Laboratories. Based upon the typeface, it appears that both labels were supplied by the same printer.
From the start, Pace found himself torn between two disparate markets within the African-American community — a relatively small, affluent group that championed what it saw as culture and refinement (mirroring Pace’s own background and musical preferences), and a larger working-class group with a growing appetite for jazz and blues records. In August 1921, Pace told The Talking Machine World, “While it is true that we will feature to a great extent ‘blue’ numbers of the type that are in current favor, we will also release many numbers of a higher standard.” In his attempts to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution his choice of artists and repertoire.
The first three Black Swan records were announced as ready for delivery on May 4, 1921. Pace’s preference for “numbers of a “higher standard” was immediately apparent. For the inaugural release (#2001), he chose two old concert pieces, “At Dawning” and “Thank God for a Garden,” sung by soprano Revella Hughes, with violin, cello, and piano accompaniment. There followed two equally straightforward sides by concert baritone Carroll C. Clark, then two blues-inflected pop tunes by vaudevillian Katie Crippen. The company sold a modest 10,300 records during its first month of sales, according to a report in The Crisis.
The black press (particularly The Chicago Defender) cast Pace’s attempt to launch Black Swan as nothing less than an epic struggle between good and evil. The venture had barely been launched when the Defender proclaimed that “a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.” If there was an uproar, it went unreported in trade journals like The Talking Machine World, which covered Black Swan to the same extent as the other small startups of the period, was supportive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.
One of the Defender’s most absurd claims, flying in the face of what are now well-established facts, was that the Remington Phonograph Company had purchased the Olympic pressing plant for the sole purpose of denying service to Pace — conveniently ignoring the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed for Pace, albeit briefly. What actually caused Pace to move his pressing business from Olympic was a surge in orders. In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (the New York Recording Laboratories’ headquarters), Pace reported, “I am here arranging for an increased fall and winter production together with a line of Black Swan Phonographs.”
The NYRL pressing plant, although geographically remote, had the capacity for large-scale record production that Olympic lacked, and the company was actively courting new customers. Since Pace was already using NYRL’s New York studio, the move from Olympic made logistical sense, consolidating all Black Swan production within a single company. Black Swan pressings from the summer of 1921 into the spring of 1922 show the unmistakable characteristics of NYRL’s work.
The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough, and Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest releases failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to bring national attention to Black Swan. The situation changed with Pace’s signing of Ethel Waters in April 1921. Already a veteran of the southern vaudeville circuits, Waters was attracting a strong following at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem.
Waters had already recorded two titles for Criterion Laboratories, an independent studio that supplied several small labels, but there had been no immediate takers (Cardinal eventually released them in September 1921), and Waters decided to visit Pace. Her first Black Swan release (“Down Home Blues” / “Oh Daddy”) was released in July 1921 and became a sizable hit. In October, Pace signed Waters to an exclusive Black Swan contract that reportedly made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time. In November, she was sent on an extended tour as the star of the Black Swan Troubadours, eventually playing in twenty-one states.
Black Swan’s first hit: “Down Home Blues” (here advertised in August 1921) brought national attention to Ethel Water and Black Swan. Pace plugged many of Waters’ subsequent releases as “Another ‘Down Home Blues'” (the example above is from late 1922), but none approached the popularity of the original.
Thanks largely to Waters’ records, Black Swan developed a small following among white customers, including some stage and film stars. It was widely reported that actress Marilyn Miller had presented a “large selection” of Black Swan records to Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) on their wedding day. The Dallas Express reported, “It is now becoming quite a fad with many stars of the theatrical profession, who have found something different in these all-Colored records, to have them sent to their friends in various parts of the country.”
Pace, however, failed to capitalize on that momentum. He placed no advertising in the white consumer publications and made little effort to court the important trade publications. His advertisements in The Talking Machine World, which did not begin running until August 1921, often appeared to be halfhearted efforts, sometimes simply listing a few artists’ names, or dwelling on past hits rather than fresh releases.
Trixie Smith, Pace’s next star, was signed in January 1922, shortly after she took first place at the Fifteenth Regiment Blues Contest in Harlem. With Waters and Smith on his roster, Pace found it easier to attract new singers. However, the oft-repeated tale that he auditioned Bessie Smith, and rejected her after she stopped to spit in the midst of her test recording, is apocryphal. It appears to have originated in the 1940s with W. C. Handy, who was prone to spinning colorful tales and is unlikely to have been present at the alleged session, given his strained relationship with Pace.
With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, distribution proved to be a stumbling block. Pace was unable to obtain national coverage through the major jobbers. Although racial prejudice was likely a factor in some cases, small white-owned startups had experienced the same problem for many years. In Pace’s case, however, the major distributors’ lack of confidence probably was compounded by his inexperience in the record business and Black Swan’s targeting of a still-unproven market.
Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.
Pace countered by recruiting small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell the records wherever and however they could. In June 1921, he hired Paul Robeson (who was then a student at Rutgers) as a part-time salesman, but missed the opportunity to record him. That autumn, Pace hired C. Udell Turpine (given as Turpin in some accounts) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpine brought along several professional salesmen from a previous venture, but he continued to build Pace’s network of small retailers and individual salespeople as well, advertising in The Crisis, “We want men and women with a backbone and a desire to earn $100 a week…men and women who don’t care what $20 a week people think.”
In March 1922, Pace published a Black Swan distributor map in The Crisis that looked impressive at first glance, with all forty-eight states covered to varying degrees. The heaviest concentrations were east of the Mississippi, but nearly every state had a distributor or jobber, and at least a few retail dealers. However, the largest number of dots on the map represented “agents,” those independent salespeople who peddled the records door-to-door, on street corners, or wherever else they could.
Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis for March 1922.
In January 1922, The New York Age perhaps unintentionally revealed the company’s financial fragility when it reported that Black Swan had made a profit of slightly more than $3,300 on sales of $104,628.74 in 1921. Although the reporter seemed impressed by the latter figure, it was minuscule by industry standards of the day. Given that Black Swan records initially retailed for $1 (reduced to 85¢ late in the year), and normal wholesale rates were 50% of list price, Black Swan’s 1921 sales probably amounted to between a quarter- and a half-million records, depending upon the ratio of wholesale to direct retail sales. In the same year, Victor sold nearly fifty-five million records.
April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of the Red Label series, an obvious play on Victor’s prestigious Red Seals. Victor, which for years had taken legal action against competitors’ use of red labels on classical records, does not appear to have taken any such action in Black Swan’s case, casting further doubt on the Defender’s claims that the white recording establishment was out to destroy Pace.
The Red Label listing included operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert and Antoinette Garnes, and concert selections by Hattie King Reavis. In December 1922, Pace tried to secure concert tenor Roland Hayes for Black Swan, only to be informed by Hayes that he was under contract to Aeolian in England. The series sputtered along until being discontinued in May 1923, marking the end of Pace’s involvement in the classical market.
In April 1922, Pace, in partnership with John Fletcher and Michael Naughton, purchased the trademark, masters, and facilities of Fletcher’s defunct Olympic venture. The Fletcher Record Company, Inc., was chartered in New York on May 26, 1922. With Fletcher as president and Pace as vice president and treasurer, it was the first American record company to have a racially mixed executive team, a situation that received only a passing mention the trade papers.
The Fletcher Record Company initially served as the new studio and pressing plant for Black Swan records. The Pace Phonograph Corporation remained in business as a separate entity, and Pace-produced Black Swan labels continued to credit the Pace Phonograph Corporation. Following the acquisition, Pace reported, “We are now issuing ten numbers a month instead of three…. We do our own recording, plating, pressing, as well as printing of every description, in the above plant.” However, the operation soon proved to be unprofitable. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.”
Fletcher-era Black Swan pressings; note the return of the sunken ring surrounding the spindle hole, which is absent on the New York Record Laboratories’ and Bridgeport Die & Machine Company’s Black Swan pressings. Black Swan 60006 is a reissue from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, with xylophonist George Hamilton Green disguised as “Raymond Green.”
Fletcher revived his Olympic label later that year, with an all-white artist roster. Pace had already reissued some older Olympic recordings on Black Swan, under pseudonyms, breaking his pledge to use only black artists. By July 1922, so much outside material was being released under the Black Swan label that the catalog was split into ten separately numbered series. Of those, only the 14000 race series (replacing the original 2000s) and 7100 operatic series remained pure Pace productions, reserved exclusively for black artists. The remainder (which included Hawaiian, novelty, sacred, novelty, and classical series) were made up almost entirely of pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s Olympic catalog. In an ironic twist, the nation’s first successful race-record label was now producing its own racially segregated catalog, while continuing the claim that it employed only black talent.
Pace broke his pledge to use only black artists even before going into partnership with John Fletcher. By the time this ad appeared in The Crisis in late 1922, the Black Swan catalog contained many pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, including the “Xmas records” advertised here.
The aliases employed by Black Swan for Olympics’ white artists were obviously contrived to suggest black performers. Various Harry Yerkes groups became “Joe Brown’s Alabama Band” or “Sammy Swift’s Jazz Band,” Rudy Wiedeoft’s Californians became “Haynes’ Harlem Syncopators,” xylophonist George Hamilton Green became “Raymond Green,” and novelty whistler Margaret McKee was renamed “Bessie Johnson.” Recordings by Irving Weiss’ Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Fred Van Eps’ Quartet, and Wiedoeft’s Palace Trio were released as “Ethel Waters’ Jazz Masters” while Waters was on tour and likely unaware of the subterfuge. Some Olympic recordings by conventional white dance bands were credited to “Henderson’s Dance Orchestra” or “Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra,” with no first name given but obviously meant to imply Fletcher Henderson’s involvement, even after Henderson had left the company.
At least one newspaper was taken in. A reporter for the Defender praised the Baltimore Blues Orchestra, “a new musical organization…doing exclusive recording for Black Swan records,” unaware that name was simply a disguise for several white dance bands from the Olympic roster. Whether record buyers suspected a ruse went unreported, but Black Swan sales began to stall.
Pace reported sales of only 256,202 Black Swan records for fiscal year 1922. In his November 1922 financial statement, he disclosed that Black Swan had experienced “the greatest slump since we began business” during July. The slump persisted into early October, by which time Pace seemed resigned to average monthly sales of only 25,000 records. “I am trying to devise some sales plan whereby this figure can be greatly increased,” he wrote to Du Bois, “but regret to say that I have not yet hit upon it.” In the same month, Pace set up a dummy collection agency to handle delinquent accounts. Although it netted only $544 in its first month, he seemed pleased with that figure and reported that the operation was “still pulling them in.”
Pace advertised a new stock issue in October 1922, promising a “certain” 6% return in three years, plus 6% dividends.” The stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming. On January 20, 1923, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was reorganized as the Black Swan Record Company. The change marked the end of Pace’s entanglement with John Fletcher, who would file for bankruptcy in December 1923. With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for his pressings, using the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut to handle the occasional overflow. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.
Letterheads for the original Pace Phonograph Corporation (above) and the Black Swan Phonograph Company (below), a 1923 reorganization of the original corporation following Pace’s split with John Fletcher.
The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter had been the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she signed with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed in November 1922 and was replaced as recording manager by William Grant Still. Pace, who had not been satisfied with Henderson’s work, predicted that “Still will bring wider experience and more technical musical knowledge than Henderson has had, and I believe will greatly improve the work of the records,” which did not prove to be the case. The major artist exodus occurred after reorganization, beginning with Trixie Smith’s defection to Paramount in March 1923.
Smith was followed in short order by Josie Miles, Julia Moody, Lena Wilson, and others, many of whom subsequently signed on as free-lance artists with music-publisher and talent-broker Joe Davis. In the meantime, Ethel Waters had begun touring on her own, and when the Black Swan Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discovery that the business was barely operating.
Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.
The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, but only a handful of new Black Swan releases were forthcoming after July, and some that were announced apparently are not known to have been released. Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan session, in or around early August. The label’s final release (Ethel Waters’ “Sweet Man Blues” / “Ethel Sings ’Em,” recorded in June at her final Black Swan session) was advertised in The Chicago Defender for December 22, 1923. Black Swan advertised in the Defender for the last time on February 23, 1924. Even then, Pace was still soliciting “agents in every community.”
Pace’s debts (which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services) had become unmanageable by the end of 1923. In January 1924, NYRL executive M. A. Supper traveled from Wisconsin to New York to negotiate a buyout of Pace’s operation. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. The Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but purely as a holding company. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be licensed to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.
A redesigned Black Swan label appeared in early 1923 (left), following Pace’s split with John Fletcher. Pressings bearing this label were produced by both the New York Recording Laboratories and the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (the example pictured here came from the latter). The ill-fated Paramount–Black Swan Record was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, after licensing Pace’s masters.
Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when NYRL’s advertising logo was changed to read “Paramount Records (Combined with Black Swan).” A hybrid Paramount–Black Swan label, combining both companies’ trademarks, was introduced with some fanfare a month later, but it never developed into anything more than a reissue vehicle for previously released Black Swan recordings. Having failed to attract much interest after ninety-nine releases, the Paramount–Black Swan label stalled. The Paramount licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount–Black label had been discontinued.
Pace spent another working to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, a period he characterized in a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors as “worry for me and punishing effort which appears to be wholly unappreciated by some.” He then turned his back on the recording industry, went on earn a law degree from the University of Chicago, and in later years operated an insurance business.
“A Consolidation.” Chicago Defender (Apr 19, 1924), p. 6.
“A New York Incorporation.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1921), p. 157.
Allen, Walter C. “Report on Black Swan.” Unpublished manuscript (Jun 12, 1961). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press collection.
“Black Swan Artists Broadcast.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 43.
“Black Swan Takes Over Company.” Chicago Defender (Apr 1922).
“Black Swan Records—New Firm Announces First List of Productions.” Chicago Defender (May 4, 1921), p. 8.
“C. Udell Turpin Takes Charge.” Talking Machine World (Oct 15, 1921), p. 46.
“Demand for Ethel Waters Record.” Talking Machine World (Aug 15, 1921), p. 89.
“Distribution System of Black Swan Phonograph Records.” The Crisis (Mar 1922), p 221.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Letter to Roland Hayes (New York, Nov 24, 1922), re: Invitation to record for Black Swan. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).
Du Bois, W. E. B., et al. “To the Stockholders of the Black Swan Phonograph Company” (New York, Jan 2, 1926). Du Bois Papers.
“Gives Jack Pickford Black Swan Records as Wedding Present.” Dallas Express (Nov 11, 1922), p. 1.
Handy, W. C. (Arna Bomtemps, editor). Father of the Blues—An Autobiography, pp. 202–203. New York: Macmillan (1941).
“New Incorporations.” New York Times (May 26, 1922), p. 34.
“New Incorporations—Capital Increases.” New York Times (Feb 1, 1923), p. 28
“New Incorporations—Delaware Charters.” New York Times (Feb 5, 1921), p. 22
“New York Charters—Name Changes.” New York Times (Jan 30, 1923), p. 27
“New Incorporations—New York Charters.” New York Times (Jun 25, 1921), p. 13.
“Now the Fletcher Record Company—Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New Corporation.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1922), p. 57.
Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 27, 1920), re: Company launch and Du Bois’ proposal of the Black Swan name. Du Bois Papers.
— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Mar 21, 1922), re: Financial statement through Dec 31, 1921.
— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 23, 1922), re: Roland Hayes, and proposal to press imported Caruso masters. Du Bois Papers.
— . Letter to Du Bois, et al. (New York, Jan 19, 1927), re: Ongoing attempts to liquidate Black Swan debt.
— . Postcard to W. E. B. Du Bois (Port Washington, WI, Jun 24, 1921), re: Preparations for increased record production. Du Bois Papers.
— . Stockholder Notice (New York, Jan 1, 1923), re: Organization of Black Swan Phonograph Company. Du Bois Papers.
Pace Phonograph Corp. “Black Swan Records.” U.S. trademark filing #149,558 (Jun 23, 1921).
“Pace Phonograph Corp. Changes Name.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1923), p. 124.
“Phonograph Company Making Rapid Progress.” New York Age (Jun 18, 1921), p. 6.
“Purchase Black Swan Business.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1924), p. 168.
“Report of Pace Phonograph Corporation” (Nov 8, 1922). Du Bois Papers.
“Robeson Casts His Chances with Pace Phonograph Co.” Chicago Defender (Jun 18, 1921), p. 9.
“The Horizon” (re: First-month record sales). The Crisis (Aug 1921), p. 176.
“The Horizon” (re: Black Swan distribution and record sales). The Crisis (Mar 1922), p. 220.
“The Swanola—A New Phonograph” (ad). The Crisis (Oct 1921), p. 284.
Thygesen, Helge, et al. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottingham, UK: VJM Publications (1996).
“To the Investing Public.” The Crisis (Nov 1922), p. 282.
“White Phonograph Record Companies Object to Colored Men Making Phonograph Records.” Dallas Express (Feb 26, 1921), p. 3.
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