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America's first Motown: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Pace's ads had always stressed the company's all-black ownership and talent base, but now he upped the ante even further. Starting in December 1922, he placed ads accusing the white-owned race labels of “passing for coloured” or operating a “Jim Crow annex” which would appeal to “only a few short-sighted coloured people”. Black Swan, on the other hand, he boasted, had “the only records made and controlled exclusively by Negroes” and was a company where “all stockholders are Coloured, all artists are Coloured, all employees are Coloured”. His were “The Only Records Using Exclusively Negro Voices and Musicians”, with “Every One Made by Coloured Singers” (15).
The promise that all Black Swan's talent was black had been broken as early as 1921, when Pace began buying in the occasional side recorded by white musicians for another label and renaming the group involved to suggest they were black. The first example was Black Swan 2025, released in October 1921, pairing two Olympic sides by Irving Weiss & His Ritz Carlton Orchestra from a few months earlier and crediting them to “Henderson's Novelty Orchestra” (16).
“Initially, all the recordings that were produced and issued on Black Swan were indeed by black artists and selling primarily to black record buyers,” Berresford says. “But it didn't last long.”
No-one could have told from the music alone whether the Weiss/Henderson disc had been recorded by black or white musicians, but in the context of the time that distinction did matter. Not only had Black Swan made its “all-black” promise a key sales claim for the label, but some white artists did not take kindly to finding themselves reclassified as black.
The Allen Brothers were an early country act who sounded black enough for Columbia to accidentally release their 1927 song Laughin' & Cryin' Blues on its race imprint by mistake. The brothers threatened legal action unless the record was withdrawn, and promptly moved to Victor in retaliation. All it took was a single rumour that Okeh had advertised one of its Original Dixieland Jass Band discs as a black recording for band leader Nick La Rocca to cancel the band's contract.
Other white bands had the sense to treat race sales simply as a handy source of extra income. The Original Memphis Five, for example, recorded 50 sides for Gennett as “Ladd's Black Aces” and made no objection when an unidentifiable black band was pictured under that name in the label's catalogue.

Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians found themselves re-titled as 'Haynes Harlem Syncopators'

Pace avoided legal problems by making sure he renamed every white band before putting their record out on Black Swan. At first, the deception was rare enough to be forgivable, but things began to get out of control in June 1922. US Radio sales reached $60m in that year, beginning a steep climb which would take them to $358m just two years later. Record sales halved over roughly the same period and, as ever, it was small labels like Black Swan which suffered most.
Faced with a depleted talent base, falling sales and extra costs from his recent expansion, Pace had only one place left to turn. The Fletcher deal had brought with it his stash of masters from the defunct Olympic label: masters which had been recorded by white artists, but which Pace was now free to use at no extra cost. Telling himself it was only a temporary measure until the market improved, he sent Black Swan's renaming and reissue programme into overdrive. Often, the results were comical, as Yerkes Jazzarimba Orchestra became “Joe Brown's Alabama Band”, Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians found themselves re-titled “Haynes Harlem Syncopators” and Margaret McKee was transformed into “Bessie Johnson”.
All this time, Pace continued to advertise Black Swan as releasing nothing but black talent. One ad, placed in the Chicago Defender in July 1922, is headed in bold with the words “DON'T BE DECEIVED! BLACK SWAN RECORDS Are the Only Exclusive Coloured Records and Are Made by a Coloured Company”. It then goes on to list ten new Black Swan releases, seven of which are re-attributed white recordings from the old Olympic catalogue. “Mamie Jones”, for example is really Aileen Stanley, while “Ethel Waters' Jazz Masters” conceal both the Palace Trio on side A and the Van Eps Quartette overleaf.
Author and jazz guitarist Andrew Scott calculates that, over the course of Black Swan's life, about a third of the songs it put out were reissues of records made by white musicians for another company. There's no evidence either way whether these misleading titles damaged Black Swan's reputation, but both Berresford and Hurwitt are sceptical. “It has been suggested that, by clothing white artists in black pseudonyms, he alienated the black record-buying public,” Berresford says. “But I don't buy that. You'd be hard-pressed to tell a black Black Swan band from a white Black Swan band in many cases, so I don't think that holds water.”
“The fact is that the early jazz recordings don't sound very different depending on what race the players were,” Hurwitt adds. “Some of the white players were quite hot and some of the black records were quite corny. It wasn't very honest of him, but it reminds me a great deal of things I read in the Wall Street Journal every day, and I'm less shocked by it all the time.”
Others, like the writer Jitu Weusi, argue that Pace's partnership with Fletcher did dent Black Swan's credibility, but that it may not have been buyers who were the problem. “Pace began to lose the respect and confidence of the musician community, and it became more difficult to produce a quality product,” Weusi writes (17). If nothing else, the Fletcher deal would certainly have provided cover for black musicians planning to desert Pace for more money, who could now argue they owed Black Swan no particular loyalty anyway. Like almost everything else at Black Swan, the black-for-white episode echoed at Motown decades later, when a funk singer called Teena Marie claimed Gordy's label had refused to use a photo on her album sleeve because it didn't want buyers to realise she was white (18).

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Bomb found at Black Swan's plant: continued

      "The workmen nearby ran from the scene. Schmidt picked the shell up, carried it to the offices of the company and word was sent to the police."
      Captain John Gallagher, head of the Queens detective squad, responded to the call, along with Dr George Koch, an explosives expert from Brooklyn's Fire Prevention Bureau. Koch examined the shell, saying it had "power enough to have blown up the building", and then took it away to be made safe.
      The plant had taken two coal deliveries from local Long Island firms on the Friday the shell was discovered, but these both went straight into the same bunker, making it impossible to tell which firm's coal had concealed the bomb.
      "There were several hundred workers in the plant at the time the loaded shell was discovered, including a number of women," says the BDE. "Had the shell been fed into the furnace with the coal, a serious explosion might have followed."
      The bomb had a rusty casing, with no cap or fuse attached. Most likely, it was an old WWI shell, the typical model of which would contain about 300 half-inch lead balls. When the shell detonated, these balls would explode out in all directions, killing anyone in their path.
      I can find no record in the newspaper archive of any arrests or trial following the shell's discovery, which presumably means the bomber got away with it. The fact that he was willing to risk so many lives to damage Black Swan's manufacturing operation is a measure of the poisonous racial bigotry the label faced.