“Looking at the first few releases on Black Swan, I think Pace was hoping his own taste in music was going to be the way forward,” Berresford says. “Almost semi-classical music, together with spirituals and popular songs of a more sentimental nature. I don't think for a moment he considered Mamie Smith's blues song success to be anything but another opportunity.”
Fletcher Henderson was disappointed with the Crippen record, saying it “had not been done in blues style”, but it sold well enough to prompt competing cover versions from both Columbia and Okeh. No-one was rushing out cover versions of Hughes' or Clark's songs, which must have given Pace an early hint that Black Swan might not end up developing in quite the way he'd hoped. He wasn't ready to give up his plans to elevate black people's tastes just yet, but it was already clear that blues records were going to be essential to the company's survival.
Right from the beginning, Pace promoted Black Swan as: “The only phonograph company owned and controlled by coloured people”. It's discs were, he added: “The only records using exclusively negro voices and musicians”. These words appeared on Black Swan's very first advertisement, and Pace continued to make the same point throughout the company's life. At a time when blues records were routinely promoted with crude cartoons showing the worst racial caricatures, Black Swan's sleeves stood out too. Dignified blocks of type not only flagged up the company's black ownership, but also stressed the high level of craftsmanship its engineers employed.
“It's made very clear from the sleeve that you're buying a product which is well-crafted and well-produced,” Berresford says. “The only difference being that these records are made by black artists, pressed by black craftsmen and sold by a black record company to black record buyers. If you compare that to Paramount and Okeh, their ads use the worst possible racial stereotypes. You see these big-lipped, white-lipped, bulging-eyed faces, which pander to the white stereotype at the time of black people. It's quite amazing that they used this on their race records sleeves, which were sold exclusively to black people.”
Okeh had been the first of the white labels to launch its own specialist imprint for black artists - known at the time as a “race records” label - which aimed to avoid trouble from distributors by bundling all of Okeh's black singers and musicians into a corral of their own. Not everyone who bought those records would be black, but that was definitely the core market Okeh had in mind. As Pace contemplated his first set of Black Swan sales figures, Paramount and Columbia were already preparing to set up race labels of their own, and to promote those labels with an advertising budget Pace could not hope to match. Fortunately, his first big hit was just around the corner.
Soon after recording Blind Man's Blues, Pace made a business trip to Atlantic City, where a friend suggested he hear a cabaret singer called Ethel Waters perform. Waters, then in her mid-twenties, had toured on the black vaudeville circuit, and Pace was impressed enough to offer her a deal with Black Swan. That's Pace's version of events anyway: Henderson claims to have discovered Waters himself at a Harlem nightclub, while Waters said it was a freelance talent scout who suggested she contact Black Swan.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Waters turned up in March 1921 at Black Swan's studio on West 138th Street. This was a tiny room with a serving hatch cut into one wall, where engineers placed a recording horn like those seen in the His Master's Voice ads. Everyone sang or played into the horn, which cut their music directly into a spinning wax master disc next door. This produced a long, curly shaving of discarded wax, which engineers would periodically sweep to the floor. Alberta Hunter, who would record in this room a few months after Waters, later recalled the great care which everyone at Black Swan took to ensure they got a good recording (10).
Waters' March 1921 session began with an argument between Pace and Henderson over whether she should sing popular or “cultural” numbers. “They eventually decided on popular, and I asked $100 for making the record,” Waters later wrote. “I was still only getting $35 a week and tips, so $100 seemed quite a lump sum to me. Mr Pace paid me the $100 and that first Black Swan record I made had Down Home Blues on one side and Oh Daddy on the other. It proved a great success, a best seller among both white and coloured, and it got Black Swan out of the red” (11).
“Pace liked Waters' voice very much,” says Hurwitt. “It was very light and sweet. It was not the heavy, growly sort of a voice which Bessie Smith had. So I think he found an artist who was sort of stylistically half way between what he liked and what the public might accept. And he struck gold with that.”
Down Home Blues turned out to be not only Black Swan's first genuine blues release, but also the company's first big seller. Pace claimed to have sold 500,000 copies of the record in its first six months - a figure which everyone agrees is a vast exaggeration - but even the more probable total of around 120,000 is impressive enough. Suddenly, Black Swan was in a whole new league.
“They couldn't have gone on much longer in their present state,” Berresford says. “In the first few months of trading, they were bringing in about $700 a month. After Ethel Waters came along and made her first record for them, they were bringing in $20,000 a month.”