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America's first Motown: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

This was a big enough change to significantly alter the demographics of the cities where the new arrivals now lived, and to create a thriving new market for all sorts of modest consumer goods. Meanwhile, the record industry was still busy pushing black performers to the margin, taking hot compositions from the early black jazz bands but almost always using white bands to record them. The flood of comic minstrel songs continued, but even these were often recorded by white vaudeville performers who adopted crude “darky” accents as soon as they stepped into the studio and portrayed their black characters as either clowns or children. When blacks understandably declined to buy these records, it was simply taken as confirmation that the record companies had been right all along. Black people clearly didn't buy records, so why bother trying to cater for them?
St Louis Blues gave Pace & Handy their first really big hit when they published its sheet music in 1914, and the company moved from Memphis to New York four years later. The white-owned labels responded by refusing to let their artists record Pace & Handy songs, because they didn't want a black-owned publishing company to benefit from the record's sales. Even when Pace & Handy did succeed in getting a song recorded, its distribution was sometimes sabotaged for the same reason.
“It was my job as president of the company to contact all phonograph companies so that that our numbers might be recorded from time to time,” Pace later recalled. “I ran up against a colour bar that was very severe” (3).

Give black listeners a taste of their own music, Bradford argued, and they'd strip the shelves

Handy faced the same attitude when he later tried to convince the labels to record one of his blues numbers with a black, female singer he'd found. “In every case, the managers quickly turned their thumbs down,” he writes. “Viola McCoy, who was under contract with me, made test records for seven companies, all of whom turned her down. They said her voice would not record. I released her, and then the seven companies brought out records of Viola McCoy and praised her artistry in their catalogues. We were making too much money evidently” (4).
In 1918, a string of legal challenges led to Victor and Columbia losing their exclusive patent on the machinery needed to manufacture records, opening the way for a host of competing labels like Okeh and Gennett to enter the market. The time was ripe for a breakthrough, but it was one of Pace and Handy's black rivals who would snatch the prize.

Perry Bradford started as a pianist in the minstrel shows, and started writing his own blues songs when he arrived in New York in 1910. By the time the new labels started up, he was convinced there was a market for records in the black community, but knew these new buyers would not surface until the industry supplied something they wanted to hear. Give black listeners a genuine taste of their own music, Bradford argued, sung and played by black artists with all the raw glory of their live shows, and they'd strip the shelves bare.
Making this case to Victor and Columbia was a lost cause, because they already had too much invested in the old system to risk any upset. But the tiny new labels had nothing to lose. The two majors already had all the era's big stars signed up at rates their fledgling rivals could not hope to match, so it was essential for Okeh and the rest to find new talent wherever they could. In 1920, Okeh decided to take a gamble on Bradford's idea. His first suggestion of all-black ensemble - singer included - was still a bit too rich for the company's blood, but it did agree to let him record a black vaudeville performer called Mamie Smith with white musicians backing her. Even that was quite a bold move, because Okeh was already receiving hate mail threatening to boycott its records if it “had any truck with coloured girls in the recording field” (5).
Bradford gave Smith a song of his own to record with Okeh's all-white Rega Orchestra. That Thing Called Love, released in January 1920, is a conventional jazz record of the day, with a slight bluesy feel to it but breaking no new musical ground. It did have a black singer at its helm, though - the record is credited to Mamie Smith as a solo artist - and allowed her to perform with none of the demeaning comic tricks white listeners were used to.
It sold in respectable numbers, but Okeh assumed this must be thanks to the quality of Bradford's songwriting rather than Smith's performance, and suggested he use Sophie Tucker for his planned follow-up, Harlem Blues. Tucker was a former blackface singer, who'd continued to sing blues and ragtime numbers after abandoning the make-up. She was a big name, but a million miles from the authentic black voice Bradford wanted to capture, and he must have been secretly delighted when she turned out to be unavailable. Okeh allowed him to bring in Mamie Smith again as a replacement, but insisted he change the song's title to the more innocuous Crazy Blues.
Smith returned to Okeh's New York studio in August 1920, and this time Bradford took care to build a real black jazz band behind her, led by stride piano pioneer Willie “The Lion” Smith. He reflected the band's greater importance in this session by crediting the record to “Mamie Smith & her Jazz Hounds”, and encouraged them to cut loose in the studio in a way that had never been permitted before.
The result is a vast improvement on Smith's previous outing, with her voice taking on a rougher, more abrasive edge, and the band lurching round every corner on two skidding wheels. Smith gets full value from Bradford's gritty lyrics, telling us her man's cruelty has led her to the brink of suicide and closing by threatening to kill a cop. Meanwhile, Dope Andrews' trombone honks like a goose behind her and clarinettist Ernest Elliot fills the top register with a swarm of urgent notes. It's as if everyone present has just kicked off a pair of tight shoes and decided that now, at last, is the time to have some fun. Crazy Blues is still recognised today as the first genuine blues record, and its November 1920 release was an essential precursor to everything that's followed.

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