A recent tweet from economist Robert Reich listed societal elements that factor into white supremacy in the U.S.
Among them, Reich listed “people who decide which music is produced,” with 95% of that power in the hands of white people—and yet the last eight Sundays here and all June long are a celebration of the enormous and seminal contributions of Black musicians to multiple genres of American music.
I wonder how often people buying Black music think about whose pockets they are lining.
Most music lovers are aware of the success of Berry Gordy’s Black-owned and operated Motown Records and the star-filled stable of artists the label birthed—with artists like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson contributing to what became known as “The Motown Sound.” But Gordy and Motown are exceptions, rather than the rule. And even mighty Motown hasn’t been black-owned for decades: It was sold in 1988 to MCA Inc. and Boston Ventures Limited Partnership.
The history of a Black-owned company recording Black music doesn’t start with Motown. It begins with the first Black-owned music company you’ve never heard of: Black Swan Records. This short video offers a quick overview of the company and a glimpse of its success with Ethel Waters.
The goals of Black Swan Records, as detailed in this 2010 story written by David Suisman, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, were about far more than just making music and money. Pace understood the power that music had to combat anti-Black bias.
Activist and music publisher Harry Pace launched Black Swan in 1921, believing that making records represented an important form of social and economic power. With Black Swan, he strove to start a new kind of record company, which combined the powers of music and business in the cause of racial uplift and the fight for social justice. He conceived Black Swan with two interrelated goals. Musically, the company would issue records by African Americans in all genres—not just the popular styles most commonly associated with African Americans, such as blues, ragtime, and comic songs, but “serious” music as well, including opera, spirituals, and classical music. The effect of such a catalog would be to challenge stereotypes about African Americans, promote African Americans’ cultural development, and refute racist arguments about African- American barbarism. At the same time, the company would be a model of small-business development, inspiring and instructing African Americans in capital accumulation and the potential for economic self-determination.
Popular music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t shy away from black performance, but much of it consisted of so-called coon songs, which were offshoots from earlier minstrel show tunes. These songs, explain Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen in their book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, were “racist malarky” that largely amplified horrifying stereotypes as a form of entertainment. They were also often written by black composers. “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” one of the biggest songs of 1896, was written by Ernest Hogan, a noted black ragtime composer. The song’s title was later adopted by racist groups of the era. These songs, regardless of the composers’ intentions, were political, serving only to perpetuate stereotypes. Black Swan was guided by a simple question: If music and politics were intertwined anyway, why not make the politics socially conscious?
Pace’s business background had led him to cross paths with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became an early champion of Black Swan. In fact, on Du Bois’s suggestion, the label, which Pace had founded on his own, was named for Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a popular black singer from the mid-1800s known as the Black Swan. In announcing the label’s intention, Pace made his mandate clear: “There are twelve million colored people in the U.S., and in that number there is hid a wonderful amount of musical ability. We propose to spare no expense in the search for and developing of the best singers and musicians among the twelve million.”
When we think of the great black intellectual and NAACP co-founder W.E. B. Du Bois, we don’t associate him with music or record labels, yet he served on the board of directors of Black Swan Records. Though cultural uplift was a key goal, which we would dub “respectability politics” these days, the blues garnered the largest sales.
Accompanying the “serious” recordings, was a wide range of popular music, including ragtime, blues, jazz, and dance songs. These accounted for two-thirds of the total number of titles Black Swan issued and all of its best-selling records. Within this domain, the most crucial performer was a young Ethel Waters, whose record “Down Home Blues” backed with “Oh, Daddy” became so enormously popular that it reversed the fledgling company’s economic fortunes. In her autobiography, Waters recalled when she first entered the company in 1921, she had a lengthy discussion with Pace and Henderson about “whether I should sing popular or ‘cultural’ numbers.” Underlying this exchange between Waters and Henderson and Pace were uncomfortable class tensions. Waters wrote, “Remember those class distinctions in Harlem, which had its Park Avenue crowd, a middle class, and its Tenth Avenue. That was me, then, low-down Tenth Avenue.” Waters did not fit the recognized social profile for a singer of “cultural” songs, regardless of the fact that she, like Revella Hughes and most other musicians, had a repertoire encompassing a variety of styles. In the end, the two men decided she would sing popular blues material and agreed to pay Waters the sizable sum of one hundred dollars for two songs. (She was then performing for thirty-five dollars a week plus tips.)
Thanks to Waters, by the end of 1921 Black Swan had turned a small profit of $3,100 on revenues of over $104,000. By the spring of 1922, after twelve months in business, the company may have sold as many as four hundred thousand records. Along the way, it propelled the careers of not only Waters but also Alberta Hunter and Trixie Smith and became a leading force in the cultural and commercial development of the blues.
Listen to Waters perform “Down Home Blues,” directly from the original Black Swan recording, on a very old phonograph!
Publicly, Pace announced that the company making Paramount Records would begin leasing and selling the Black Swan catalog. Always the businessman, he characterized the arrangement as a merger, a kind of commercial breakthrough, and a forward-looking thrust into the future. An advertisement he ran covering the entire back page of the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most widely read African-American newspaper, hailed the deal as “the biggest news in phonograph record history.” Inside the paper, an article called readers’ attention to the back-page announcement, referring to Paramount’s “all-star,” “inspiring” roster, and promised to keep readers abreast of future developments. Pace tried hard to keep up a good face.
The reality was more grim, as many people understood. Condemning the deal, Chandler Owen, a prominent political activist, likened it to a “merger” between the lion and the lamb, with the lamb winding up in the lion’s belly. Owen voiced the underlying truth: The Paramount deal marked the effective end of Black Swan, not the propitious beginning of a new era.
As we bid farewell to Black Swan, enjoy “Bring Back the Joys” from Alberta Hunter.
Though I opened with Black Swan, which was an anomaly in the music business at the time, the real money was made by white businesses that controlled the “race records” industry.
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Writing for History, journalist Erin Blakemore documents the exploitation of Black musicians. Most of them, she notes, have been forgotten.
Race records made sense for white record labels, which had been losing market share with the introduction of radio. But they made financial sense for another reason: It was easier to exploit and underpay black artists than white ones. Many of their songs had never been published, and labels snagged recording rights along with the recordings. Many artists were put on records that gave them pseudonyms or left out their names entirely, which meant they weren’t able to parlay their recording careers into successful performing careers.
Countless others were recorded without contracts and without being paid royalties. Since black artists were mostly excluded from ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Artists and Performers, the few who did have royalty agreements didn’t have much chance of enforcing them. This led to shocking financial predicaments for artists like Bessie Smith, known as “Empress of the Blues.” Smith made Columbia millions of dollars, but she could not read and was never paid royalties. And starting in the mid 1920s, traveling scouts took recording equipment into the American South, where they profited off of one-time, local recordings with artists whose names are not known and who never benefited from an ongoing relationship with the labels.
Eventually, white audiences caught on to black music and race records were rebranded as “rhythm and blues.” Race records declined and died. But though the recordings captured artists like Broonzy, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, they’re also a reminder of how white businessmen used black labor to line their pockets in a time of rampant discrimination. “Until I started running in this music business,” remembered Broonzy, “I had never lived around no people that would kill they own brother, like, for a lousy dollar.”
Artists like Smith, who achieved fame, didn’t reap the benefits of fortune they deserved, though they are now enshrined in the record books and lauded by music lovers. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga celebrates the city’s most famous blues artist.
At an early age Bessie began performing on the streets of Chattanooga. In pursuit of a better life, Bessie left Chattanooga in 1912 to join a traveling minstrel and vaudeville show as a dancer and singer with Pa and Ma Rainey. As a teenager, Ma Rainey became Bessie’s mentor and she stayed with the show until 1915. She gradually developed her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard. Ma Rainey greatly influenced Bessie’s showmanship, however Bessie’s elegant contralto and her hypnotizing delivery was very different from that of Rainey.
By the time of her death, Bessie was known around the world. She was a beloved diva who appeared with the best players of the day at sold out concerts in theaters coast to coast. Bessie’s pleasing contralto and mesmerizing showmanship propelled her from poverty to international fame as a singer of “classic” blues tunes, many of which she wrote and co-wrote. Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to sing such songs as her own, “Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Backwater Blues,” accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.Because of her early stage experience, Bessie’s repertoire was extensive by the time she made her first record in 1923. She primarily specialized in blues numbers, singing more by far than any female vocalist of the day. She also performed country blues, vaudeville, and jazz tunes in a show that completely captivated her audiences.
“Downhearted Blues” (b/w “Gulf Coast Blues”), Bessie’s recording debut on Columbia (Race) Records, was an immediate hit when it was released in 1923 selling more than 750,000 copies that year. Throughout the 1920’s, Bessie recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redmond and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920’s.
These two short documentary clips are a good introduction to Smith’s journey.
For those of you who are still staying home as much as possible and thus streaming more films, take a look at Queen Latifiah’s masterful performance as Bessie in HBO’s Emmy award-winning 2015 biopic. This inside look is worth your time, if only to see Latifah, an icon in her own right, passionately discuss one of her heroes.
When I was growing up, my grandparents had a Victrola phonograph, followed by a record player, and a large collection of 78 RPM records, which included Smith and Ma Rainey. My grandfather once owned a billiards parlor in Topeka, Kansas, and our family history has hinted he was bootlegging as well. His record collection was not limited to “respectable” music. Though he was a classically trained cellist, my grandfather loved raunchy blues and jazz. I can still remember the labels—Paramount and OKeh were in the majority. I remember him telling me King Oliver was his cousin (which I have never been able to verify, so I think he was fibbing). As a kid, I didn’t realize that those records were “race records.” To me, they were just “music.”
The story of Paramount, a company that started as a chair manufacturer before it bought out Black Swan, is told in Paramount’s Rise and Fall, by Alex van der Tuuk. Inspired by the very expensive reissue of the Paramount library—nearly $600 as of this writing—as well as van Der Tuuk’s book, NPR dug into the label’s history in 2013.
Alex van der Tuuk, author of the 2003 book Paramount’s Rise and Fall and a co-producer of the reissue, explains the term and how, once again, Paramount’s white executives became unwitting industry leaders: “They were one of the first, if not the first, to even use the slogan ‘the popular race record,’ and ‘race,’ of course, [was] being used as a word of pride and that was what the Chicago Defender also said: ‘Be proud of your race.’ “Because they specialized so heavily in that music,” says R. Crumb, the seminal underground comix artist, “their ads were not insultingly racist, as were some of the other companies.” Crumb was first attracted to the old 78s he now fervently collects by the graphics on their labels. It was only later that he saw the ads.
“Paramount, for being this small company, run on the cheap, certainly focused strongly on the graphic promotion of the record, more than any other company, I think. As far as blues goes and all that. They really put out these lurid ads, which were great. And nobody knows who those artists were. Unsung heroes — I don’t think any of the original art has ever turned up.”
Nobody knows who many of the musicians were either. Paramount kept lousy ledgers, and those that the label did keep were mostly destroyed in scrap drives during World War II. Guitarist and singer Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes and founder of Third Man Records, a label partner in the reissue project, says Paramount hustled as many musicians in and out of the studio as fast as it could.”People who recorded one record and no one knows who they are; there’s no photograph of them, there’s no history of them,” White says. “They were in the studio for 10 minutes and left and are gone. Who are they? We don’t know, and we will never know and that is unbelievable.”
To be honest, I cringed as I read about those anonymous Black musicians, who were paid pennies and who will remain nameless. Even those who made names for themselves were ripped off. Even now, nearly a century later, their work is all wrapped up in a deluxe package that nobody I hang out with can afford to buy.
As previously noted, the other major “race record” distributor was OKeh Records; The Guardian explored the label’s origins back in 2011.
In September 1918, German-American Otto K E Heinemann, manager of the US office of the German Odeon records, decided, given events in Europe, that it might be wise to start a US-based record label. He called it OKeH (its name derived from the initials of his name), and it sold popular songs and dance numbers as well as recordings in Yiddish and other languages for the US’s new immigrant communities. The first recording of vocal blues by an African-American artist followed two years later, with vaudeville singer Mamie Smith’s record Crazy Blues selling more than a million copies in less than a year, uncovering a previously unimagined market for “race” records.
Enjoy Smith’s record-smashing sound below.
OKeh soon became a powerhouse for Black music, CVinyl reports.
In 1926, the General Phonograph Corporation was sold to Columbia and its subsequent parent companies (ARC, CBS and Sony Music) have controlled Okeh ever since. The Okeh label was one of the first to score a smash hit with a blues recording, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. And even though its artists roster covered all musical genres, recordings by Louis Armstrong or Lonnie Johnson established the label as a black music specialist. Many classic jazz performances by the likes of King Oliver, Lucille Bogan, Sidney Bechet, Hattie McDaniel, and Duke Ellington were recorded by Okeh.
The Okeh label was discontinued in 1935, but after Columbia lost the rights to the Vocalion name it was revived to replace it in 1940. The label was again discontinued in 1946 and revived yet again in 1951. In 1953, Okeh’s pop music acts were transferred to the newly formed Epic Records making Okeh an exclusive rhythm and blues label. Memorable recordings of that age include “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, released in 1956.
The final stage of Okeh Records began in 1962 when producer Carl Davis was hired, who brought in Curtis Mayfield. They transformed Okeh into a major soul label (Chicago Soul) with Mayfield writing and Davis producing many hits for artists such as Major Lance, Walter Jackson or Billy Butler. After Davis and Mayfield left in the late 1960s, Okeh Records was closed down in 1970.
Mamie Smith may have launched the recording of blues, but, unsurprisingly, she died broke and wound up in an unmarked grave. Through the efforts of Staten Island blues journalist Michael Cala, funds were raised and, in 2014, Smith finally got a headstone.
Despite great fame during her lifetime, Mamie’s important contribution faded to a mere footnote in American music history. While the obituary headline declared Mamie the “Mother of the Blues” when she died in Harlem in 1946 at age 63, her remains were transported to the farthest reaches of New York City and unceremoniously buried in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island.
There she has remained in obscurity in an unmarked grave for nearly 68 years.
After nearly 18 months of fundraising, including a star-studded blues fundraiser held on July 20 at Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn, The Headstone for Mamie Smith Fund has acquired and placed a headstone for the blues pioneer.
A similar fate befell Bessie Smith; it wasn’t until 1970 that she got a headstone, thanks to the efforts of Janis Joplin and Philadelphia resident Juanita Green.
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 8 (AP) —Janis Joplin, the blues‐rock singer, and Juanita Green, a registered nurse from Philadelphia shared the cost of a stone for the “Empress of the Blues,” whose grave lay unmarked for more than 30 years. A gray‐black stone was unveiled yesterday on the grave of Bessie Smith, who died in an auto accident in 1937. Only grass had marked her grave in Mount Lawn Cemetery in near by Sharon Hill because her ‘family did not have enough money to buy a tombstone for her.
Miss Joplin and Juanita Green, who met Bessie Smith at the old Lincoln Theater in the 1930’s here, donated the stone after a woman had written to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Action Line asking about the unmarked grave.
About 50 admirers gathered at the graveside for the dedication of the stone, inscribed with the words, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing—Bessie Smith‐1895‐1937.”
Lest you think that such disparities in compensation for Black musicians and the record labels that profit off of them are a thing of the past, I was just reading about the current situation of Lester Chambers, lead singer of the Chambers Brothers. Their “Time Has Come Today” is a classic. This amazing, 15-minute version was recorded in 1969 for a German broadcast of a live concert at the Fillmore East, in New York City.
Chambers is one of many musicians being assisted by Sweet Relief, a charity devoted to supporting low-earning and undercompensated professional musicians.
Creating music for over fifty years, Lester’s first royalty check came in 1994 and to this day he still has not been paid for several of The Chambers Brothers studio albums, none of the over 100 compilation albums the band is on, nor for numerous commercials/movies. These setbacks could have been overwhelming on their own, but Lester has also courageously battled and beaten cancer three times in his 78 years…
Five years ago Lester was working on a major comeback. He had released a new studio album with the help of Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, and The Fuse Network began filming Lester for his career resurgence. During a performance at the Hayward Blues Festival on the evening of the Trayvon Martin shooting verdict, Lester asked the audience to pray for peace and positivity during the song “People Get Ready.” He was then viciously attacked by an audience member who jumped on stage. The assault caused broken ribs, a dislocated hip, numerous contusions and PTSD. This senseless attack would forever change him mentally and physically.
Thank you, Sweet Relief.
So as we continue to march, as we continue to protest racism and white supremacy, as we are uplifted and buoyed by music, please give a thought for the musicians who have gifted us with their artistry, but who far too often have gotten the short shrift from those that profited from their remarkable gifts.
Black Lives Matter. Peace. Protest. Vote.