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America's first Motown: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Okeh couldn't afford to spend much promoting any of its records, but articles in the black press made sure everyone knew what a ground-breaking release this was. By the end of its first month in the shops, Okeh's managers were stunned to discover Crazy Blues had sold 75,000 copies in Harlem alone. Sales of 100,000 were enough for a big hit in those days, and by Christmas Day Crazy Blues had passed that total too. Sales figures from this era are notoriously unreliable, but the best indications we have are that it racked up 120,000 sales by the end of January 1921, and perhaps as many as 250,000 before it was done.
“People said you could walk down the streets of any black neighbourhood in any city in the United States and you would hear that record being played,” says blues writer Marybeth Hamilton. “You could hear it pouring out of the windows of every building. It was phenomenally successful” (6).
Even Perry Bradford hadn't expected sales like these. Delighted to see their voice and their tastes honestly represented on disc for the first time, blacks bought more copies of Crazy Blues than anyone could have imagined. Some bought the record even though they had nothing to play it on, content to carry it with them to a more fortunate neighbour's party or simply to treat it as a talisman that their place in American society was at last being recognised. “There's 14 million Negroes in our great country,” Bradford pointed out, “and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own. We are the only folks who can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle” (7).
Suddenly, every record company in America was wondering how to target the vast new market which Okeh had uncovered. A flood of new, cheap, record players was rushed into production, and salesmen began hawking these machines round the black neighbourhoods they'd previously spurned. Meanwhile, scouts from every label were scouring the cities' black vaudeville halls, jazz clubs and tent shows for the black talent they were now desperate to put on disc. Harry Pace watched all this unfold from Pace & Handy's Broadway offices and, as 1920 drew to a close, he decided he was ready to make his move.

The ten-year age difference between Harry Pace and WC Handy was enough to give the two men very different attitudes towards the new technology taking over their industry. Pace, at 36, could see that records were quickly replacing sheet music as the industry's stock in trade, and was determined to grab the opportunities this new medium offered. Handy, at 47, preferred to stick to the business he'd known all his life.
The split came in March 1921, when Pace used his old contacts in the finance industry to borrow $30,000 of capital and start up The Pace Phonographic Company. PPC would release its records on a new label which Pace christened Black Swan after the elegant African-American concert singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Pace set up the first Black Swan offices in his basement and hired bandleader and pianist Fletcher Henderson as his recording manager. William Grant Still would bring his experience as a classical composer to writing Black Swan's arrangements. The admin staff were mostly recruited from Pace & Handy, where Pace knew the younger employees would be unable to resist his new venture.

'Pace was the first African-American to make a real go of it in the industry as a businessman'

“Pace was the first African-American to make a real go of it in the record industry as a businessman,” says the music historian Elliott Hurwitt. “In fact, his entire operation was African-American. He had William Grant Still writing arrangements, he had Fletcher Henderson playing piano on all the records, and he had clerks and accountants. They were all African-American, right down to the stockroom and the girls licking stamps for the mail.
“Many of them had essentially been stolen from the Pace & Handy office with terrible repercussions for the Handy Brothers business when it first started up, because they'd lost so many skilled and talented staff all at once. But the record industry was sort of like the internet start-ups of that day and it was tremendously attractive. You couldn't get a 20 or a 25 year old man to stay in a paper music printing house if somebody was starting up a record company in Harlem, and Pace did that” (8).
Handy was left to rebuild the business as best he could, renaming it Handy Brothers and working long hours to replace the lost staff. “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace,” he recalled in his autobiography. “Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact that people did not generally know I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”
The black newspaper New York Age greeted PPC immediately, calling it “one of the most important business organisations recently established by Negros in New York”, but Pace's white rivals responded with their usual dirty tricks. A group of white labels got together to buy out the New York pressing plant Pace initially used, forcing him to use a Wisconsin firm instead. This harassment persisted for years, peaking in September 1922, when workers found a bomb hidden in the new Black Swan pressing plant's coal supply.
Handy found himself caught up in this early sabotage too. “The music publishers tried to make life very, very difficult for Handy,” says vintage record collector Mark Berresford. “They claimed that he was behind Black Swan financially, that he was promoting Black Swan, that he was passing material to Black Swan first” (9). None of that was true, but Handy Brothers continued to receive angry letters threatening to boycott the company's songs.
Black Swan's first three releases, which came out in May 1921, were At Dawning by the soprano Revella Hughes, For All Eternity by baritone Carroll Clark and Blind Man's Blues by Katie Crippen. The first two releases were much closer to Pace's own taste, and prime examples of the self-consciously highbrow material which he hoped would elevate his people's taste. Blind Man's Blues would not have been a record Pace enjoyed himself, but Crazy Blues had shown everyone how well blues records could sell, and he was a savvy enough commercial operator to take notice of that.

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