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Black Swan blues: America's first Motown

By Paul Slade
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“Pace was frustrated. He observed as white recording companies brought the music and lyrics from Pace & Handy, and then recorded them using white artists. When they did employ blacks, they refused to let them sing and play in their own authentic style. Pace resolved to start his own record firm.”
      - Jitu K Weusi, The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records.

“At the time, popular music was published and distributed by the major record labels. These were largely white-owned companies that promoted the 'pop' sound of white singers and overlooked the rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll songs by black performers. [...] Berry wanted to have more control over his own songs and earnings and to provide the same opportunity for other black artists.”
      - The History of Motown, by Virginia Aronson.

Who am I describing here? A young black American songwriter gets frustrated at the way white moguls treat his music, and sets up his own record label to fight back. He begins by recording nothing but black talent, promotes the label with a revue-style tour, and soon finds his records are selling to white as well as black listeners. His company is hailed as a ground-breaking success story for black America, but its stars face violence when they tour the segregated South. The label creates many new stars, only to find them poached by white-owned rivals, and responds by quietly adding white acts to its own roster. Eventually, its founder sells out to an industry conglomerate and quits the record business.
It's a trick question, of course. Everything in that paragraph is true of Berry Gordy, the man who founded Tamla Motown in 1959. But there's another man who did all those things too - and did them 38 years earlier than Gordy - with a blues label called Black Swan. That man was Harry Pace.
Black Swan's success was much shorter-lived than Motown's, but the label achieved its own triumphs in an era when black businessmen and performers faced even greater prejudice and violence. It's true that the Motown troupe had shots fired at them in Alabama in 1962, but that pales beside the 1920s incident in Georgia when the corpse of a lynched young black man was hurled into the lobby at a Black Swan show. In creating Black Swan, Pace had to overcome not only racist white rivals conspiring to block his distribution, but also the more physical threat of a bomb hidden in his pressing plant's coal supply.

It's become routine for even the best reference books to write Black Swan out of history

Black Swan is all but forgotten now, and it's become routine for even respectable reference books to write it out of history by casually claiming Motown was the first black-owned record company in the US (1). Gordy's label deserves every bit of praise it's received in this, its 50th anniversary, year, but that landmark birthday should not be allowed to blot out the story of an earlier and - I would argue - an even more significant pioneer.
Harry Pace, a blacksmith's son from Covington, Georgia, got his start in the music industry in 1907, when the song collector and musician WC Handy found him working at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Handy, now universally recognised as the father of the blues, was the man who first wrote down the blues tunes he heard everywhere he travelled in the US, stirring in his own compositions as he went, and giving classics like St Louis Blues its first publication in sheet music form.
Handy was in his mid-thirties when he met Pace, and Pace was not yet 25. Here's how Handy recalls their fateful encounter at the Solvent Bank in his 1941 autobiography: “The cashier of this Negro enterprise was Harry H. Pace, a handsome young man of striking personality and definite musical leanings. Pace had written some first-rate song lyrics and was in demand as a vocal soloist at church programs and Sunday night concerts. In 1907, we wrote In the Cotton Fields of Dixie , which was published by a Cincinnati firm. It was natural, if not inevitable, that he and I should gravitate together. We spoke the same language” (2).
Pace's own preference was for the sentimental parlour songs of the late 19th Century rather than the boisterous street music which Handy was already starting to document. But he had the business sense which Handy himself lacked, and so the two men joined together to form a music publishing firm called Pace & Handy. Gramophone records were starting to appear by then, but were restricted to operatic material and light classics. Record players were expensive novelties, and the records themselves seen only as a promotional gimmick to encourage equipment sales. Sheet music still ruled the market as Pace & Handy set up shop, but its glory days were already drawing to a close.
A few nostalgic songs for European immigrants started to appear on record as the 1910s got under way, but black artists were still allowed to record only the demeaning “coon songs” and comic numbers which people knew from the minstrel shows. Record companies were terrified that adding black singers to their rosters in any other capacity would lead to racist Southern distributors dropping those titles, or even refusing to deal with the label altogether.
That began to change with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when the threat from German U-boats choked off European immigration to the US. Factories in New York, Chicago and Detroit were forced to recruit black Southerners to man the assembly lines instead, prompting what Americans now call “the great migration”.
The North was far from perfect, but still the new jobs offered former plantation workers their first chance to enjoy a little disposable income. They'd still find racism when they got there, of course, but at least it was a less pronounced in the North, and that opened many new opportunities to enjoy life a little, as well a chance to improve your own and your family's prospects. Half a million blacks flooded north between 1914 and 1916, with a million more joining them in the decade that followed.

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How a spat with Bessie Smith cost Pace a star

There's one story about Harry Pace and Bessie Smith which I've always loved but - until February 2009 - found impossible to verify.
     It claims that Pace got Smith into a recording studio in the early days of Black Swan to assess how well her voice transferred to disc and consider whether she was an artist he wanted to sign. This would have been before Smith made her first commercial disc in February 1923.
     Smith was a rough, crude and violent woman, who the fastidious Pace would have found very difficult to deal with. Her guttural voice made her one of the great blues singers of her age, but it also embodied everything that Pace found distasteful about the blues.
     Still, Mamie Smith's success had made it clear that blues records could be very big sellers, and if increasing Black Swan's profits meant Pace had to hold his nose for the length of Smith's audition session, then that was a price he'd have to pay.
     All went well until Smith halted mid-song to clear her throat, announced her intention to spit and then hawked a generous loogie on to the studio floor.
     The appalled Pace cut the session short there and then, leaving Smith to sign for Columbia instead, where she quickly became the label's biggest and most lucrative star.
     I raised this story with several vintage blues experts while researching Pace, who all confirmed that Pace found Smith distasteful, but none of them could say for sure whether the spitting part was true or false. Eventually, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it was probably apocryphal, inspired perhaps by a similar sequence in Smith's 1929 movie St Louis Blues.
     I was all set to write up the story in those terms when, during a recent trip to San Francisco, I stumbled across a copy of Michelle Scott's 2008 book Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga, a study of Smith and her world.
     Scott, a history professor at the University of Maryland, tells the Pace story just as I've set it out above, dating the session to 1921, and citing a 1948 letter from WC Handy as her source. She found this letter in the Smithsonian's WC Handy Collection (24).
     Even if the story's grown a bit in the telling - as it may well have done in those 27 intervening years - it would still be useful as a small lie that tells a bigger truth. In this case the moral is that, much as he liked to chase a profit, even Harry Pace would chase it only so far.