Collector’s Corner • Some March 2020 Finds: Theodore Shaw, Oliver Naylor, Duke Ellington, Bumble Bee Slim & Memphis Minnie, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five without Louis

Collector’s Corner • Some March 2020 Finds
Theodore Shaw, Oliver Naylor, Duke Ellington,
Bumble Bee Slim & Memphis Minnie,
Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five sans Louis

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A few favorite new additions to the collection for March (so far), for your enjoyment in case you’re stuck at home and being driven up the wall by the endless coverage of Covid-19. (It has a real name, and it’s not “China Virus.” Anyone who thinks calling it “China Virus” is clever or appropriate is invited to go get their free music elsewhere. Enough with the childish shit, and with the sorry losers who perpetuate it.)

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THEODORE SHAW: Hold ’Er Newt (They’re After Us)
(V+)

Richmond, IN: April 17, 1924
Vaughan 825 (Gennett mx. 11831 – B)
Shown in error as mx. 11881 in Brian Rust’s Jazz Records (Sixth Edition). Shaw’s first name is not shown on the labels but is listed in the Gennett files. This was one of James D. Vaughan’s Ku Klux Klan records, with Shaw accompanying the Vaughan Quartet’s “Wake Up America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck” on the reverse side.

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OLIVER NAYLOR’S SEVEN ACES: Ain’t That Hateful
(V++)

New York: February 22, 1924
Gennett 5393 (mx. 8748 – A)
“They have that distinctive New Orleans rhythm that can only be developed by living in the South…” — Gennett Record Gazette I:3 (see the full article at the end of this post)

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NEW ORLEANS WANDERERS: Perdido Street Blues
(EE–)

Chicago: July 13, 1926
Columbia 698-D (mx. W 142426 – 1)

The band is Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, with George Mitchell subbing for Armstrong (who was exclusive to Okeh at the time and had recently been apprehended and chastised after he was caught recording  surreptitiously for Vocalion).

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DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as ­Joe Turner & his Memphis Men): Mississippi Moan  (E––)

New York: April 24, 1929
Columbia 1813-D (mx. W 148172 – 3)

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BUMBLE BEE SLIM & MEMPHIS MINNIE: New Orleans Stop Time  (E–)

Chicago: February 6, 1936
Vocalion 03197 (mx. C 1227 – 2)

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Free Download • Ajax Records: The Complete Discography

Free Download
Ajax Records: The Complete Discography
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.William R. Bryant & The Record Research Associates
Edited and Annotated by Allan Sutton

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Download Free for Personal Use (pdf, ~0.5mb)

 

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.

A detailed history of the Ajax Record Company, and of Herbert Berliner and the Compo Company’s American recording activities, can be found in American Record Companies and Producers: An Encyclopedic History, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.

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100 Years Ago at Okeh: Mamie Smith Gets Her Break

100 Years Ago at Okeh: Mamie Smith Gets Her Break
By Allan Sutton

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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Quoted excerpts are from Perry Bradford’s autobiography, Born with the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).

Clarence Williams: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1965)

Clarence Williams: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1965)

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Advertisement for Clarence Williams’ first record, on the C&S label (1922). The C&S Phonograph Record Company was a short-lived venture of Thomas Chappelle and Juanita Stinnette Chappelle, who encouraged Williams to marry singer Eva Taylor.

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With Sara Martin, one of Okeh’s early race-series stars
(June 1923)

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With wife Eva Taylor (July 1923)

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“Papa De-Da-Da” was among the Blue Five sides featuring
Louis Armstrong. (July 1925)

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A vocal release by Williams and Clarence Todd, here misspelled “Dood.” Todd, along with Eva Taylor, was a member of the Clarence Williams Trio, which broadcast regularly for several years. (July 1925)

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Williams was Okeh’s New York studio workhorse in the mid-1920s. Here, his Blue Five accompany a young Sippie Wallace. (August 1925)

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New York (June 1926)

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Williams’ ill-fated Bottomland opened on June 27, 1927, and closed after only nineteen performances.

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New York Age (January 3, 1953). Member of the Clarence Williams Trio pictured above are (left to right) are Williams, Eva Taylor, and Clarence Todd.

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Working the New York clubs (1951 and 1955)

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.     New York (November 9, 1965)

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And a sampling from Williams’ tremendous recorded output:

 

CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Jingles

New York: October 1927
Paramount 12587 (mx. 2882 – 2)
Featuring Coleman Hawkins, on loan from Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS BOTTOMLAND ORCHESTRA:
Slow River (export version)

New York: June 7, 1927
Brunswick (German) A-457 (mx. E 23502)
The standard version (mx. E 23500) includes vocal chorus by Evelyn Thompson (Preer).

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ WASHBOARD FIVE (Williams, vocal):
Walk That Broad

New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 40115 – A)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: The Keyboard Express

New York: August 1, 1928
Columbia 14348-D (mx. W 146825 – 3)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Memphis Jazzers): Close Fit Blues

New York: March 1929
Van Dyke 7801 (Grey Gull mx. 3394 – B)

Forgotten “Blues Craze” Singers • Esther Bigeou

Forgotten “Blues Craze” Singers • Esther Bigeou
By Allan Sutton

 

The success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920 set off a mad scramble among record companies for similar artists. Many of the women who were signed in the early days of the “blues craze” — like Esther Bigeou — were not blues singers at all, but vaudeville comediennes who specialized in blues-inflected pop tunes.

From a prominent New Orleans Creole family, Bigeou married theatrical producer Irvin C. Miller and was soon landing featured roles in his stage productions. She first attracted the critics’ attention in 1915, in Miller’s Mr. Ragtime.

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Miller and unidentified female cast members, one them presumably Esther Bigeou, from Mr. Ragtime (September 1915)

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Praise for Bigeou in The New York Age (September 9, 1915)

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Bigeou went on to star in Miller’s Broadway Rastus, which opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in July 1917, after a try-out on the road that took the company throughout the mid-Atlantic states.

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An overworked Esther Bigeou takes a break (August 1917)

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Suffering from “a variety of ailments due to overwork,” Bigeou took a break for several weeks after Broadway Rastus closed its brief run at the Lafayette. The company was soon on the road again, embarking on a year-long tour during which audiences and critics alike heaped praises on Bigeou.

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Broadway Rastus on the road: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
(September 1918)

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By early 1920, Bigeou had parted ways with Miller and was touring in Perrin & Henderson’s Lyric Road Show, an obscure revue that also starred “Mlle.” Rosa Henderson, who would become one of the most prolific of the “blues craze” recording artists. Miller’s Put and Take opened at the Town Hall, New York, on August 23, 1921. The female featured role, which might have gone to Bigeou, instead was given to Edith Wilson. Miller went on to marry Kathryn Boyd, who was given a position as Miller’s road manager that she found to be “a little too strenuous.”

The Okeh label signed Bigeou in the autumn of 1921. Her first release, a coupling of the already over-used “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” (Okeh 8026) appeared in the Christmas 1921 list but seems to have attracted little attention. “Stingaree Blues,” her November follow-up (Okeh 8025), seems to have sold reasonably well based on the number of surviving copies, despite its plodding accompaniment.

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Many of Bigeou’s Okeh releases were covers of other artists’ hits on competing labels — in this case, Bessie Smith’s popular Columbia recording of “Gulf Coast Blues.”

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Although Okeh did not renew Bigeou at the end of 1923, she continued to promote her records for a time (Pittsburgh, February 1924)

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Overall, Bigeou’s Okeh output will disappoint hard-core blues enthusiasts. The performances are purely in the vaudeville-blues vein, with accompaniments ranging from mediocre to awful, and many are simply cover versions of other singers’ hits on competing labels. Okeh released seventeen Bigeou titles before letting her go at the end of 1923. Only her last is of above-average interest, with a rollicking accompaniment by the Piron orchestra that imparts a Creole flavor not evident on her other recordings:

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ESTHER BIGEOU with ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA: West Indies Blues

New York: December 1923
Okeh 8118 (mx. S-72175 – B)

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Okeh recorded Bigeou again in December 1926, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, but no issues resulted. By then, Bigeou was touring with her own company on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. In late 1927, she joined the cast of Southland Follies. But perhaps her most visible role was as a celebrity endorser of  Hi-Ja beauty products, in whose ads she appeared from 1925 through 1929.

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1925

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1929

 

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are resered.

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Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records: The Authoritative History

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.

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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.”

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W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)

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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).

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.

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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.

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Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis for March 1922.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Selected References

“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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For equally in-depth coverage of more than than 1,200 other American record companies, be sure to check out:

A special limited edition available only from Mainspring Press

 

“Race Records” Nominated for 2017 ARSC Award

We’re pleased to announce that Race Records and the American Recording Industry, 1919–1945 (Allan Sutton, Mainspring Press) has been nominated for a 2017 Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. Winners will be announced later this year.

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Race Records
is available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries. Here’s a peek inside the book, at some of our favorite race-record ads:

msp_race-record-ads_1

 

 

Three ARSC 2015 Awards for Mainspring Press Books: Eli Oberstein, Victor Special Labels, Ajax Records

We’re honored to announce that three Mainspring Press titles have received 2015 awards from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. Details and secure online ordering are available on the Mainspring Press website.

The ARSC Award for Excellence—Best Label Discography went to Eli Oberstein’s United States Record Corporation: A History and Discography, 1939–1940:

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2015 Certificates of Merit were awarded to The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941; and Ajax Records: A History and Discography:

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ORDER SOON if you’re interested in Oberstein or Victor Special Labels. Both titles have been on the market for a while, so supplies are running low (and in addition, there’s recently been a big library run on USRC). We won’t be reprinting either title once our current supplies are gone.

Sorry, Ajax has already sold out (it was a 2013 title — the wheels sometimes turn very slowly at ARSC), although we might consider reprinting this one if there’s sufficient interest — Let us know.

Discographical Update • Correct Date and Personnel for the First Meritt Record (1924)

MSP-NAUCK_meritt-2201 (Label scan courtesy of Kurt Nauck. MP3 conversion from
a tape dubbing supplied by the late Mike Stewart.)

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LOTTIE KIMBROUGH BEAMAN (as LENA KIMBROUGH) with PAUL BANKS’ TRIO:
City of the Dead

Kansas City: Late 1924
Meritt 2201 (mx. X-22)

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Winston Holmes’ Meritt label is one of the rarest race-record brands of the 1920s, and although anecdotes concerning it abound, reliable documentation has been hard to come by.

Traditionally, works like Dixon, Godrich & Rye’s Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943 have cited mid-1926 as the date of Meritt’s first release. However, we now know otherwise, thanks to a blurb on p. 8 of the National Edition of The Chicago Defender for January 10, 1925. Clearly, Meritt 2201 had already been recorded by that time; based on the article, the correct recording date would be late 1924, approximately eighteen months earlier than has been assumed by discographers:

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MSP_winston-holmes_-1-10-19.
There are also some discrepancies in the personnel listing, although here we are not certain which account to trust — the Defender wasn’t particularly reliable when it came to  fine details, but on the other hand, BGR doesn’t cite its sources. Clifford Banks is shown as a clarinetist in the Defender article, but as an alto saxophonist in BGR; Simon Hoe is shown as a one-string violinist in the Defender, but as a clarinetist in BGR. Personally, we don’t hear either a saxophone or a violin on either side, although admittedly the few copies we’ve heard have been so worn, and that questionable third instrument is so faintly recorded, that we wouldn’t want to bet on what it was. (By the way, these are acoustic recordings, not electrical as one might expect had they actually been made in mid-1926.)

Lena Kimbrough was one of several names used by Kansas City blues-belter Lottie Kimbrough Beaman; this is the first mention we’ve seen of her having studied in Europe. The revised recording date could explain why Holmes used a pseudonym for her — perhaps he did so to avoid a conflict with Paramount, for whom she was still recording in the fall of 1924?


POSTSCRIPT — THE WINSTON HOLMES “SESSION” PHOTOGRAPH

Back in the late 1960s, Doug Jydstrup located Lottie’s sister Estella, who had two versions of a photo that Winston Holmes used to promote Meritt 2201. Turns out, Lottie was sick on the day of the shoot according to the far slimmer Estella, who filled in for her sister in the photo. Just to add to the deception, Simon Hoe also failed to show up, so Winston Holmes himself filled in, posing with a clarinet (which, by the way, he could not play), and Clifford Banks was posed with a saxophone — in other words, a rather fanciful re-creation all around. You can find the details and both photos in 78 Quarterly (Volume 1-2) — The  entire run can be downloaded free at 78 Quarterly Download (on the late, lamented Dinosaur Discs blog, which sadly is no longer active but is still online as of this writing).

African-American Stars on the Radio (1932)

Radio Digest in the early 1930s had plenty of photos of white men in burnt-cork, doing the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” bit, but photos of actual black performers are a rarity. RD made an exception in November 1932, when it ran a two-page spread headlined “Darktown Harmonizers.” We’ll spare you the embarrassing text, but here are the photos, all of stars who also had a substantial following among white audiences. The Mills Brothers didn’t actually play the instruments noted in the caption; they imitated them vocally (and amazingly well).

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MSP_radio-dig_nov32A

 

 

Paramount Records Before the Blues (May 1918)

This stunning double-sided ad ran in the May 1918 Talking Machine World. Paramount had recently introduced 10″ discs to replace its initial 9″ offerings; the last of the latter appear in the No. 6 Supplement, alongside the 10″ offerings. At this early stage, the trademark eagle perched on a phonograph rather than the more familiar globe.

The large structure to the left is the Paramount pressing plant at Grafton, Wisconsin, a converted water-powered mill that already had a long and varied history when this ad appeared — you’ll find the whole fascinating story of the Grafton complex in the new expanded edition of Alex van der Tuuk’s Paramount’s Rise and Fall. The smaller structure to the right would eventually house the studio in which the likes of Son House and Skip James recorded.

In 1918, however, Paramount was recording exclusively in New York, and doing its best to imitate Columbia and Victor. Note the usual NYC studio free-lancers — Henry Burr, Collins & Harlan, Louise & Ferera, Arthur Fields, Grace Kerns, the Shannon Four, et al. Even some of the portraits are the same as those used in the major companies’ catalogs. Fortunately for posterity, the powers at NYRL eventually realized there wasn’t much money to be made by following the pack, and instead turned their attention to the new race-record market (although there wasn’t much money to be made there either, as it would turn out).

MSP_TMW_paramount-may-1918_.

Cleveland’s Bessie Brown Signs with Brunswick (1928)

There were three Bessie Browns on records in the 1920s, two of them apparently New York–area singers. The last of the three to record worked in Cleveland and signed with Brunswick in 1928. This announcement appeared in the March 1928 Talking Machine World:

bessiebrown-bwk“Chloe” was a  straightforward rendition with conventional orchestral accompaniment. The reverse is also a commercial pop tune, by Irving Berlin, but is interesting for its piano accompanist, who unfortunately wasn’t named on the labels or in the Brunswick files:

https://78records.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/bessie-brown.mp3″
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BESSIE BROWN (with unknown pianist): Someone Else May Be There While I’m Gone

Chicago: January 24, 1928
Brunswick 3817  (mx. C 1673)

More Early Okeh “Race” Talent Ads (and a Note on the Identity of “Milo Rega”)

A couple more early Okeh race-artist ads, from 1921 editions of The Talking Machine World. Okeh spared no expense for these ads, which were specially printed as single-sided color inserts.

Incidentally, “Milo Rega,” the purported composer of “Sax-o-Phoney Blues,” was not a real person, contrary to some discographies. He was a fictional character, created by cobbling-together two other pseudonyms — “F. Wallace Rega” (actually Fred Hager) and “Justin Milo” (actually Justin Ring). The poor fellow sometimes suffered a split personality, appearing in some Okeh composer credits as “Milo – Rega.” (For more on these and 6,200 other aliases, be sure to check out the new expanded edition of Pseudonyms on American Records.)

These pseudonyms were used in Hager’s publishing business as well as in his and Ring’s work for Okeh. The actual identities of both are confirmed in multiple early-’20s listings in the U.S. Catalog of Copyright Entries, the official federal registry of copyright filings.

TWM-okeh-race-21