Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Race Records: The Birth of Black Blues and Jazz

Black history on record started with orchestra and gospel music by groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Jim Europe Military Band and a few vaudevillians like Bert Williams, Robert Woolsey, and Laughing Jim, but black jazz started with Mamie Smith’s Okeh 4169 “Crazy Blues/It’s Right Here for You.” Both songs were described on the label as “popular blues songs”; the date was November 1920. The record sold pretty well and it became apparent to the record companies that there was a heretofore untapped market, the black record-buying public, forming about 10 percent of the total population. Within a year three major record companies, Okeh, Paramount, and Columbia started black music sections advertised as “race records.” A fourth major label, Victor Records, entered the market in 1924.

Okeh (General Phonograph Corporation, New York City) initiated an 8000 race series in 1921 with the first releases featuring artists such as Esther Bigeou, Lizzie Miles, and Sara Martin. Mamie Smith’s output continued for some reason to appear on Okeh’s on-going General/Popular 4000 series into late 1923. Some of Mamie Smith’s non-vocal Jazz Hound sides wound up on the 8000, indicating a marketing effort to bring record buyers over to the new series.

Paramount (New York Recording Company, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin) started a race series, their 12000 series in mid-1922 with the first releases featuring such artists as Alberta Hunter, Monette Moore, and Gladys Bryant. Paramount, like Okeh, recorded in New York City.

Columbia (Columbia Graphophone Company, New York City), also recording in New York, led the way with their releases on the popular A3000 series of such artists as Mary Stafford and Edith Wilson. With their two heavy hitters, Bessie Smith and Clara Smith, leading the way (again on the A3000 series), Columbia emerged as a major blues label. They started a 13000 race series at the end of 1923 but switched to 14000 after eight issues because of the buying public’s fear of the number 13.

The big three dominated the market, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total blues and gospel releases. However, between 1921 and 1926 race records were issued on more than 15 different labels, such as Emerson, Pathe/Perfect, Arto, Cameo, Black Swan (acquired by Para-mount in April 1924), Edison, Gennett, Ajax, Brunswick, and Aeolian’s Vocalion label (sold to Brunswick in late 1924).

Between 1923 and 1926 the great majority of blues records were by professional singers, who sang for city audiences using a 12-bar blues style along with a few traditional and popular numbers. The companies made little effort to seek out good or new talent. They relied on contacting singers who happened to be performing in the New York area or, in many cases, on the singer contacting them.

However, in 1923, too many record companies were chasing too few singers. The more popular singers contracted to one of the Big Three, the lesser-known singers recorded for the minor companies. For example, Rosa Henderson, Lena Wilson, and Hazel Myers each appeared on six different labels and Edna Hicks on seven.

Slowly, the major labels began to expand from their New York blues recording base and to branch out looking for new artists. Paramount recorded their first blues sides in Chicago in 1923 with Ida Cox, Edna Taylor, and their New York veteran Monette Moore. These blues sides were interspersed with jazz sides by the Jelly Roll Morton and Ollie Power groups, with New York sessions by Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools. Paramount continued its Chicago activity with sides by Anna Oliver, Young’s Creole Jazz Band, and their first recordings of Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues.” By the end of the year, they added Wade’s Moulin Rouge Orchestra and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band to their artist roster.

Okeh, with Ralph Peer at the helm of their 8000 race series, initiated their territorial recording with a journey to Atlanta in 1923 to record white country artists and popular bands like Warner’s Seven Aces and Charlie Fulcher. Possibly as a trial venture Peer recorded Lucille Bogan and Fannie Mae Goosby, both rural country blues artists. These two sides were issued back to back on Okeh 8079, the first rural black music recorded.

Over the following eight years, Okeh made 13 more trips to Atlanta, providing more and more rural blues for their 8000 series race label. They also recorded Mary Bradford and Ada Brown in St. Louis in 1923 and Sippie Wallace and Peachtree Payne in Chicago. Columbia continued to record in New York during 1923 making a trip to Chicago to record King Oliver.

The only other recordings made outside New York City were by the small Gennett Record Company. Gennett decided, in 1923, to augment their modest blues and black jazz output by adding recordings made in Richmond, Indiana. While their New York recordings continued to feature professional female vocalists, the Richmond recordings drew on artists that appeared professionally in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, and St. Louis, all cities with significant black populations supporting theaters and cabarets where black artists performed.

Gennett was not a high-budget record operation that featured “exclusive artists” bound by lucrative recording contracts and the promise of best-selling records with their attendant flowing royalties. Rather, they were a unique operation based on regional artists and regional record sales. Besides the New York artists already mentioned, Gennett recorded Sammie Lewis, Callie Vassar, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Richard M. Jones, Art Landry’s Syncopating Six, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and Ferd (Jelly Roll) Morton.

New Orleans black jazzmen recorded for the first time in Los Angeles in 1922 on the rare Nordeskog label, featuring singer Ruth Lee. She was accompanied by Spikes Seven Pods of Pepper, featuring Kid Ory’s trombone, Mutt Carey’s trumpet, and Dink Johnson’s clarinet. Only after New Orleans musicians settled in Chicago and became popular were new recordings sought of musicians and singers still living in the Crescent City.

By 1924 all of the major labels and many minor ones featured race music as a major part of their output. Some, like Gennett and Paramount, are remembered today for the extent and quality of their race records, many of which remain the rarest and most sought-after 78 rpm record rarities. Both of these labels went out of business consistent with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the resultant Great Depression.

Only a few copies have survived of some of the last items on these two labels (as well as many of the others). Fortunately for us, many of those rarest jazz and blues items have been reissued on more modern formats, from LP to CD, so we can relive this important part of Black History.

Lou Curtiss

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