A&R Pioneers
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A&R Pioneers


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298 pages

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Association for Recorded Sound Collections Certificate of Merit for the Best Historical Research in Recorded Roots or World Music, 2019

A&R Pioneers offers the first comprehensive account of the diverse group of men and women who pioneered artists-and-repertoire (A&R) work in the early US recording industry. In the process, they helped create much of what we now think of as American roots music. Resourceful, innovative, and, at times, shockingly unscrupulous, they scouted and signed many of the singers and musicians who came to define American roots music between the two world wars. They also shaped the repertoires and musical styles of their discoveries, supervised recording sessions, and then devised marketing campaigns to sell the resulting records. By World War II, they had helped redefine the canons of American popular music and established the basic structure and practices of the modern recording industry. Moreover, though their musical interests, talents, and sensibilities varied enormously, these A&R pioneers created the template for the job that would subsequently become known as "record producer."

Without Ralph Peer, Art Satherley, Frank Walker, Polk C. Brockman, Eli Oberstein, Don Law, Lester Melrose, J. Mayo Williams, John Hammond, Helen Oakley Dance, and a whole army of lesser known but often hugely influential A&R representatives, the music of Bessie Smith and Bob Wills, of the Carter Family and Count Basie, of Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers may never have found its way onto commercial records and into the heart of America's musical heritage. This is their story.



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Date de parution 26 juin 2018
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780826521774
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 14 Mo

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Without Ralph Peer, Art Satherley, Frank Walker, Polk C. Brockman, Eli Oberstein, Don Law, Lester Melrose, J. Mayo Williams, John Hammond, Helen Oakley Dance, and a whole army of lesser known but often hugely influential A&R representatives, the music of Bessie Smith and Bob Wills, of the Carter Family and Count Basie, of Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers may never have found its way onto commercial records and into the heart of America's musical heritage. This is their story.
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Brian Ward and Patrick Huber
A&R Pioneers
© 2018 by Brian Ward and Patrick Huber
All rights reserved
First printing 2018
Published by Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation Press
Nashville, Tennessee
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file
LC control number 2017023304
LC classification number ML3790 .W35 2017
Dewey classification number 781.64/1490973—dc23
LC record available at lccn.loc.gov/2017023304
ISBN 978-0-8265-2175-0 (cloth)
ISBN 978-0-8265-2177-4 (ebook)
For our families: Jen and Katie, and Kate, Genevieve, and William, with love and gratitude
1. Defining A&R: Interwar Record Company Officials and Their Work
2. Finding and Securing Talent
3. Contracts and Copyrights: The Dark Heart of A&R
4. Choosing Songs and Building Repertoires
5. In the Studio: Creating and Recording Sounds
6. Post-Production: Defining and Defying Genre Boundaries
7. The Bottom Line: Selling Records
8. Nowhere Near Total Eclipse: A&R Work after World War II
1. Cover of Victor’s Old Time Melodies of the Sunny South brochure (1926) .
2. Sheet music cover of “Crazy Blues” (1920), featuring a photograph of Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds .
3. Sheet music cover of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” (1924), with a photograph inset of Henry Whitter .
4. Gennett recording truck (1934) .
1.1. Ralph Peer in Havana, Cuba (1931) .
1.2. Advertisement in Talking Machine World for James K. Polk Inc. of Atlanta, “The South’s Largest Phonograph Supply House” (1925) .
1.3. Chicago Defender advertisement for Kapp Music Company (1926) .
1.4. Studio portrait of Art Laibly in his later years .
1.5. Page from Complete Catalog of 1924 Records, Paramount—The “Popular Race Record”—and Black Swan Race Records , featuring a photograph inset of J. Mayo Williams, Paramount’s “Recording Manager of Race Artist Series.”
2.1. Harold Soulé and Grace Slovetsky examining the recording equipment used at Gennett’s May 1927 field session in St. Paul, Minnesota .
2.2. OKeh notice in the Commercial Appeal (Memphis) recruiting musicians to record “old-time songs not now on phonograph records” at an upcoming 1928 local field session .
2.3. Eli Oberstein supervising a 1936 RCA Victor recording session with Lydia Mendoza at the Texas Hotel, San Antonio .
2.4. Full page of Knoxville News-Sentinel articles chronicling Brunswick’s 1930 local field session held in the St. James Hotel .
2.5. Cover of the Crazy Water Crystals Company of the Carolinas and Georgia’s Souvenir of the Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands folio (ca. 1934) .
2.6. Gene Autry and Art Satherley (ca. 1941) .
2.7. Helen Oakley and guests enjoying a jam session featuring Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, and Duke Ellington at Master Records Inc.’s studios in New York on March 12, 1937 .
3.1. Dennis Taylor with a group of his artists, Edgar Boaz, Welby Toomey, and Doc Roberts, at Gennett’s studio in Richmond, Indiana (1925) .
3.2. Ralph Peer and Jimmie Rodgers, relaxing with their wives and Rodgers’s daughter at Rodgers’s home in Kerrville, Texas (1930) .
3.3. Cover of the Reverend Andrew Jenkins’s Christian Love Songs folio (1924), featuring a photograph of Jenkins and his two stepdaughters, Irene Spain and Mary Lee Eskew .
3.4. Excerpt from a 1927 Chicago Defender advertisement for J. Mayo Williams’s short-lived Black Patti label .
3.5. J. B. Long standing in front of the United Dollar Store he managed in Kinston, North Carolina (ca. 1934) .
4.1. OKeh Race Records catalog (ca. 1927), featuring a selection of recorded sermons by the Reverend J. M. Gates .
4.2. Publicity photograph of Barbecue Bob (ca. 1927) .
4.3. Publicity photograph of Nat Shilkret (ca. mid-1920s) .
4.4. Lester Melrose and several of his Chicago recording artists: Little Son Joe, Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Roosevelt Sykes, and St. Louis Jimmy (ca. late 1930s) .
4.5. Dave Kapp and Ernest Tubb, inside a recording studio (ca. 1941) .
4.6. Cover of Bob Miller’s Famous Folio Full of Song Hits (1934) .
4.7. Detail from a Conqueror dealers’ release sheet (1933), advertising Gene Autry’s “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers.”
5.1. Frank Driggs’s two-page, 1961 letter, regarding Don Law’s recollections of recording Robert Johnson, with Law’s marginal comments .
5.2. Postcard depicting the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, manufacturer of Gennett Records (ca. 1910) .
5.3. John Hammond in Columbia Records offices, New York (ca. 1939) .
5.4. Studio portrait of Cléoma Breaux and Joseph Falcon taken soon after their debut recording session for Columbia (1928) .
6.1. Chicago Defender advertisement for Austin and Lee Allen’s “Laughin’ and Cryin’ Blues” (1928) .
6.2. Cover of Gennett Records of Old Time Tunes catalog (1928) .
6.3. Sheet music cover of “The Wreck of the Shenandoah” (1925), with words and music by Maggie Andrews, one of Carson Robison’s many songwriting pseudonyms .
6.4. Chicago Defender advertisement for Alec Johnson & His Band’s “Mysterious Coon” (1928) .
6.5. Cover of Decca Hill Billy Records catalog (1938) .
6.6. Cover of Decca Race Records catalog (1940) .
6.7. Advertisement in the Crisis for the Black Swan Phonograph Company (1922) .
7.1. Studio portrait of the Kentucky Thoroughbreds taken during the trio’s April 1927 visit to Chicago to record for Paramount .
7.2. Studio portrait of Frank Walker (ca. 1942) .
7.3. Chicago Defender advertisement for Ma Rainey’s “Mystery Record,” featuring the official contest rules (1924) .
7.4. Advertisement in the Daily Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS) for the Speir Phonograph Company, with inset of its owner and manager, H. C. Speir (1929) .
7.5. Harry Charles and wife (1923) .
7.6. Full-page Chicago Defender advertisement for E. A. Fearn’s “OKeh Cabaret and Style Show” (1926) .
8.1. Studio portrait of Eli Oberstein (ca. 1955) .
8.2. Owen Bradley, with Patsy Cline and Paul Cohen, at Bradley Studios in Nashville (1957) .
8.3. Don Law and Johnny Cash, probably at Bradley Studios in Nashville (ca. 1960) .
8.4. Don Pierce and Charlie Lamb in front of the Mercury-Starday Records offices in Madison, Tennessee (probably 1957) .
Abbreviations Used in Notes
AGP Archie Green Papers, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill CPM Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro CMFOHP Country Music Foundation Oral History Project, Frist Library and Archive, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, Tennessee DRP Doc Roberts Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky GDWC Gayle Dean Wardlow Collection, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro JAF Journal of American Folklore JEMFN John Edwards Memorial Foundation Newsletter JEMFQ John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly JKMC John K. MacKenzie Collection, Glick Indiana History Center, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis JCM Journal of Country Music OTM Old Time Music SFC Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill TMW Talking Machine World
This book, like so many academic collaborations, was born over beers at a late-night, early-morning, post-conference “bull session.” In November 2009, the two of us first met in Atlanta at an academic conference, “Popular Music in the Mercer Era, 1910–1970,” which celebrated the music made during the lifetime of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer. The event was hosted by Georgia State University’s Special Collection and Archives Department and organized by history professor Glenn Eskew who, consequently, is the first of the many people we need to thank for making this book possible. After the opening reception, we retreated to a neighborhood sports bar on a downtown side street, appropriately named the Sidebar. According to Patrick, we watched a soccer match on one of the big-screen TVs; Brian insists it was football—the ball was round and feet were definitely being used. Whatever the case, it was an early glimpse into some of the linguistic challenges of a transatlantic collaboration, rather than into the fallibility of memory. What we both remember is that it was in the Sidebar, over revitalizing pints of Guinness, that we hatched a project that still seemed like a good idea the following morning. And the following week. After several years, a few more beers, and many refinements, those ideas evolved into this book.
Along the way, we have profited from the expertise and assistance of a multitude of individuals and institutions. For their help, encouragement, ideas, and guidance, we especially wish to thank James E. Akenson, David M. Anderson, Harvey G. Cohen, Norm Cohen, Ronald Cohen, Don Cusic, Francis J. “Fran” Dance, Robert M. W. “Bob” Dixon, Kathleen Drowne, Wade Falcon, Kevin S. Fontenot, Steve Goodson, the late Archie Green, Tom Jacobson, Lance Ledbetter, Bill C. Malone, Barry Mazor, Kris McCusker, Ted Olson, Jim O’Neal, the late Jack Palmer, Diane Pecknold, Nolan Porterfield, Dunstan Prial, Tony Russell, Travis Stimeling, Paul Swinton, Allan Symons, Alex van der Tuuk, Gayle Dean Wardlow, the late Charles K. Wolfe, and Marshall Wyatt. We are deeply grateful to the anonymous readers for Vanderbilt University Press, as well as to Tim Brooks, John Broven, and David Evans, who reviewed our book proposal, for their helpful comments and suggestions. We are particularly indebted to John Rumble, who, in a Herculean effort, offered invaluable stylistic and substantive feedback that significantly improved the entire manuscript.
This book is based chiefly on the remarkable research materials held at libraries and archives across the nation, including tape-recorded or transcribed oral histories of many of the major and minor figures of interwar A&R we discuss. Most importantly, our research benefited from the knowledge and courteous assistance of Jay Orr, John Rumble, and the staff at the Frist Library and Archive, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, Tennessee, and of Steve Weiss and the staff at the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, particularly Aaron Smithers. We also drew upon materials from the following libraries, archives, and institutions, and wish to acknowledge the assistance of their staffs in facilitating our research: both the American Folklife Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, especially David Sager; Shannon H. Wilson, Rachel Vagts, and the staff of the Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, especially Harry Rice and Sharyn J. Mitchell; Gregory Reish and the staff of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, especially Grover Baker and Lucinda Cockrell; the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, Chicago, Illinois; the Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University, New York, New York; Kevin Fleming, popular music and culture archivist at Special Collections and Archives, University Library, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia; the Fillius Jazz Archive, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York; the Institute of Jazz Studies, Dana Library, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey; the Williams Research Center, Historic New Orleans Collections, New Orleans, Louisiana, particularly Rebecca Smith; the Glick Indiana History Center, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana, especially Alyssa Boge and Nadia Kousari; Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York, New York; the New York Public Library, New York, New York; the Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Music Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, especially Diane Steinhaus; Old Hat Records, Raleigh, North Carolina; Ralph Peer II and peermusic, Berkeley, California, especially Gudrun Shea; Randy Roberts, former curator and archivist of Special Collections and University Archives, Axe Library, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas; the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Jonathan Manton, librarian at the Archive of Recorded Sound, Braun Music Center, Stanford University, Stanford, California; the Starr-Gennett Foundation Inc., Richmond, Indiana; and Oral History of American Music, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, especially Maura Valenti.
We also owe a significant debt to private individuals, collectors, researchers, and scholars who generously provided us with documents and photographs from their own collections, or who otherwise facilitated the acquisition of materials for this book. Among them, we wish to especially thank Bruce Bastin, Ryan André Brasseaux, Margo Bruynoghe, Harry Charles Jr., Harvey G. Cohen, Norm Cohen, Andre Dael, Charlie B. Dahan, Francis J. “Fran” Dance, David Diehl, Wade Falcon, Cary Ginell, Tim Gracyk, Martin Halliwell, Tom Hanchett, Linda Gennett Irmscher, Tom Jacobson, Michael Jarrett, William Kornblum, Bill Link, Jane Lyle, Barry Mazor, Ted Olson, Ralph Peer II, Don Peterson, Dunstan Prial, Robert “Bob” Riesman, T. Malcolm Rockwell, Kinney Rorrer, Tony Russell, Gudrun Shea, Paul Swinton, Alex van der Tuuk, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Tom Warlick, Cary Wolfson, and Marshall Wyatt. On the campus of Mis souri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, where he works, Patrick Huber also wishes to acknowledge the librarians at Wilson Library for their indispensable assistance in securing interlibrary loan materials.
The generous support of several grants and fellowships, as well as assistance from our own institutions, helped bring this study to fruition. At Missouri University of Science and Technology, a University of Missouri Research Board Grant that Patrick received for spring 2015 helped accelerate the writing and revision of the manuscript. Northumbria University granted Brian a sabbatical to work on the book during the same spring, while some of his initial archival research into the world of A&R representatives was enabled by grants from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust.
Special thanks are also due to Eli Bortz of Vanderbilt University Press, an extraordinarily thoughtful and patient editor who trusted us enough to commission this study and gave us consistent encouragement and good counsel through much of its writing. We are also grateful to Jay Orr and John Rumble at the Country Music Foundation, who were equally quick to see the potential of the project and offer personal and institutional support. After Eli’s departure from VUP, Michael Ames, director of the press, and Beth Kressel Itkin, our new editor, shepherded the manuscript through final revisions, into production and, ultimately, into print.
Finally, our deepest thanks go to our family members, who have sustained us throughout our work on this book. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of collaborating is that our respective families have actually had the chance to meet and get to know each other, sometimes via the wonders of social media, but also in person. Patrick wishes to thank his wife, Kate Drowne, and his children, Genevieve and William Huber, for the unfailing love, support, and encouragement they have provided in all his endeavors. In addition, at critical moments, Kate took time away from her own work to edit multiple drafts of this manuscript and, in doing so, made it a far superior book. Brian owes everything that really matters in his life to his wife, Jen, and daughter Katie: this book is no exception to that simple truth. While it does not make up for the numerous times he has neglected them to chase down another reference or attempt yet another rewrite, they should know that their patience, love, and support have been very much appreciated. The book is dedicated to our families, with love and gratitude.
BW, Newcastle upon Tyne
PH, Rolla, Missouri
Jack Kapp is the newly appointed head of the Vocalion record division of Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., in complete charge of sales and recordings. Kapp’s promotion follows a concrete survey of the country’s musical tastes, particularly the southern and midwestern demands for “hill-billy” and “race” records. These two departments have been chiefly developed by Kapp and have contributed to the Vocalion’s financial success. . . . It was Kapp who taught the mountaineer music dealers to capitalize [on] the hill-billy folks’ penchant for purchasing from six to 15 copies of the same record. The mountain people don’t come down into the valley towns for months at a time, and their chief amusement is the constant repetition of their favorite record, wearing one out and playing a new one.
—“Inside Stuff on Music,” Variety , March 21, 1928
IN THE AMERICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY OF THE 1920S AND 1930s, working in the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) field was a kind of frontier experience. Laws regulating the industry were sketchy and unevenly enforced; individualism and ruthlessness reigned; necessity and ambition propelled technological and commercial innovations; turf wars constantly erupted over patents and copyrights, artists and songs; and despite the best efforts of many individuals within the industry, there were still gaping holes in the boundaries that, in theory, were supposed to separate musical genres and their target audiences. No wonder, perhaps, that A&R work attracted people with almost as many varied backgrounds and beliefs, talents and ambitions, prejudices and insights, as the nation itself. Collectively, this diverse group of pioneering A&R men, supplemented by a few extraordinary women, helped forge the modern recording industry and profoundly shaped the development of commercially recorded American “roots music.” Employed as talent scouts, recording supervisors, musical directors, sales representatives, and in other assorted positions, and sometimes serving as conduits to songwriters and concert promoters, they occasionally made important creative contributions as musicians, songwriters, arrangers, and promoters. In all of these roles, they helped document some of the most treasured and significant recorded music in American history. What’s more, whenever inspiration, taste, marketing, and the economy aligned, they sold enormous quantities of these musical recordings to audiences they helped create. This is their story.
By the 1920s, the America these A&R officials inhabited was engulfed in a series of sweeping economic, social, cultural, and technological transformations that, though unevenly felt in different regions, ultimately affected citizens everywhere. This was also the period when, for the first time in the history of the still-fledgling recording industry, its agents began to reach deep into the nation’s cities, small towns, and rural heartlands, as well as into its trove of vernacular musical traditions, to find grassroots artists and music that they could record and sell. “That mountain ballad, the old-fashioned gospel songs sung at the arbor camp meeting accompanied by the portable organ that is often carried many long and weary miles, the self-styled country fiddler, ye old-time musicians who made merry for the corn shuckin’ and chicken stews at the tobacco barns, have their places in American music, is the opinion of the Okeh Record Company,” Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Twin City Sentinel reported in the midst of OKeh’s local 1927 field-recording sessions. “This statement was made by a representative of the company who states that one desires records of music of this type, as dear to those living in the mountains or the rural districts, as the grand opera, jazz, popular or other types of music are to those living in the city or towns.” 1
In a world of increasing urbanization and consumerism, national advertising and new forms of mass communication, rapid industrial development, and growing corporate power, A&R officials helped fashion and disseminate music that often evoked older, highly romanticized and reassuring visions of a simpler, less frenetic, and more communal past. Much of the black and white roots music with which this book is primarily concerned traded heavily on the kinds of moral certainties and traditional values that were associated in the popular imagination with rural communities, many of them located in the South, bound together by ties of place, family, faith, and history that seemed to be fraying under the pressure from new economic, social, and cultural forces. “Every record,” a 1928 Brunswick pamphlet promoting its “Dixie Songs” series proclaimed, “[is] sung with that simplicity and sincerity, which is only found today in the small towns where folks still attend ‘meetings’ for the good of the soul, and not just to show off a new hat.” 2
Even the titles of record companies’ interwar hillbilly series eloquently expressed sentimental nostalgia for a vanishing time and often for particular places. In addition to Brunswick’s “Dixie Songs” series (1927–1933), originally called “Songs from Dixie,” there were OKeh’s “Old Time Tunes” (1925–1932); Columbia’s “Old Familiar Tunes,” later “Familiar Tunes, Old and New” (1924–1932); Paramount’s “Olde Time Tunes” (1927–1932); Vocalion’s “Old Southern Tunes” (1927–1933), among other similar designations; and Victor’s “Native American Melodies” (1929–1931), followed by “Old Familiar Tunes & Novelties” (1931–1934). 3 Coupled with the quaint images of barn dances, log cabins, and mountain pines that often adorned hillbilly record catalogs and advertisements, these marketing labels all evoked a preindustrial rural South—particularly a Mountain South—that retained a great hold on the American popular imagination. 4 “These old tunes rarely get into the cities,” explained Victor’s 1924 Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes brochure, “but mountain folk have sung and danced to them for generations. . . . Writers of books and plays, of late years, have gone into the mountains and studied the life of the people there, but this is almost the first of their music that has come into public notice.” 5 Likewise, a 1927 newspaper ad promised that Columbia’s records of “Familiar Tunes, Old and New” could satisfy the musical desires of those record buyers who “get tired of modern dance music—fox-trots, jazz, Charleston—and long for the good old barn dances and the ‘Saturday night’ music of the South in plantation days.” 6

FIGURE 1. Cover of Victor’s Old Time Melodies of the Sunny South brochure (1926). Courtesy of Kinney Rorrer.
Not surprisingly, African Americans were often much less sentimental than whites about the alleged bucolic delights of the Old South or, for that matter, of a New South where the combination of segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence still curtailed black freedom and opportunity. Nevertheless, for the millions of black migrants who made their way out of the Jim Crow South in search of a better life, and for those who stayed behind—many of them heading for the region’s burgeoning cities—their relationship to the rural southern past and its music was complicated. When Paramount released Blind Lemon Jefferson’s first record, “Booster Blues” / “Dry Southern Blues” (Paramount 12347), in April 1926, the label advertised the first major star of “downhome” blues to a national black audience as “a real, old-fashioned Blues singer . . . from Dallas” who “strums his guitar in real southern style—makes it talk, in fact.” 7
Substitute “Hillbilly” for “Blues” and this regionally inflected nostalgia remains much the same. Bear down on the word “real” in Paramount’s advertising copy, and it is possible to see how recorded roots music, with its claims to authenticity, could help counter a sense of social and cultural dislocation, a deep anxiety about the increasing superficiality and transitory nature of a modern America characterized by disconcerting changes. 8 By overseeing the commercial recording of roots music and stressing, often to the point of fabricating or at least redefining its connections to venerable folk traditions, A&R officials helped create and market music that satisfied what historian T. J. Jackson Lears describes as a national “antimodern quest for authenticity” in an increasingly complex and unsettling modern age. 9
At the same time, these A&R pioneers were both products and co-creators of a new industry that helped define and provide one distinctive soundtrack for the new age of mass culture and leisure. Working for various record companies and their labels—among them Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, OKeh, Gennett, Paramount, Black Swan, and Decca—most of them headquartered in the New York area, this cohort of cultural gatekeepers were spirited innovators whose lives and livelihoods were inextricably bound up with the new technological developments and commercial opportunities in the world of mass entertainment that helped define modern America. 10 As such, they encouraged experiments in recorded sound that captured the rich promise, as well as the perceived perils, of this period of intense flux and ferment. In an era characterized by what historian Nathan Miller calls a “perverse duality: innocent yet worldly, sentimental yet dissipated, idealistic yet cynical,” A&R officials came to prominence, Janus-faced and eager to make phonograph records and their fortunes, at a transitional moment in the cultural, economic, and musical history of the United States. 11 Embedded in their experience and in the roots music they recorded is the story of a nation trying to navigate between the reassuring, nostalgic, but ultimately diminishing tug of an agrarian, small-town past and the irresistible, exhilarating, but sometimes frightening pull of an increasingly urban, mass-mediated future.
Given their importance to the development of the recording industry and American roots music, and their significance as cultural mediators and agents of change, it is striking that the A&R men and women of the 1920s and 1930s have received relatively little collective scrutiny. The silence is not absolute, of course. Historians, musicologists, journalists, and whole communities of dedicated vintage record collectors and roots music enthusiasts have labored hard to recreate the murky origins of the roots music recording industry and track the careers of its seminal artists, producers, technicians, businessmen, and scouts. Thanks to this developing body of scholarly and popular literature, we now know a great deal about pioneering A&R giants such as Ralph S. Peer, John Hammond, Frank B. Walker, Art Satherley, Polk C. Brockman, and H. C. Speir, as well as some of their lesser-known colleagues such as Cliff Hess, Dan Hornsby, Harry Charles, Art Laibly, Don Law, Lester Melrose, Eli Oberstein, Nat Shilkret, and J. Mayo Williams. 12 Williams, along with his protégée Aletha Dickerson, bandleader-pianist Fletcher Henderson, and pianist-songwriters Clarence Williams and Richard M. Jones, were among the few black recording directors to make a sustained impact in the A&R field before World War II. Dickerson’s exceptionalism was twofold: very few women were involved in such work. White men dominated the world of A&R.
This short, highly selective list of the A&R representatives who already figure, to a greater or lesser degree, in histories of American roots music and of the interwar recording industry could be extended considerably. At least 125 additional figures, acting as A&R managers or talent scouts, gave much to this field of commercially recorded music. Despite their ubiquity, however, no one has stepped back from the sometimes fleeting and fragmentary glimpses into the lives of individual A&R pioneers to chronicle their collective contributions to the business, technologies, and sounds of the pre–World War II roots recording industry. This book begins to fill that gap. While it is deeply indebted to groundbreaking studies by many discographers, journalists, and scholars, it seeks to extend, explain, and, on occasion, challenge some of the conventional wisdom they have generated.
As those early researchers discovered, primary sources about interwar A&R activities are scattered and varied. This history explores the roles of A&R officials in early roots music through evidence gleaned from phonograph records, trade journals, newspapers and magazines, and the letters and documents of record firms and their executives. Our story also depends heavily on the occasionally scurrilous, frequently insightful, sometimes barely credible, but invariably entertaining firsthand accounts of A&R managers and scouts, their industry colleagues, and the artists they handled. Such autobiographical testimony can be extremely helpful, but it is also a notoriously slippery and unreliable source of information, especially when the subjects are colorful characters with silken tongues and a rare gift for self-promotion. A&R representatives eagerly claimed credit for things they did. But often they took credit for things they wished they had done, or thought they should have done, or, on reflection, decided that others had hoped they had done. Conversely, they tended to avoid some of the less savory aspects of an industry in which tales of blatant self-interest and greed, as well as of abuse and exploitation, racism and sexism, are legion. Indeed, if there is a weakness shared by many of the roots music scholars and fans who in the 1960s and 1970s sought out and interviewed aging veterans of interwar A&R, it is that they tended to believe too much, too readily, of what their informants told them. New archival discoveries, coupled with sharper analytical perspectives—particularly those that deepen our sense of how race, class, and gender played out in the world of commercial roots music recording—provide a fuller context for the compelling, if often self-serving, accounts of A&R men and women who found artists, brokered contracts, supervised the making of phonograph records, and sold those recordings to new audiences.
We offer three final, interrelated thoughts by way of introduction. The first concerns our definition of “roots music”; the second relates to the chronological scope of the book; the third explains the kinds of A&R personnel we have chosen to include. A&R Pioneers deals primarily with the A&R managers and scouts involved in American roots music between World War I and World War II, an era when the commercial recording of hot jazz, blues, gospel, and hillbilly music began in earnest. These musical idioms take center stage in A&R Pioneers . However, the interwar years also saw the rise of other American roots-based styles, including Mexican, Cajun, and Hawaiian, as well as an assortment of traditional, foreign-language music popular among the nation’s many immigrant communities. 13 Record companies’ insatiable desire for hit records meant that A&R men who regularly explored these important region- and ethnic-based genres also often worked in the fields of mainstream popular music and, on occasion, even opera and classical music. Clayton “Jack” Jackson, for instance, was a flamboyant A&R man and assistant sales director at Richmond, Indiana’s Gennett Records, with a typically keen eye for a fast buck and an equally typical lack of scruples about how he made it. Although only in his early twenties and hampered by what he described as a “tin ear,” Jackson supervised hillbilly and jazz recordings by the likes of Bradley Kincaid and Joe “King” Oliver, respectively. But he also “made a lot of Polish recordings,” gamely peddled discs of William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech alongside ones of Hopi Indians made on location at the Grand Canyon, and arranged recording sessions for Ku Klux Klansmen, at least one of them with his understandably reluctant Gennett colleague, chief recording engineer Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer. Wickemeyer was a devout Roman Catholic, and this was a time when the powerful, 250,000-member Indiana Klan directed its violent attacks and hateful propaganda against Catholics as often as it did against Jews and African Americans. 14
Many A&R men were similarly eclectic. Nat Shilkret, manager and musical director of Victor’s “US Foreign Department,” supervised foreign-language recordings for domestic release while sometimes also overseeing sessions in the mid-1920s for the label’s “Export, Domestic, Hillbilly, Race and Red Seal” lines. “Foreign artists and their repertoire had to be discovered,” Shilkret explained in his memoir. “With other recording companies competing, it was necessary to attend Polish weddings and affairs, Jewish theaters, Italian vaudeville, German cafes, etc.—sometimes meeting immigrants arriving in America for concert tours.” 15 As Dallas-based A&R man Don Law recalled, when he worked for the constellation of labels grouped under the American Record Corporation’s umbrella in the mid- to late 1930s, he was willing to search out and record “anything that we ran across in any field, whether it was Mexican or Cajun or black or whatever—if it was good talent, then we recorded it . . . as long as you knew you could sell, or thought you could sell, a certain number of records.” 16
In determining the chronological scope of the book, there were several compelling reasons to concentrate on the interwar years as a distinctive phase in the history of recorded American roots music. Although discographies of the various genres that comprise this music sometimes reach back into the final decade of the nineteenth century to include commercially recorded prototypes for later musical styles, it is no coincidence that the most important such reference works for hot jazz, blues, gospel, and country music focus chiefly on the 1920s and 1930s, when the commercial recording of those styles first flourished, or that they end their coverage in the early 1940s, when the recording industry and roots music changed dramatically. 17
To be sure, like all attempts at historical periodization, there is something unavoidably arbitrary about selecting beginning and ending dates for a study of processes and themes, events and trends, careers and musical forms, that defy the sharp demarcations of the calendar. Convenient temporal phrases like “the interwar years,” or “the Jazz Age,” or “the Great Depression,” or “the World War II era” can obscure origins and legacies, and often oversimplify the complexities of those periods. All of which is simply to say that, while this book focuses on A&R officials and their accomplishments “between the two world wars,” confident that this constitutes a distinct, formative period in the development of recorded roots music, it does not try to isolate or homogenize that period, either in the recording industry or in the broader sweep of American history. There were, for example, enormous disparities in how different groups of people in different regions experienced the “Roaring Twenties.” Widely perceived as a period of boom and prosperity, the 1920s was actually a decade of widespread and worsening economic distress for many Americans, particularly those living in rural communities. Similarly, not everyone’s fortunes dipped—and certainly not to the same degree—during the Great Depression; nor did they rebound with equal vigor when the United States’ entry into World War II revived the nation’s economy.
Within the world of commercial music, a whirlpool of equally complex currents and countercurrents provided an important context for A&R activities. Structurally, the period between 1920 and 1929 was one of phenomenal expansion for the American phonograph and record industry. Since at least 1905, Victor, Columbia, and Edison had dominated the field through their stranglehold on fundamental patents. During World War I, however, as those patents began to expire and the demand for phonographs and records swelled dramatically, dozens of new companies had entered the market. In 1914, there were eighteen phonograph manufacturers in the United States; by 1918, that number had soared to 166 firms, many of which also manufactured their own lines of records. During that same period, the value of the industry’s products skyrocketed from $27 million to $158 million. 18 Among the new entrants were the General Phonograph Corporation of New York, with its OKeh and Odeon labels; the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, with its Gennett label; and the New York Recording Laboratories of Port Washington, Wisconsin, with its Paramount label. 19
One way these fledgling firms gained a foothold in the fiercely competitive post–World War I recording scene was by cultivating the growing market for foreign-language records. Since the 1890s, American phonograph companies had been releasing and selling these recordings domestically to immigrants. Over the next two decades, as the nation’s foreign population swelled, selections of Old World folksongs and dances, performed in an extraordinary array of languages, came to form a sizable part of these companies’ recorded output. During World War I, these recordings enjoyed a surge in sales. Fueled by “the feelings of nostalgia and patriotism stirred by the fighting,” Richard K. Spottswood writes, “domestic production and sales assumed a new priority,” a trend, he adds, that “continued unbroken until the Depression.” 20 The headline of a June 1922 Talking Machine World article about promoting foreign-language records declared: “An Almost Untouched Record Selling Field with Millions of Prospective Customers.” The article enthusiastically reminded phonograph and record dealers that
the foreign-born elements of the United States have the same purchasing power as the natives, and do their share in purchasing records from the regular monthly supplements. To offer them records in their native tongues, or in the native tongues of their parents, means simply to create an additional demand. There is no more logical field right now for the talking machine dealer, especially in the larger industrial centers and in districts where there are thousands of foreign-born, than to concentrate somewhat on the foreign record catalogs suitable for his particular location. 21
Victor and Columbia, each of which issued records in more than two dozen languages, continued to dominate this field, but new firms did carve out market shares for themselves. By 1923, for example, the Odeon label, a leader in the ethnic records field, was catering to speakers of Arabic, Bohemian (Czech), French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Turkish, among others. 22 Some new firms specialized in particular ethnic recordings. The Panhellenion Phonograph Record Company of New York (organized in 1919), the Polonia Phonograph Company of Milwaukee (founded in 1920), and the Gaelic Phonograph Record Company, also of New York (established in 1921), produced Greek, Polish, and Irish recordings, respectively. 23 These, along with other firms formed during and after World War I, created an increased demand both for recording artists and for A&R officials to locate, sign, and record them.
Another way these new enterprises competed in the crowded postwar market was to explore entirely new fields of commercial music. Since longer-established and better-financed companies such as Victor and Columbia had already signed most of the best-known classical and vaudeville stars to exclusive contracts, upstart firms were forced to concentrate on different kinds of artists and cultivate new audiences. In particular, they developed markets among Americans at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, audiences that industry giants had long ignored. As a result, smaller labels such as OKeh, Paramount, and Gennett spearheaded intensive programs of recording American roots music, including material issued on what soon became known as “race records” and “hillbilly records,” aimed at specific racial and regional audiences. By 1927, record companies were releasing an estimated 675 new titles of hillbilly music and five hundred of blues and gospel music (although the same selection might appear on multiple releases and labels). Depending on the specific label, each of these categories accounted for somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of all popular releases for that year. 24 The recording of American roots music opened up new markets and provided a windfall to many firms. But during the 1920s, A&R managers, their recording department staffs, and their regional networks of talent scouts still grappled with a host of thorny challenges in locating artists, signing them, recording their music, promoting the discs, and helping distributors and retailers stock and sell them.
Just as race and hillbilly records began to flourish, the Great Depression dealt the recording industry a devastating blow, sending phonograph sales plummeting from 987,000 in 1927 to just forty thousand in 1932. Meanwhile, record sales plunged from 104 million to only six million. 25 The dire financial crisis precipitated a massive shakeup in the industry. Collapsing sales bankrupted many record companies, while other struggling firms were swallowed up, either through buyouts or mergers orchestrated by larger, more solvent record, radio, and film corporations. The interwar years had begun with three giants standing astride the recording industry; it also ended that way. By 1923, for instance, no fewer than eleven companies were issuing blues recordings; by 1935, however, the economic crisis had driven nearly all of these firms out of business and left what remained of the market for blues and other roots-based styles to just three major firms: RCA Victor, the American Record Corporation—which leased the Brunswick and Vocalion labels from Warner Bros.—and newly formed American Decca, co-founded by British Decca’s Edward R. Lewis and former Brunswick executive Jack Kapp. 26
During the interwar period, important technological changes also affected the work of A&R officials. The era began with double-sided 78-rpm disc recordings and, in the case of Edison, cylinder recordings that captured performances via the acoustical method, which had been in use since the advent of the commercial recording industry in the late 1880s. In this process, performers directed their voices or their music into a large horn connected at its narrow end to a cutting stylus. In response to the vibrations of the air in the horn, the stylus cut tiny grooves into a slowly rotating wax disc or cylinder that reproduced, more or less, the frequency and amplitude of the vibrations created by the music. The interwar period ended with only disc records still being produced commercially. Moreover, from the mid-1920s, those discs were made using the improved, higher-fidelity electrical recording method, in which performances were captured by a microphone and amplifier, and then transferred to a master record spinning on an electrically driven disk-cutter. During the mid- to late 1920s, the growing popularity of radios, jukeboxes, and talking motion pictures further altered the dynamics of roots music record production and dissemination, shifting the ground for many A&R representatives and their artists. 27
Another important change in recorded roots music during the interwar years involved the hardening distinction between “race” and “hillbilly” recordings, itself a marketing division for which A&R men were largely responsible. Two trade journal articles published in the mid-1920s reflected that trend well. “Naturally, it is to be assumed that the negro is so much a definite part of our native population that he is expected to find his music desires completely fulfilled in the regular domestic catalogs,” a 1924 Talking Machine World editorial explained. “But through the medium of ‘race’ records he is given something that is distinctly his own.” Even so, the editorial stressed the cross-racial appeal of this material, noting “that some hundreds of thousands of whites might be expected to, and as a matter of fact do, purchase these records for their peculiar melodic value.” 28 Two years later, a Talking Machine Journal article titled “Steppin’ High with This Hot Blues Business” described the remarkable sales that “race” records enjoyed, but emphasized the relatively discrete, segregated nature of the race records field and the need for specialized marketing expertise to court and serve African Americans: “The Negro trade is a business in itself, an enormously profitable occupation for the retailer who knows his way about. . . . In a number of . . . cities the segregation of the Negro population has enabled dealers to build up a trade catering to this race exclusively.” 29
Increasing market segmentation notwithstanding, these kinds of stylistic and marketing divisions appear to have remained much less rigid than some industry insiders, trade journals, and subsequent scholars once claimed. A&R Pioneers is far more sympathetic to the arguments of recent commentators who, to borrow from one of the most perceptive among them, Erich Nunn, understand the history of American popular music “in terms of hybridity and reciprocal interracialism.” Nunn is particularly attentive to how, at the level of enjoyment, emotion, and emulation, “sounds constantly leak through the racial barriers” that the recording industry, mass media, and society-at-large have attempted to construct around particular musical forms. 30 Although Nunn has little to say about the role of A&R in the construction and partial deconstruction of the racially circumscribed canons of interwar roots music, A&R men and women played a crucial, if ambiguous, part in the process he describes. Paradoxically, A&R officials created and policed the racial barriers between “race” and “hillbilly” music, but they also sometimes worked to subvert and transcend those barriers in their zealous pursuit of hit records.
In the early decades of the recording industry, musical styles were forever evolving, and as a result, boundaries and distinctions within, as well as among, musical genres were often far from clear. In the race records field, for example, consumers initially favored “vaudeville blues”—an urban-centered blues idiom sparked by the success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 record “Crazy Blues” / “It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It ’Taint No Fault O’ Mine)” (OKeh 4169), and usually performed by female vocalists backed by piano players or small jazz combos. By the mid-1920s, rawer “downhome blues” recordings made primarily by self-accompanied male singer-guitarists began to eclipse the popularity of the vaudeville blues recordings that had been ubiquitous since the start of the decade. Simply identifying these kinds of broad trends within recorded blues obscures a multitude of regional and stylistic subdivisions that were often complicated by connections to other musical forms, including jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop songs, and even hillbilly music. Consequently, it is perilous to generalize about A&R work in the “blues” between the world wars, because the “blues” was such a diverse and protean commercial music form with numerous subcategories.
Moreover, the blues in its myriad forms represented only a portion of the musical fare available on race records before World War II. Jazz instrumentals, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley hits, traditional ballads, sermons, and even some comedy skits, classical pieces, and operatic arias—along with a smattering of performances by white artists—were also among the selections to be heard on these records. 31 A similarly eclectic hodgepodge of sounds appeared on hillbilly discs, often shepherded into existence by the same A&R directors responsible for overseeing the production of race records. Ultimately, one aim of this book is to reveal the critical contributions that A&R managers and scouts made to an enormous range of commercially recorded blues, hillbilly, and other American roots music forms, without undervaluing the artistry and creativity of the singers, musicians, and songwriters involved.
Our emphasis on commercial recordings highlights the most basic characteristic shared by all the A&R personnel we discuss. A&R Pioneers examines those A&R officials who sought artists who could record hit records and, in many cases, who could write “original” songs (original at least according to the lax copyright standards of the day). But our story also differentiates among various kinds of A&R officials based upon the nature of their affiliations and their roles within the recording industry. A&R Pioneers is primarily concerned with what we call “A&R managers” or, alternatively, “A&R directors”: men and women who, as full-time record company employees, not only “discovered” talent but who also supervised recording sessions and were often involved in choices about which titles to issue commercially and how to market them. At the same time, though, it explores the pivotal roles of record store owners and salesmen such as R. T. Ashford, Paul I. Burks, Harry Charles, Jesse Johnson, H. C. Speir, and Van H. Sills, who acted as important regional or local talent scouts, and, to a lesser degree, of recording artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Cow Cow Davenport, Doc Roberts, Ernest V. Stoneman, and Roosevelt Sykes who, though not strictly A&R men themselves, also passed on recommendations about prospective new talent to record companies and their A&R representatives.

FIGURE 2. Sheet music cover of “Crazy Blues” (1920), featuring a photograph of Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds. Songwriter Perry Bradford, a pioneering black A&R man, composed the words and music for this landmark blues song, which was published by his firm, the Perry Bradford Music Publishing Company. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
This semiformal, commercially oriented network of A&R managers and scouts differed from another group of pioneers who were also eagerly pursuing American roots singers and musicians in the interwar years. Several important folklorists and song collectors, among them Howard Odum, Guy B. Johnson, Dorothy Scarborough, and the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax, were also hot on the heels of similar, sometimes the same, talent. Broadly speaking, however, these scholars and collectors sought out roots musicians to record in order to preserve folksongs and idioms that they feared were disappearing amidst the rapid pace of social, economic, cultural, and technological change then engulfing America, not least as represented by the growth of the commercial recording industry and the mounting sales of phonographs and records in the nation’s small towns and rural heartlands. The divisions between “ballad hunters” and A&R officials were far from absolute, however. By 1931, for example, John Lomax explicitly invoked the mass popularity of hillbilly and race music when trying to secure funds from the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song for his folk music recording projects. The success of hillbilly and race records, he argued, confirmed the centrality of rural musical idioms to American culture and, therefore, the pressing need to chronicle and preserve them. 32
With John Lomax, there was always a sense that what he really wanted to do was to “save” America’s traditional folksongs from the corrupting influence of the recording industry, although this agenda did not prevent him or his son from copyrighting many of the songs they “discovered,” nor from accepting the royalties generated from commercially recorded versions of those songs. By 1938, though, his son Alan Lomax was beginning to revise his own attitudes toward commercially recorded vernacular music. Over the next couple of years, as assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song, the younger Lomax abandoned the conventional folklorist wisdom that all such recordings were inherently debased, inauthentic mechanical reproductions of some pure folk spirit. Instead, he praised the vitality and innovation he often heard on hillbilly and race records. After working his way through the roots music catalogs of Decca, Vocalion, and RCA Victor’s budget-priced Bluebird line, and meeting with key A&R men such as Jack Kapp, Art Satherley, John Hammond, J. Mayo Williams, and Frank Walker, Lomax admitted to his boss Harold Spivacke, chief of the Library of Congress’s Music Division, that “the commercial recording companies have done a broader and more interesting job of recording American folk music than the folklorists and that every single item of recorded American rural, race, and popular music that they have in their current lists and plan to release in the future should be in our files.” 33 Many of the recordings made by folksong collectors eventually did see commercial release after World War II, often on Moses “Moe” Asch’s Folkways label, and several artists initially recorded on location throughout the United States as part of the Library of Congress’s song-catching expeditions went on to enjoy long careers that brought them into the world of commercial recordings, among them the now-legendary figures Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters). 34
Occasionally, there were even uneasy collaborations between A&R officials and ballad hunters. One striking example involved the Victor Talking Machine Company and Alan Lomax’s predecessor, eminent folksong scholar Robert Winslow Gordon, first archivist of the Archive of American Folk Song. In April 1929, only months after its purchase by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Victor hired Gordon, largely at the behest of the label’s foremost roots music A&R manager Ralph Peer, to assist in the firm’s defense against a copyright suit concerning “Wreck of the Old 97.” Six years earlier, hillbilly singer Henry Whitter had made the first recording of this by-then traditional ballad for OKeh, under the title “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” (OKeh 40015), ironically with Peer directing the session for his former paymasters. Within ten months, four cover versions by other artists on competing labels had hit the market. 35 The most famous proved to be Vernon Dalhart’s rendition (Victor 19427), which, coupled with the sensational hit “The Prisoner’s Song,” became the first hillbilly record to sell more than one million copies and helped popularize this new musical genre nationwide. 36
In the wake of that success, David Graves George, a Virginia railway telegrapher, came forward to claim that he had written the lyrics to “Wreck of the Old 97” and to recover his rightful portion of the royalties from the Victor disc’s phenomenal sales. Victor, though, believed it owned the rights to the song, having settled a similar copyright infringement suit in 1926. When the company refused to negotiate with George, he promptly filed a lawsuit. Victor, in turn, reached out to Gordon for assistance. Over the next two years, Gordon spent more than a thousand hours reconstructing the history of the ballad and establishing its rightful authorship for Victor, which, by the time the case eventually came to trial in 1931, had been reorganized as RCA Victor. According to folklorist Norm Cohen, “The results of Gordon’s labors formed the basis of RCA Victor’s defense” in George v. Victor Talking Machine Co . The lawsuit meandered its way through the court system for nine years, at one point even reaching the United States Supreme Court, before finally being resolved in 1940. In the end, due in large part to Gordon’s meticulous research, RCA Victor prevailed, and George was denied any share of the royalties. 37
This was not the first time Gordon had interacted with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1925, while on a Harvard University fellowship, he had approached the company about funding his upcoming song-collecting expedition to North Carolina and about the possibility of his serving as a folksong consultant to the firm. In particular, Gordon believed he could be helpful in the complicated areas of copyright and royalties within the field of traditional music. As he explained in a letter to Victor executive James E. Richardson, “The company was treading on very dangerous ground in certain instances where copyright was, to say the least, extremely questionable. I knew that in a number of cases the firm was paying royalty to unscrupulous pretenders who had no [vestige] of right in the texts they sold; and I knew that in other cases there were ample grounds for suit for infringement if only the facts happened to fall into the hands of the right parties.” Although Gordon was highly qualified for such a consultancy position, Victor initially declined his proposal as well as his request for funding. 38 Even so, as the protracted legal wrangling over “Wreck of the Old 97” makes clear, Gordon’s concerns about song copyrights and royalties in the murky, freewheeling world of commercially recorded American roots music were well founded. A&R officials were, in fact, intimately, sometimes infamously, involved in defining and exploiting the economic possibilities of controlling copyrights and royalties in the roots music recording and song publishing industries.

FIGURE 3. Sheet music cover of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97” (1924), with a photograph inset of Henry Whitter. Authors’ collections.
In at least one instance, academic song collectors and record company A&R officials cooperated in recording American roots music. In 1926, Gennett sent a crew to make recordings of Hopi Indians in Arizona, under the direction of John O. Prescott, a “phonograph expert,” with chief engineer Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer handling the technical end. Supervising the actual sessions was Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, head of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnography and a pioneering ethnomusicologist who in 1890 had made the first field recordings of Native Americans among the Passamaquoddy in Calais, Maine. Working from its base at the El Tovar Hotel near the Grand Canyon, and reportedly using a special truck rigged up with equipment, Fewkes and the Gennett team recorded twelve sides of tribal songs and chants. The “master records,” Music Trade Review reported, were “sent to the Smithsonian Institute for preservation,” but copies of the records were released commercially by Gennett and “placed on sale all over the United States, particularly through the Southwest,” where they were marketed principally to tourists through Fred Harvey’s chain of resort hotels. 39

FIGURE 4. Gennett recording truck (1934). Photograph by Harry Gennett Jr. Courtesy of Linda Gennett Irmscher and the Indiana Historical Society (M0428).
As historian Rick Kennedy wryly observes, “Such Hopi numbers as ‘Tacheuktu [ sic ] Katcina’ and ‘Tuwina’Av’ [ sic ] were not exactly hits with the general public.” Talking Machine World concurred but in an editorial noted the historical significance of the records: “In this country, the music of the Indians of various tribes has been faithfully recorded for the generations that are to come, for no interpretation of any printed music could give to these tribal songs the fire and meaning that they carry when sung by the Indians themselves.” The editorial continued, “Records of this sort do not appeal strongly to those who are interested chiefly in record sales volume, but they have importance from a historical standpoint that should not be underestimated.” Jack Jackson, who, as Gennett’s assistant sales director, was forced to try to sell these records, remembered this unusual venture quite differently. Decades later, in a comment that underscored the tensions that beset collaborations between preservation-minded academic song collectors and commercially driven record company officials, Jackson described Gennett’s Hopi expedition as “a bucket of shit!” 40
Jackson’s scatological summary indicates why such cooperative ventures were rare and often ill-fated. Early A&R officials were seldom concerned with cultural heritage or preservation; commercial success was their aim. If at first that agenda led to recordings of “old familiar tunes,” it quickly encouraged A&R personnel to find, facilitate, and occasionally force the recording of new, copyrightable, and profitable music. Although this original fare was often deeply indebted to older musical traditions, the new styles proved to be more diverse, more dynamic, more suited to a new age and, in the final reckoning, more popular with a much broader audience. These developments served both the financial ambitions of individual A&R officials and the economic interests of the record companies and publishing firms for whom they worked. At the same time, those commercial priorities, as they played out in the creative process of making phonograph records, shaped important trends in the history of American roots music. The vexed, sometimes exploitative, but often highly creative relationships among A&R managers, talent scouts, recording artists, musical directors, songwriters, arrangers, and fellow label executives helped create the stylistic canons and the business and marketing protocols of the recording industry.
In terms of structure, A&R Pioneers begins by exploring the origins and meanings of the term “A&R,” and then goes on to describe its main characteristics and identify certain similarities in the backgrounds and motivations of the motley crew who were involved in interwar A&R work. Chapter 2 examines the ingenious and occasionally unscrupulous methods that A&R managers and scouts used to locate recordable talent, especially on southern field-recording expeditions, while also revealing how aspiring artists sometimes came a-knocking, literally as well as figuratively, on the doors of grateful A&R men and women. Chapter 3 explains the messy, sometimes sordid world of contracts, copyrights, royalties, and remuneration to show how A&R representatives managed their business relationships with artists, other label executives, talent scouts, songwriters, and music publishers. In the process, they established lasting precedents for how the entire American recording industry operated, in both fiscal and organizational terms. Chapters 4 and 5 reevaluate the nature and extent of the creative contributions that A&R officials made to recorded American roots music between the two world wars, suggesting that some of them had far more impact on the scope, content, and sounds of those recordings than conventional wisdom usually allows. More specifically, Chapter 4 shows how A&R managers decisively shaped roots music repertoire, while Chapter 5 , in turn, examines how they worked within recording studios, temporary and permanent alike, collaborating not only with singers and musicians but also with musical directors, arrangers, and recording engineers to create the sounds that were ultimately committed to disc. After those recordings were put on wax, A&R managers and their staff members often made or otherwise influenced decisions about which recordings and, in particular, which “takes” of those recordings would be released commercially and how they would be advertised and marketed. These post-production aspects of A&R work, crucial in constructing what have come to be thought of as the normative canons of American roots music, are the principal concerns of Chapter 6 , which focuses on A&R managers’ and scouts’ roles in the selection and series assignment of discs for commercial release, and Chapter 7 , which explores these officials’ central place in promoting and retailing those recordings. The book concludes with a final chapter that summarizes the changing roles of A&R representatives during and immediately after World War II. This period marked the beginnings of a new chapter in the American roots music story. But it was also an era when the legacy of those prewar A&R men and women who had built the industry was still keenly felt.
Defining A&R
In the cow towns of the Southwest, in the honky-tonks of Memphis, in mountain hamlets in the Blue Ridge and the Cumberlands, a perennial visitor for 25 years has been a lean, loquacious man, with a slight British accent and a portable recording apparatus. Grey-haired Arthur Edward Satherly [ sic ] is paymaster, musical coach, father confessor to the blues singers, hillbilly fiddlers, guitar-strummers, jug-players, washboard-slappers who make Columbia’s Okeh records by the dozen.
—“September Records,” Time , September 2, 1940
A&R MEN WERE AT THE HEART OF IT ALL. AT LEAST THAT IS what Bob Thiele reckoned. In 1939, at age seventeen, Thiele founded Signature, his first jazz record label, and, with this small company, launched an illustrious A&R career that spanned nearly six decades, including a long tenure as an executive at Decca (for whose Coral and Brunswick subsidiaries he recorded Buddy Holly & the Crickets in the 1950s) and later, in the 1960s, as manager of Impulse!, a jazz specialty label. Looking back on his formative years in the music business before World War II, Thiele explained just how much the recording industry had once depended on A&R officials like him. “It was all left up to the A&R guy in those days as to who to record, when to record, how much to spend,” Thiele recalled. “Then you worked closely with the sales department. But the A&R guy was the important guy. Everyone relied on the A&R guy to have hit records.” 1
Malcolm Rockwell, son of OKeh recording manager Tommy Rockwell, was close to the truth when he quipped that A&R men like his father were often a “combination of talent scout, producer, promoter, bottle washer & nursemaid in one person.” 2 Indeed, perhaps one reason why music historians have shied away from attempting a collective biography of interwar A&R officials may be the sheer variety of people and contributions that might reasonably be gathered together under the A&R umbrella. Not surprisingly in a relatively new industry that was then rapidly evolving, job descriptions and titles were often improvised, fluid, and imprecise, leaving latter-day fans and scholars with a series of definitional and interpretive conundrums. Not least among these puzzles is the basic question of when the term “A&R” and the original phrase from which it derived, “Artists and Repertoire,” first came into use. 3 That etymological riddle is as good a place as any to start to reconstruct the multifaceted world of interwar A&R.
Predictably, the origins of “Artists and Repertoire” and the initialism “A&R” are shrouded in mystery and further cloaked by layers of misinformation. On July 15, 1924, Talking Machine World —the nation’s premier trade journal of the phonograph and record industry—reported that Eddie King, manager of Victor’s “New York artist and repertoire department,” had recently organized a series of recordings for the label in Los Angeles, California. Art Hickman’s Biltmore Hotel Orchestra and Vincent Rose’s Montmartre Café Orchestra, along with “a number of locally famous Hawaiian and Mexican instrumentalists and orchestras,” were among those recorded on “a special recording apparatus” installed in the Hotel Alexandria, according to King’s instructions. 4 Although the sessions produced nothing particularly memorable in terms of either music or sales, celebrated folklorist Archie Green, a giant in the development of serious scholarship on interwar roots music recording, once identified this brief article as “the earliest usage” of the term “A&R man” that he had discovered in print. 5 Contrary to Green’s claim, however, neither the title “A&R man” nor the term “A&R” actually appear in this article.
In fact, the initialism “A&R” probably did not enter regular usage until after World War II, when it may have been coined by Billboard , one of the nation’s oldest music trade magazines. 6 The magazine was certainly using the term by January 1946, when it was featured in a headline (“Palitz Number 5 in Decca’s A&R with Dave Kapp”) for an article about the expansion of Dave Kapp’s “a. and r.” division at Decca to five men with the hiring of Morty Palitz. 7 The inconsistent punctuation (“A&R”; “a. and r.”) suggests a neologism being hatched, with several variants still in play before the standard “A&R” became part of accepted industry “slanguage.” 8 Indeed, in the early 1940s, there were many experiments with the long-form terminology to describe those record company officials most closely involved in spotting, signing, and recording musical talent. According to The Billboard 1943 Music Year Book , at Capitol Records, David Shelley served as “Talent & Tunes Manager”; at Beacon Records, the brainchild of Joe Davis—a singer, musician, recording artist, songwriter, music publisher, manager, and former freelance A&R man for Ajax, Gennett, and Edison, among other labels—Fritz Pollard acted as “Talent Manager”; at the tiny Standard Phono Company, which specialized in Greek and other ethnic recordings, Harold M. Kirchstein occupied the post of “Repertoire Director”; at the Columbia Recording Corporation, Art Satherley, one of the most important A&R men in the roots music field between the wars, held the position of “Manager of Country Dance, Folk Song and Race Artists and Repertoire.” 9 If there was a curious mix of breadth and precision in Satherley’s designation, it nonetheless served to distinguish his roots-based fiefdom from Columbia’s classical and popular music empires, overseen by quite different A&R teams. By the end of the 1940s, though, the term “A&R” had become an instantly recognizable part of the music industry’s lexicon. Thus, we shamelessly use it anachronistically throughout this book as convenient shorthand for pre–World War II artists and repertoire officials and their work, fully aware that the initialism did not enter into widespread circulation until later.
Although the short-form “A&R” is a relatively late linguistic innovation, the actual concept of an “artist(s) and repertoire” division within the music industry had a much longer lineage, stretching back to nineteenth-century grand opera companies. 10 Within the commercial recording industry more specifically, the Victor Talking Machine Company proved particularly innovative in this area. By at least 1910, the firm had organized an “Artists’ Department,” which was still operating under that title in February 1916, when Calvin G. Child, longtime recording manager, took over as its director. 11 Sometime during the next six years, the terminology at Victor changed. In January 1923, Music Trade Review reported that former sales manager John S. Macdonald had been promoted to associate director of the company’s “Artists and Repertoire Department.” 12 Eight and a half months later, on October 1, Macdonald was appointed director when Child resigned due to poor health. That Talking Machine World considered Macdonald’s latest promotion newsworthy enough for its front page indicates how important A&R work had already become within the recording industry. 13
The very next day, October 2, just as Macdonald assumed control of the Artists and Repertoire Department, Victor introduced an additional layer of A&R bureaucracy by creating a new “Artists and Repertoire Committee,” whose membership was drawn from managers and executives throughout the company. 14 While the department was responsible for finding talent, matching that talent with suitable material, and supervising recording sessions, the committee was responsible for determining which of those recordings met Victor’s high standards of artistic and technical quality for commercial release. This was a rather unusual arrangement. At most other labels, decisions about releases fell primarily within the purview of artists and repertoire departments, which at smaller labels might consist of only a few employees.
One of the men drafted onto Victor’s new Artists and Repertoire Committee in October 1923 was superintendent of recording Harry O. Sooy, a machinist turned recording engineer who had worked for the company’s founder, Eldridge Johnson, since 1898, before the Victor Talking Machine Company had even been officially incorporated. Following a two-year apprenticeship, Sooy became what he called a “full-fledged recorder.” Over the next two decades, in addition to his duties in the firm’s permanent studios, he made a number of international recording expeditions, among them, trips to Havana in 1907 and, later that same year, to Mexico City. On both excursions, Sooy recorded native artists and essentially functioned as an A&R man. He also handled several important domestic sessions on location, away from Victor’s main studios, recording William Jennings Bryan at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1908; William Howard Taft at a hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, in 1908; Theodore Roosevelt at a hotel in Emporia, Kansas, in 1916; and Warren Harding at the White House in 1922. 15 Meanwhile, upon Calvin G. Child’s promotion in 1916, Sooy was named manager of Victor’s recording departments and placed in charge of all the mechanical aspects of recording. 16 In the summer of 1924, shortly after his appointment to the company’s newly created Artists and Repertoire Committee, Sooy was among the staff members who accompanied Eddie King, Victor’s New York A&R chief, to Los Angeles in search of fresh West Coast talent. That basic task, to search out musicians and music that could generate hit records, was already well established by 1924; it helps explain why A&R managers were so vital to the recording of American roots music.
But first, a cautionary note. The diversity of interlocking responsibilities assumed by or imposed on A&R officials, who served in various capacities at a disparate group of record companies, makes it hard to generalize about what, exactly, they did. Writing a comprehensive job description for early A&R personnel, replete with a coherent set of “key performance indicators,” would have been a nightmare for any human resources department. Nat Shilkret recalled that Eddie King originally hired him in 1915 as “an arranger and conductor” at Victor. Shortly after, Shilkret became involved in A&R work in the firm’s Foreign Department, which then “recorded for thirty-two languages,” the most prominent being “Italian, Jewish, Russian, German, Greek, Polish, and Scandinavian.” As Shilkret explained, “Engaging talent, picking the music, orchestrating, recording, listening to masters and picking the best rendition, translating the title and write-ups for the catalogues, and contracting each artist became my full-time occupation.” 17 If often-mundane tasks like evaluating masters, cataloging, recordkeeping, and negotiating contracts were frequently handled by low-level A&R officials who toiled away in record company trenches, their A&R superiors juggled a more important, if no shorter, list of responsibilities with the assistance of those lieutenants. In 1928, when Jack Kapp, head of Vocalion’s race record division, was promoted to manager of the label’s sales and recording departments, Talking Machine World announced that among his many new duties would be to “direct the supervision of releasing [records], development of talent, directing of recording, merchandising of records and the planning of sales campaigns.” 18
Some A&R officials were clearly more autonomous than others, exerting various degrees of influence in locating and signing talent, selecting salable material, and then recording, releasing, and marketing records. But whether these A&R personnel were official company employees or independent contractors, their contributions were all shaped by complex relationships with record company presidents and senior executives, advertising and sales department staff, recording artists, musical directors, recording engineers, music publishers, distributors and retailers, theater owners, radio executives, jukebox operators, lawyers, and other A&R representatives. The fact that some A&R officials also filled some of these other roles complicated matters even further.
Ralph Peer, probably the single most influential A&R man in interwar roots recording and music publishing, and a towering figure in the history of the larger American popular music industry, illustrates this complexity well. 19 The same July 15, 1924, edition of Talking Machine World that chronicled Eddie King’s Victor recording trip to Los Angeles also described a recent West Coast trip undertaken by Peer. Described as “director of record production for the General Phonographic Corp.,” Peer was in California to broker a statewide distribution deal for the firm’s OKeh and Odeon labels through San Francisco’s Walter S. Gray Company. “Mr. Peer spent the month of June in California and other points in the Far West,” a related article in that same issue reported, “visiting the jobbers in this important territory and arranging for an intensive sales campaign for the coming Fall.” 20

FIGURE 1.1. Ralph Peer in Havana, Cuba (1931). Courtesy of the Peer Family Archives.
Peer had already enjoyed major coups as an A&R man. In 1920, he had helped the hustling Perry Bradford—a singer, composer, and song plugger—and OKeh’s musical director Fred Hager bring Mamie Smith into the studio to wax her first record, “That Thing Called Love” / “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” (OKeh 4113), followed by “Crazy Blues” / “It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It ’Taint No Fault O’ Mine)” (OKeh 4169), whose spectacular sales sparked the “vaudeville blues” (sometimes called “classic blues”) boom of the early 1920s. 21 Three years later, Peer traveled to Atlanta to supervise the label’s first location recording sessions and cut what is commonly considered the first commercially successful hillbilly record, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” / “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” (OKeh 4890), by local favorite Fiddlin’ John Carson. 22 Sometime in mid-1926, Peer moved to Victor. There he focused less on sales, per se, than on A&R work, talent management through Ralph S. Peer Inc., and, most lucrative of all, accruing copyrights of original songs recorded and often written by the artists he signed. Peer published songs by many of these entertainers through his Southern Music Publishing Company. Between 1920 and 1934, he established a reputation as an A&R man of the first order, recruiting and recording a galaxy of roots musicians, including bluesman Blind Willie McTell, jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, and country music’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers. 23 Like many of his leading A&R contemporaries—though with considerably more success than most—Peer always combined his core talent-scouting and recording duties with multiple other roles.
Despite such overlapping responsibilities, several key functions united most recording managers and talent scouts active in recorded roots music during the interwar years. First, regardless of whether these agents were record company employees or ad hoc freelancers, they had to scout, recruit, sign, and develop singers and musicians who could record and perhaps even write commercially viable songs or instrumental numbers. Second, A&R men were often responsible for finding or selecting the material that those musicians recorded, working closely with musical directors, arrangers, songwriters, and composers, sometimes writing or arranging songs themselves. Third, although the activities of some A&R officials, especially talent scouts, ended with recommending promising artists to recording companies, others regularly organized and supervised recording sessions. Sometimes A&R men helped set up the studios, be they makeshift or permanent, and in at least a few cases, they even operated the recording equipment. Occasionally, they offered musical direction. In these various capacities, A&R officials laid the foundations for a new position that fused technical, commercial, and creative functions. The “record producer” did not fully emerge until after World War II—when the development of magnetic tape allowed for new levels of sound manipulation during and after recording sessions—but some A&R men were trailblazers in this sense. They shared with artists and technical staff the chief responsibility of capturing or, in some cases, creating the sounds that were committed to disc. During the 1920s, this usually required at least two, or sometimes more, “takes” of the same selection. Finally, once the performances from a session had been satisfactorily recorded on usable masters, the fourth major role for many A&R men, especially recording managers, consisted of working closely with upper-level company executives and advertising and sales managers to decide which, if any, takes would be issued commercially and sometimes to determine how those releases would be marketed.
To fulfill these multiple roles effectively, A&R officials ideally needed to have “good ears”—that legendary, elusive ability to identify major star talent and prospective hits among the hundreds of musicians and songs they heard or heard about. They also needed to cultivate a keen sense of potential audiences, tastes, and markets. Within their four principal functions, there were enormous variations of emphasis and expertise. Even so, these duties gave A&R representatives enormous power within the interwar recording industry.
Offering useful generalizations about who A&R decision-makers were, where they came from, and how they got into the recording industry is every bit as challenging as trying to describe the precise nature of their A&R duties. Some A&R officials were mavericks—occasional, even accidental talent scouts whose contributions were random, short-lived, and without a discernible pattern. In this regard, the case of celebrated African American writer Richard Wright is especially revealing. In 1940, Wright befriended Clinton Brewer, a convicted murderer then serving a life sentence at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey for killing his wife. Brewer had begun exchanging letters with Wright after reading the author’s best-selling novel Native Son and enrolling in a correspondence course in harmony and counterpoint to hone his songwriting and arranging skills. Wright heard the results of Brewer’s studies when he visited the prison and an inmate band performed Brewer’s “Stampede in G Minor.” Impressed, Wright alerted his friend, Columbia’s iconoclastic A&R man John Hammond, who, in turn, showed the arrangement to prominent bandleader Count Basie. By the end of the year, Wright joined Basie and Hammond in Columbia’s New York studios as Basie and his orchestra recorded what the Pittsburgh Courier described as “discs of swing selections [penned] by a race convict.” Following the success of “Stampede in G Minor” (OKeh 5987) and thanks to the lobbying efforts of Wright, Hammond, and Basie, New Jersey Governor Charles Edison (son of inventor Thomas A. Edison) granted Brewer early parole in July 1941. Hammond had “no hesitation in predicting a splendid career for him” as Basie’s musical arranger. Hammond had made better predictions, though. Just three months after his release, Brewer stabbed a woman to death for refusing his marriage proposal. He escaped the electric chair only through the intervention of acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, who, at Wright’s behest, helped Brewer’s attorney present a convincing insanity defense. 24
It would be hard to extrapolate a model of commercial A&R practice from the singular circumstances in which Richard Wright discovered Clinton Brewer. But finding musical talent among prisoners was not uncommon in the early decades of roots music recording, at least among the nation’s ballad hunters. Folklorists John A. Lomax and his son Alan routinely combed southern prisons in search of “authentic” singers and supposedly unsullied folksongs to record for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. In the process, they famously discovered Lead Belly in Angola, Louisiana’s forbidding state penitentiary. “Negro songs in their primitive purity can be obtained probably as nowhere else from Negro prisoners in state or Federal penitentiaries,” the elder Lomax contended. He was largely mistaken, however, in his belief that African American inmates, “especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years,” were isolated to the extent that they “have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio,” and, as a result, still sang “distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” 25 Even in highly secure, segregated prisons, inmates were keenly aware of evolving musical trends; despite nearly two decades behind bars, Clinton Brewer was steeped in the latest jazz and swing idioms. Commercially recorded music and the mass media had a long reach that regularly foiled or at least compromised the purist aspirations of the Lomaxes and many like-minded folksong collectors. Yet there was one important way in which Wright’s dalliance with musical talent-spotting was entirely typical of contemporary A&R practices. Just as Wright had told John Hammond about Brewer’s songwriting skills, casual and part-time scouts often steered promising performers to more experienced and better-placed A&R men. Hot tips from local talent-spotters were routinely forwarded to salaried company A&R officials or to others on semipermanent retainers who supervised recording sessions when needed.
Notwithstanding Richard Wright’s idiosyncratic involvement, African Americans were sorely underrepresented in the world of interwar roots music A&R, despite their major contributions as singers, musicians, arrangers, songwriters, music publishers, and consumers. Nevertheless, a handful did manage to break into the A&R field and play a significant role in roots music recording. Clarence Williams, a pianist, composer, arranger, and prolific recording artist in his own right, entered A&R work chiefly through music publishing and served as a race records director for OKeh between 1923 and 1928. Born in 1894 in Plaquemine, Louisiana, Williams first became involved in music publishing in New Orleans in 1915. He continued to develop that side of his career under the wing of self-declared “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy, and later, in 1922, formed his own Clarence Williams Music Publishing Company in New York. Williams used his professional contacts to recruit and record new talent, initially at Columbia and later at OKeh, chiefly as a way, like Perry Bradford, to promote his publishing firm’s songs and gain mechanical royalties. Among the artists Williams recorded for the first time were jazz pianists Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith. In addition, Williams, who has as good a claim as most to having “discovered” the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, accompanied her on several of her early sides and even wrote her first Columbia release in 1923, “Gulf Coast Blues” (A3844), one of nearly five hundred songs he had a hand in writing. 26
Another leading African American figure in interwar A&R was Richard M. Jones, a fellow Louisianan who was born in 1892 in Donaldsonville, some twenty miles southeast of Clarence Williams’s birthplace. A gifted jazz pianist, composer, and recording artist who counted the perennially popular “Trouble in Mind” among his dozens of songwriting credits, Jones managed much of OKeh’s race records operation in Chicago during the mid- to late 1920s. Prior to assuming that position, he had worked for the Chicago branch of Williams’s publishing house before opening his own music shop on East 39th Street. Meanwhile, beginning in 1923, Jones recorded for a series of labels, including Gennett, OKeh, Victor, and Paramount, both as a solo artist and as the leader of the Three Jazz Wizards and later the Chicago Cosmopolitans. As an A&R man for OKeh, Jones produced sessions, as well as supplied the piano accompaniment, for several vaudeville blues singers, among them Sara Martin, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Blanche Calloway, and even actress Hattie McDaniel. However, he was chiefly involved with jazz and gospel recordings, including overseeing approximately a dozen sides by Juanita “Arizona” Dranes, a blind gospel singer-pianist he had discovered in 1926 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In addition, Jones may have organized and perhaps even supervised some of the historic OKeh recordings by Louis Armstrong’s highly influential Hot Five and Hot Seven ensembles. Eventually, Jones moved on to similar A&R assignments, first at Decca in the mid-1930s and then at Mercury shortly before his death in 1945. 27
Aletha Dickerson, the only African American woman known to have served as an A&R manager in the interwar period, was a native of Chicago, where her Tennessee-born father worked as a café musician and her Kansas-born mother, a music teacher. In 1923, she became a secretary for J. Mayo Williams at Paramount’s Chicago offices and for the label’s Chicago Music Publishing Company. She also ran a local music store, Dickerson’s Record Shop, at 31st and State Streets, with her husband, Alexander J. Robinson, a guitarist, piano player, and future recording artist. When Williams resigned from Paramount in 1928, Dickerson served as a Paramount recording manager and talent scout in her own right, albeit a “reluctant one,” according to historian Alex van der Tuuk. “I had no desire to or expectation of being what was then called [a] ‘recording manager’ for Paramount,” Dickerson later admitted. “I was neither asked whether or not I wanted such a position, nor even informed until three months after the fact. . . . Except that I could read music, play piano, arrange music, I was wholly unqualified for such a job.” Her duties mainly consisted of replenishing Paramount’s race records catalog by recruiting new talent such as the Hokum Boys (which included her husband), Laura Rucker, and Arnold and Irene Wiley, and recording them alongside established artists such as Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Meade Lux Lewis. In addition, Dickerson played piano on numerous sessions she supervised and sometimes composed songs for artists. For example, she provided the accompaniment on Blind Blake’s August 1929 session that yielded “I Was Afraid of That” (Paramount 12882). Dickerson also claimed—and, unlike some A&R officials who made similar claims during the period, probably merited—a share of the songwriting credits for a number of songs, including Ida Cox’s “Coffin Blues” (Paramount 12318), waxed four years earlier under J. Mayo Williams’s direction. 28
Considering the examples of Perry Bradford, Clarence Williams, Richard M. Jones, and Aletha Dickerson, it is tempting to generalize that musical ability was more important, proportionately, as a point of entry into A&R work for the relatively few African Americans involved than it was for their white colleagues. One conspicuous exception to that trend, however, was the most influential of all African American A&R managers during this period: Dickerson’s onetime boss, J. Mayo “Ink” Williams. Born in 1894 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and raised in Monmouth, Illinois, Williams won fame as a football and track star at Brown University before moving to Chicago in 1921 after graduation. There, despite no experience in the recording industry, he landed the job as A&R manager for what would become Paramount’s extensive race recording program. Meanwhile, Williams moonlighted for several seasons as one of the first African Americans in the newly formed National Football League with the Hammond (Indiana) Pros and several other teams. During his tenure at Paramount between 1923 and 1928, Williams supervised an estimated seven hundred recordings with race recording stars such as Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like many of his white A&R colleagues, Williams had no particular musical ability. He did, however, respect the cultural, as well as the financial, value of black roots music, even though his personal tastes leaned toward classical music and pop balladry, rather than toward the blues, gospel, and hot jazz performances he mainly oversaw. After resigning from Paramount, Williams went on to work in a similar capacity for Jack Kapp at Brunswick beginning in 1928, and then, after a short stint coaching football at Morehouse College in Atlanta, for Kapp again at Decca between 1934 and 1945. Williams built, in the words of historian William Howland Kenney, “the longest-running and most productive career of any African American in the phonograph business before World War II.” 29
While the relative paucity of African Americans in interwar A&R reflected the racial prejudice and discrimination pervasive in the United States, in other ways, the field was remarkably diverse. This was mainly due perhaps to the chief mandate of the job, namely to find and record talent and music that would appeal to as many consumers of as many different ethnicities and cultures as possible. Whatever the reason, the roots music A&R world was populated by dozens of men (and a few women) from extraordinarily varied backgrounds. Some came to the business from small towns and rural areas in America’s hinterlands, such as Frank Walker, who, born in 1889 on a farm near the tiny community of Fly Summit in upstate New York, found and recorded race and hillbilly talent at Columbia and later at RCA Victor. 30 Ernie Oertle, the American Record Corporation (ARC) salesman and informal mid-South talent scout who brought Robert Johnson to his first recording session in San Antonio in 1936, was a native of Pittsburg, Kansas. 31 Other A&R men who were instrumental in developing American roots music came from families that were themselves quite new to America. Andrae Nordskog, owner of the Los Angeles–based Nordskog Phonograph Recording Company, who supervised the first recordings of a black New Orleans jazz band in 1922, was born in 1885 in Sioux City, Iowa, to Norwegian immigrants. 32 Chief recording engineer Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer, the son of a German immigrant father, oversaw historic jazz sessions featuring the likes of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bix Beiderbecke at the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana, his birthplace. 33 And while relatively little American roots music was recorded in California, Oregon, and Washington State, the A&R field still attracted several West Coast natives. Wickemeyer’s colleague Harold Soulé, who occasionally scouted talent and eventually replaced him as Gennett’s chief recording engineer, was born in 1906 in Santa Maria, California, the son of a piano tuner and salesman for the Soulé Brothers Music Company of Portland, Oregon. 34 Harold’s Portland-born older brother, Gordon Soulé, was a classically trained pianist who, in his capacity as musical director of Gennett’s New York studio, organized the label’s only southern recording expedition, a nearly two-month venture in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1927, during which he recorded, among others, the blues duos Whistlin’ Pete and Daddy Stovepipe, and Joe Evans and Arthur McClain. 35
Some A&R men came from the far-flung territories of the American empire. Johnny Noble, co-writer of “Hula Blues” and “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii,” was a musician, composer, and orchestra leader of mixed English and native Hawaiian parentage who helped popularize Hawaiian music in the continental United States. In 1928, Noble recruited the talent and supervised the sessions for a Brunswick recording expedition to his hometown of Honolulu, during which more than one hundred examples of Hawaiian music were recorded. 36 Brunswick A&R man Ralph Perez (born Rafael Gómez Pérez), who specialized in recording Spanish-language music in the southwestern United States, the Caribbean, and Central America, was born in 1899 in Yauco, Puerto Rico. In 1935, during one of his many recording expeditions in Texas, the San Antonio Light identified him as “the gentleman largely responsible for the current American rage for languid Mexican songs and exotic Cuban rhumbas, a fad which started when he induced Brunswick to record ‘The Peanut Vendor,’ the daddy of all rhumbas, in Havana in 1929.” 37
Other A&R pioneers came from much farther afield. Born in Warsaw in 1905, the son of a Jewish novelist and dramatist, Moses “Moe” Asch was a recording engineer turned record label owner who did much to establish the canons of American and world folk music. In 1912, his family fled to Paris to escape Poland’s anti-Semitism and pogroms before finally immigrating to the United States in 1915, as war ravaged continental Europe. Some two and a half decades later, as a second world war broke out, Asch entered A&R work in the American roots music field. He initially supervised recordings of Jewish cantors and Yiddish secular singers, but soon added folk music giants such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to his small Asch and Disc labels before launching his renowned Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways Records) in 1949. 38
Like Asch, most A&R managers who specialized in the foreign-language records aimed at immigrant groups in the United States were themselves immigrants. Born in Fünfkirchen (present-day Pécs), Hungary, in 1877, Anton Heindl served as longtime manager of Columbia’s foreign records department and personally directed the recording of many of the estimated six thousand foreign-language discs the label issued domestically between 1908 and 1923. 39 His successor, Hans Kubies, a Munich native, not only organized recording expeditions to continental Europe but also made a 1924 recording trip to Chicago, where he supervised recordings by “two of Chicago’s leading Bohemian bands” and “some interesting Italian folk songs, with mandolin, guitar and flute accompaniment.” 40 Kubies’s counterpart at Pathé, Dr. Józef Kálmán, was a Hungarian by birth. An opera and concert singer who prolifically recorded Slovakian, Hungarian, and German songs for several record companies, Kálmán immigrated to the United States in 1910. According to a 1919 Music Trades profile, he spoke “eight languages fluently” and “having been in the foreign record business for many years . . . thoroughly understands the tastes of the different nationalities, and knows the kind of music they want to be supplied with.” But, as phonograph industry historian Allan Sutton points out, Kálmán “seems to have concentrated on classical and semi-classical material, pursuing vernacular music less ambitiously than Pathé’s competitors.” 41 A foreign records manager who worked for two of those competing companies was Albert Thallmayer. In a career that exemplified the job mobility and constantly shifting responsibilities that were a hallmark of interwar A&R, Thallmayer joined Columbia in 1902, working first in its Berlin office and then running its office in his native Vienna before coming to the United States in 1913. After a stint as a traveling salesman for Columbia’s foreign records department under Heindl, Thallmayer became the manager of the General Phonograph Corporation’s OKeh and Odeon foreign records catalogs, only to return to Columbia in 1925 to replace Kubies as head of its foreign records department. 42
It made perfect sense to employ foreign-born A&R men who spoke several languages and possessed at least some rudimentary understanding of assorted ethnic music traditions and European markets. But immigrants were also involved in A&R work in the distinctly American fields of hot jazz, blues, and hillbilly music. Harry Lim, who became a fan and collector of jazz records while growing up in Amsterdam, was born halfway around the globe, in Batavia, now Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1919, when it was still part of the Dutch East Indies. In 1939, at around the age of twenty, he immigrated to the United States and, two years later, produced his first recording session in New Orleans, before supervising dozens of important jazz sessions for Keynote Records between 1943 and 1946. 43 Arthur “Uncle Art” Satherley was born in Bristol, England, in 1889 and served in the British army before immigrating to Wisconsin in 1913. He worked there for the Wisconsin Chair Company, first grading lumber and then handling accounts for the phonograph cabinets that the firm made for Thomas A. Edison Inc. in New London. In 1917, when Wisconsin Chair established a record manufacturing plant at nearby Grafton, principally to support its diversification into phonograph production through its own Paramount label, Satherley helped develop a new, more durable formula for shellac. Subsequently, between 1922 and 1952, he became a major A&R figure in hillbilly and race recording at Paramount, QRS, ARC, and finally, Columbia. As Satherley later boasted, “I’m the only living man who’s been through this business with his hands, running the factories, making the records, making the formulas, finding the material, seeing that the pressing’s done, selling [the records], and, finding the artists. Nearly fifty years at it. And always of no fixed abode, just traveling, finding country people to make these recordings.” 44
Satherley’s protégé, fellow Englishman Don Law, possessed a bit more humility but an even more exotic backstory. Born in London in 1902, he broke into the business world in Britain and Lithuania, coding and decoding secret business cables for A. G. de Sherbinin & Company, a London-based import-export concern. In 1926, after his Russian-born boss declared bankruptcy, Law followed him to the United States, first to Long Island and then to Alabama, where they tried to make a new start raising sheep and turkeys near Selma. When that ill-fated venture failed, Law headed west toward California but only made it as far as Texas. There he bluffed his way into a bookkeeping job in Dallas—“My bookkeeping was very rudimentary,” he later confessed—at Brunswick’s local branch, where he rose to the position of district sales manager. Shortly after ARC acquired Brunswick in 1931, Law met Satherley and, under his tutelage, soon began to juggle A&R work with his sales duties. Law eventually joined him at the new Columbia Recording Corporation, a subsidiary of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) formed in the wake of the network’s 1938 purchase of ARC, and enjoyed a productive career as A&R manager of Columbia’s country music division until his retirement in 1967. 45
Another recording manager from the British Empire was Helen Oakley Dance, who came from an affluent Toronto family and supervised a series of seminal jazz recordings for the Variety and Vocalion labels between 1936 and 1939, including small combos fronted by Duke Ellington and several of his orchestra sidemen. 46 Dance was one of very few women conspicuously involved in interwar A&R. Besides her and Paramount’s Aletha Dickerson, only one other woman appears to have worked as an A&R manager in American roots recording during this period: Kiria Koula Antonopoulou, a Greek-born singer and prolific recording artist who managed her own small, Greek-language specialty label, Panhellenion, from around 1919 to 1927. A few other women, however, did act as talent scouts, among them Edith North Johnson, wife of Jesse Johnson, proprietor of the De Luxe Music Shoppe in St. Louis and himself an A&R scout; Bee McCann, an employee of the El Popular Record Shop in San Antonio; Margaret Owen, music department manager for the Boggs-Rice Company in Bristol, Virginia; and possibly Viola Supper, wife of Paramount general manager Maurice Supper. 47
The dearth of women in A&R reflected dominant gender ideologies and labor practices in the United States. Despite the influx of tens of thousands of American women into the workforce during World War I, while many men were serving in the military, women’s postwar employment opportunities remained limited. Notwithstanding the contemporary hullabaloo about flappers and the “New Woman” of the 1920s, prevailing social expectations still encouraged “respectable” women to prioritize domestic responsibilities: getting married, bearing children, and caring for home and family, rather than building professional careers. They were certainly not expected to pursue careers in the seedy world of popular entertainment doing A&R work that often required long stretches on the road and nighttime searches for talent in clubs, theaters, juke joints, and other perceived dens of vice and impropriety, where they had to deal with all manner of disreputable folk, not the least of which were musicians. There was, after all, always something vaguely unseemly about A&R work that put it on the edge of respectability and, occasionally, of legality.
Still, the underrepresentation of women in the world of interwar A&R clashed with market logic. A conflict like this was rare in an industry in which commercial imperatives usually dominated, but it indicated the power of sexism and the persistence of gendered notions of propriety and employability in corporate America. Female talent was vital to American roots music as well as to other musical genres, creating at least a prima facie case that female A&R representatives might have been well positioned to recruit and supervise female performers. More importantly, they might have had particularly useful insights into female consumer preferences. As J. W. Watson, manager of the Edison Shop in Kansas City, Missouri, explained in 1919, “Women buy [by] far the greatest number of records.” Watson’s statement captured the general consensus of a national survey by Talking Machine World which revealed that, in some cities, women accounted for as much as 75 percent of record sales. 48 Commenting specifically on the southern market for blues records, researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow recalled H. C. Speir, a Jackson, Mississippi, music store owner and talent scout, explaining to him, “Seventy-five cents was a lot of money in the 1920s. But the sharecropper didn’t buy the records. The woman who worked for the white man as a cook or maid in his home bought the records—she had the money.” 49
Historian William Howland Kenney observes that in the early decades of the twentieth century, “Women dominated the market for phonograph records even more completely than that for the machines that played them.” 50 Yet in the A&R field, professional opportunities for women remained scarce, just as they did in several other newly powerful economic sectors where women were key consumers, including advertising, radio, and motion pictures. Even when women did break into the executive ranks in those fields, patriarchal attitudes and blatant sexism frequently hampered their upward mobility. J. Mayo Williams, for example, later admitted that during his tenure as manager of Paramount’s race records catalog, he deliberately excluded Aletha Dickerson, his indispensable secretary and occasional arranger and session pianist, from certain business discussions and gratuitously rejected the songs she wrote, all in an effort to keep her in her place: firmly beneath and beholden to him. 51
Amid the wide variety of backgrounds, skills, and employment histories among A&R personnel involved in roots recording, some recurring patterns do emerge. Commercial ambitions generally outweighed aesthetic considerations. Still, some A&R officials found their way into the industry through their passion for the music. Helen Oakley Dance and John Hammond were evangelical about jazz. They saw their A&R work as a way to showcase their favorite music and musicians on disc and, in Hammond’s case, as part of a lifelong commitment to using music to promote racial justice and interracial understanding. “Next to jazz, the NAACP became the means to fight for the social change I sought,” wrote Hammond, a long-standing board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His sense of priorities—jazz first, the NAACP second—reflected his belief in the progressive political potential of jazz; this, in turn, led to important A&R decisions and pathbreaking racially integrated sessions in the 1930s involving some of Hammond’s most significant discoveries, among them Benny Goodman (Hammond’s future brother-in-law), Teddy Wilson, and Billie Holiday. 52
Other A&R personnel boasted impressive musical credentials. Conductor-composer Arthur Bergh was a former first violinist with the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra who performed under the baton of the fiery Arturo Toscanini before serving between 1915 and 1931 as musical director or recording manager at labels with strong roots music catalogs, including OKeh and Columbia. 53 Pianist-songwriter Cliff Hess worked as Irving Berlin’s arranger and private secretary for nearly six years before he became Vocalion’s recording manager around 1922. 54 Homer Rodeheaver, a gospel composer, music publisher, and prolific recording artist, served for twenty years as trombonist and musical director for the internationally renowned evangelist Reverend Billy Sunday; in the early to mid-1920s, Rodeheaver occasionally supervised sessions for his own Rainbow label, which specialized in sacred music, as well as for Gennett and Paramount. 55 Orchestra leader, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger Nathaniel “Nat” Shilkret (born Naftule Schüldkraut) was a child prodigy on the clarinet who, while still in his teens, performed with the New York Philharmonic Society, New York Symphony Orchestra, and Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra. In 1915, Shilkret joined Victor, where he became a prodigious recording artist while also overseeing recordings of foreign-language folk music, jazz, and hillbilly music, including Vernon Dalhart’s million-selling disc, “The Prisoner’s Song” / “Wreck of the Old 97.” 56 Richard “Dick” Voynow, the son of Russian immigrants, had played piano in the Wolverines alongside Bix Beiderbecke in the mid-1920s before he began his tenure as musical director and assistant manager of Brunswick’s recording studios in Chicago, under Jack Kapp. 57

FIGURE 1.2. Advertisement commemorating the fourth anniversary of James K. Polk Inc., “The South’s Largest Phonograph Supply House.” Polk C. Brockman, the company’s owner and sales manager, is pictured at the top. Talking Machine World , September 15, 1925. Courtesy of the Recorded Sound Research Center, Library of Congress.
Perhaps less romantic, yet arguably a far more crucial factor than musical prowess in the careers of most A&R officials, was a background in, or intimate connections to, the world of retail sales. Polk C. Brockman, for example, came from a wealthy family of Atlanta merchants. His maternal grandfather, a Confederate veteran, had moved to Atlanta after the Civil War and, in 1888, had opened a retail furniture store on Decatur Avenue called the James K. Polk Furniture Company. Brockman joined the family business around 1921. Alerted to the growing market for phonographs and records as a result of the calls he had made on furniture stores in his previous job as a traveling salesman for a bed and mattress company, he soon organized a phonograph and record department at his grandfather’s store. Within six months or so, he had built such a flourishing trade, particularly in race records, that, in September 1921, OKeh appointed the store its Atlanta wholesale distributor, with Brockman as sales manager of the new enterprise. 58 Because of his association with the label, Brockman was asked to recruit much of the talent for OKeh’s first out-of-town recording expedition, which took place in Atlanta in June 1923, under the supervision of Ralph Peer. Apparently, it was Brockman’s promise to purchase five hundred discs for sale in his grandfather’s store that persuaded Peer to record Fiddlin’ John Carson on that trip and, in doing so, helped initiate the commercial recording of what OKeh advertising copy originally called “Hill Country Music” and later “Old Time Tunes.” 59 That promise also launched Brockman’s career as a highly influential A&R man. He remained active in the race and hillbilly fields for the next two decades, first for OKeh and then for Bluebird, overseeing location recording sessions in cities such as Atlanta; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; New Orleans; Jackson, Mississippi; and San Antonio, among others. 60 Around 1924, Brockman purchased his grandfather’s store, now named James K. Polk Inc., and, as its general manager, built it into OKeh’s largest distributor in the Southeast. Sales were so strong that in 1926 Brockman discontinued the store’s furniture business to focus exclusively on wholesaling and retailing phonographs, records, and radios. He also expanded his enterprise, opening a branch in Richmond in 1925, followed in quick succession by others in Dallas, Memphis, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. By 1929, Brockman later estimated, James K. Polk Inc. was making $2 million annually. 61
Polk C. Brockman’s relative affluence was quite unusual among A&R officials. Toronto debutante Helen Oakley Dance (who had to settle for Fletcher Henderson’s band at her lavish coming-out party at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit because McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, featuring Fats Waller, was unavailable), and New York–based Vanderbilt heir John Hammond were among the few A&R representatives whose careers in roots music recording were underwritten by anything resembling financial independence. (“The Vanderbilt children had no reason to play with toy trains,” Hammond later recalled. “We had real ones.”) 62 By contrast, Brockman’s entry into A&R work through the world of retail was extremely common. As Don Law put it, “The best training in the world for an A&R man is to be in sales.” 63
Again, a few examples illustrate the point. Born in 1892, Ralph Peer grew up working in his father’s store in Independence, Missouri. The Peer Supply Company sold sewing machines and assorted household furniture, including Columbia “talking machines” and the cylinders and discs to play on them. This sales experience helped Peer find work as a shipping clerk and then later as a regional salesman and assistant manager for Columbia in the Midwest before joining the New York–based General Phonograph Corporation, manufacturer of OKeh Records, in 1919. 64 Likewise, Lester Melrose became an independent A&R scout and recording supervisor via his retail experience. Shortly after World War I, Melrose and his older brother Walter opened a music shop, Melrose Brothers Music Company, on South Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, which catered to the growing demand for jazz and blues. “We carried a full stock of pop sheet music, piano rolls, small musical instruments and records,” Melrose explained. Within two years of opening their store, he and Walter launched an in-house music publishing firm when they began receiving “inquiries from various composers, including colored, about publishing their music or getting it recorded on phonograph records. It was impossible for us to publish pop tunes at that time, so we decided to take a whirl at the blues. The blues selections started coming in and we soon had ten or twelve selections that we thought was good material.” Among them was “Dipper Mouth Blues,” a version of which, Melrose claimed, he and his brother convinced Gennett officials to record in April 1923 by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (Gennett 5132). The Melroses, who began billing their publishing house as “Home of the Blues,” also placed the songs they published with other record companies and began organizing and supervising recording sessions for jazz luminaries such as Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton (who worked for the brothers’ publishing firm as a staff composer and arranger between 1923 and 1928). “ ‘Sobbin’ Blues,’ ‘Wolverine [Blues]’ and ‘Tin Roof Blues’ will be released on Victor, Okey [ sic ] and Paramount records for the month of December, also by the Connorized Music Roll Co.,” reported a 1923 Presto article on the Melroses’ recent string of successes. “Eighteen other big hits are about ready for release.” In 1926, Lester sold his interest in the retail store and publishing business to his brother Walter, who was himself a songwriter, and leveraged the knowledge and contacts he had acquired through those enterprises into a new role as a freelance A&R man. Melrose not only found talent but also, especially during the mid- to late 1930s, crafted a distinctive, increasingly urbane blues-swing sound (famously dubbed the “Bluebird Beat” by blues historian Samuel Charters) that could be heard on hundreds of recordings Melrose supervised for labels such as Bluebird, Columbia, and OKeh. 65
Two other figures who graduated from retail sales to become important A&R managers were Jack Kapp and his younger brother Dave, the Chicago-born sons of Russian Jewish immigrants. Their father had once peddled phonographs and records door-to-door using a horse-drawn wagon. After he opened his own Columbia-franchised retail store, both of his sons worked in the family business while they were growing up. Upon graduating from high school, Jack joined the sales staff of Columbia’s Chicago branch and, while still only in his early twenties, became its record department manager. Meanwhile, in 1921, the brothers followed their father’s example by opening their own shop, Kapp Music Company, on West Madison Street in Chicago. In addition to in-store sales, they developed a thriving mail-order business and record distributorship before closing the store in 1932. In 1926, Jack entered A&R work for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, initially as director of its subsidiary Vocalion’s race records department. Eventually he worked his way up to become recording director of Brunswick’s Chicago studios. In 1934, with the financial support of Edward R. Lewis, owner of the firm’s British parent company, Decca Record Company Ltd., Kapp co-founded Decca’s United States operation and recruited his brother Dave to become the A&R manager of the label’s hillbilly and race catalogs. The younger Kapp held this post until 1942, when he became involved in pop recordings at the company. Jack Kapp, in turn, served as president of what some referred to as “American Decca” until his death in 1949 at the age of forty-seven. 66

FIGURE 1.3. Advertisement for Kapp Music Company, Chicago Defender , May 29, 1926. Authors’ collections.
Like the Kapp brothers, Tommy Rockwell, a native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, also had a strong background in sales. During the mid-1920s, Rockwell gained experience as record department manager of the San Francisco branch of the Munson-Raynor Corporation, a Vocalion distributor. He later replaced Jack Kapp at Columbia’s Chicago branch, where, according to Talking Machine World , he “rapidly distinguished himself as a discoverer of record talent.” In 1927, Rockwell was appointed recording director for OKeh Records, by then a Columbia subsidiary, in New York. At OKeh, Rockwell’s duties included scouting talent and supervising sessions for its hillbilly and race artists, among them Louis Armstrong, whom he also managed from 1929 to 1931. 67
Harry Bernstein was yet another executive whose entrée into the A&R world came through his wholesale and retail activities. A Ukrainian-born Jew who immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1905 when he was nine years old, Bernstein owned and operated the Northwestern Phonograph Supply Company, one of Gennett’s major regional distributorships, as well as eight retail outlets in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. For a brief time, he ran his own custom label, Herschel Gold Seal, and sold its releases through his stores. In conjunction with those enterprises, Bernstein organized and probably supervised sessions for Gennett’s May and September 1927 field sessions in St. Paul. According to Talking Machine World , the latter “recording expedition . . . resulted in the securing for the Gennett record catalog of a number of ‘hits’ by new and locally famous talent,” among them a Scandinavian-American fiddle-and-accordion duo, a black jazz band, a jubilee quartet, and a handful of hillbilly singers, guitarists, and harmonica players. Elaborating on Bernstein’s critical role in these September sessions, the journal reported that he had “selected all talent and arranged all numbers and he was instrumental in digging up several finds and securing much valuable publicity.” 68
In Kansas City, Missouri, pioneering black A&R man Winston Holmes became involved in talent scouting and record producing through his retail business, the Winston Holmes Music Company. Only a block from the thriving African American entertainment district of 18th and Vine Streets, the store was advertised as “The Only Colored Music Store in Kansas City.” In addition to his business and political interests (in 1917, he had run unsuccessfully for alderman of Kansas City’s Fourteenth Ward), Holmes moonlighted as a freelance talent scout and secured recording sessions for several local blues and jazz artists, including Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, whose debut recordings he co-supervised with Ralph Peer at a September 1923 field session in St. Louis. In 1924, Holmes formed his own race records label, Meritt, and began recording artists in a studio he set up in the back of his store. Among them were Lottie Kimbrough, the Reverend J. C. Burnett, Saintest Anna Grinstead and Sister Ora Miller, and Hattie McDaniel, the last while she was in Kansas City on a singing tour. A staunch supporter of deported, Jamaican-born Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and co-founder of the Kansas City chapter of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Holmes launched Meritt “after seeing how the Caucasian concerns were trying to control the Race market.” He proudly claimed that his “is the only record [label] on the market today that is owned and controlled by the Race.” But like the handful of other black-owned record labels of the interwar period, Meritt was doomed by limited distribution, and it folded in 1927 after only seven releases. Holmes, however, continued to scout talent and produce occasional sessions for an assortment of Kansas City artists (including himself) for Gennett. 69
Like Polk C. Brockman, other Southerners, though far removed from the recording industry’s New York–area epicenter, also found their way into A&R by way of phonograph and record sales. Among them was self-styled “talent broker” H. C. Speir. Born in 1895, Henry Columbus Speir grew up in Leake County, Mississippi, where, he later recalled, as a child he heard black farm laborers singing in the cotton fields. In 1925, after a stint working at a Columbia phonograph assembly plant in New Orleans, he opened the Speir Phonograph Company in the black commercial district of Jackson, Mississippi. Over the next decade, Speir’s music shop served as the operations base for his freelance A&R work for some ten labels. Among the artists he discovered, or helped facilitate the first recordings of, were several important Delta blues singers, including Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Bo Carter, and Robert Johnson, whom he recommended to ARC salesman and fellow scout Ernie Oertle. In addition, Speir arranged and co-supervised at least three field-recording sessions in Mississippi: one for OKeh in Jackson in 1930 and two for ARC in Jackson and Hattiesburg in 1935 and 1936, respectively. 70
Another A&R man with a rural southern background was James Baxter “J. B.” Long, the son of a Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, truck farmer. Born in 1903, Long gained retailing experience as manager of a United Dollar Store in Kinston, North Carolina, before moving into A&R in 1934, initially as a sideline but later as one of ARC’s and then Columbia’s principal southern talent scouts. Long’s chain store background exposed him to the growing popularity of phonograph records among rural and small-town consumers. “Down in Kinston, the farmers were coming in selling tobacco,” Long explained to folklorist Kip Lornell in 1974. “Well, I got this old phonograph out and began to pile a few records in.” Playing records in his store, Long quickly discovered, attracted large crowds of customers who often purchased not only records but also other merchandise. “So from that basis on,” Long continued, “I ordered a few records and they [the United Dollar Store] began to buy ’em and sell ’em there. Everybody thought that the radios’d kill the record business, but I satisfied so many people that I went ahead and ordered more and more [records].” Long’s sales skills so impressed his superiors at United Dollar Store that, around 1935, they appointed him manager of a larger store in Durham, North Carolina, where he intensified his A&R efforts by scouting and arranging recording sessions for several local African American bluesmen. 71
Harry Charles, born in similarly humble rural circumstances in Jasper, Alabama, in 1899, likewise entered the A&R business via sales. One of nine children of a blacksmith and his wife, the resourceful Charles claimed to have spent time trading horses, running a livery stable, and driving a cab before finding work after World War I as a salesman and then as manager of the music department at Birmingham’s E. E. Forbes & Sons Piano Company, one of Paramount’s major regional distributors. Charles eventually established a string of some twenty retail record outlets of his own, usually located within department stores, in Atlanta, Birmingham, and other cities across the Southeast. These enterprises offered him a perfect vantage point from which to spot new artists and monitor shifts in consumer tastes, and he rose to become one of Paramount’s chief talent scouts in the South during the mid- to late 1920s. 72
These recurring stories of movement from farming or other rural forms of labor into retail and service opportunities in cities and small towns, and from there into the world of A&R and mass entertainment, mirrored major demographic and economic trends during the interwar period. Crucially, working in retail sales meant interacting with customers in furniture and music stores; this experience ensured that many A&R men were intimately acquainted with the needs, desires, hopes, and worldviews of the people who might purchase the music they recorded. A vast army of regionally based retailers-cum-talent scouts were thus advantageously positioned to advise higher-placed A&R officials about the kinds of music consumers might buy if available on commercial records.
Perhaps no major A&R man of the pre–World War II period better exemplified this reliance on regional and local talent scouts than Arthur “Art” Laibly, Paramount’s sales manager and recording director between 1925 and 1931. 73 Laibly has been depicted quite unflatteringly in scholarly accounts, which have blithely accepted the criticisms of his methods and abilities made by some of his fiercest rivals and associates within the recording industry, notably J. Mayo Williams and H. C. Speir. 74 In fact, Laibly’s career highlights the mixture of serendipity and luck—both good and bad—that often determined the success and subsequent reputations of A&R officials as hit-makers. In many respects, Laibly was an accidental A&R man. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1894, he worked as a bookkeeper for the Interstate Commerce Commission and for a Louisiana tap-line railroad, among other jobs, before being hired as a salesman for the Wisconsin Chair Company, parent firm of Paramount Records. He learned classical violin while growing up and even performed briefly as a violinist with several Cincinnati orchestras, including the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra. 75 When he succeeded Maurice Supper as sales director and recording manager at Paramount in 1925, however, he could claim no particular knowledge of or interest in roots music. Indeed, he had no real experience in the recording industry. Thanks largely to the progressive leadership of Supper, who struck upon the idea of transforming Paramount into a race records label in 1922, and the A&R efforts of J. Mayo Williams, who recruited and recorded popular blues and jazz acts, Paramount had become a major, if perpetually cash-strapped, player in the race records field. Laibly’s prime directive was simply to push as much Paramount product to as many distributors and retailers as possible across the nation. His main contacts were regional wholesale managers and store owners, not roots music singers and musicians. 76
Yet those regional networks of wholesalers and retailers were indispensable to how scouting and recording worked in interwar commercial roots music, providing up-to-date information about local musical trends, tastes, and talent. Sometime in late 1925, Laibly was contacted by R. T. Ashford, an African American entrepreneur who ran a combination shoeshine parlor–record store near the corner of Elm Street and North Central Avenue in Dallas. Part of a network of record retailers who regularly provided tips about hot musical prospects, Ashford encouraged Laibly to record a popular local blues singer-guitarist named Blind Lemon Jefferson, convincing the A&R man that, at the very least, a strong regional market existed for Jefferson’s music. 77 As a consequence, Laibly arranged for the bluesman to travel to Chicago to record, either in December 1925 or January 1926. Jefferson’s first session resulted in two spirituals that Paramount initially declined to issue. A second session the following March, possibly under Laibly’s personal supervision, proved more fruitful, yielding Jefferson’s first release, “Booster Blues,” coupled with “Dry Southern Blues” (Paramount 12347). His next record, “Long Lonesome Blues” / “Got the Blues” (Paramount 12354), also waxed at this session, became Jefferson’s first major hit and announced the arrival of the first country blues superstar: Jefferson went on to record nearly one hundred titles before his death in 1929. This record also heralded a slow, uneven, but steady decline in the popularity of the female vaudeville blues singers who had dominated the blues records market since the early 1920s. Those women had usually recorded accompanied by solo pianists or jazz-pop ensembles; the new wave of male county bluesmen, as epitomized by Jefferson, generally favored an earthier—and cheaper to record—vocal sound backed principally by their own guitars, sometimes supplemented, especially in the 1930s, by a rollicking boogie-woogie piano and, occasionally, by other instruments. 78

FIGURE 1.4. Studio portrait of Art Laibly in his later years (date unknown). Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
In Jefferson, Art Laibly had struck instant pay dirt in the race records field. He had done so, however, not by going on an extensive, costly scouting trip to the South and personally discovering that bluesman singing on the streets of Dallas (as suggested by a legend that the A&R man did little to dispel). Rather, Laibly had responded smartly to field intelligence provided by one of his local retailers. 79 Relying on such grassroots expertise was perfectly common in interwar roots recording. After all, Ralph Peer only decided to record Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta in 1923 after Polk C. Brockman had assured him that the fiddler’s record would sell well in Brockman’s store and backed up his hunch with an advance order. Laibly himself followed the same model when recording other acts such as Frank Stokes and Gus Cannon on the recommendation of talent scout Loren L. Watson, manager of Watson & Co., Paramount’s Memphis distributor. 80
Laibly believed that local merchants, attuned to local markets, held the key to unlocking the musical tastes and purchasing habits of their customers. In March 1927, Laibly instructed Kentucky fiddler Doc Roberts—already a veteran of several sessions for Gennett—to travel to Chicago for his first Paramount recording date via Louisville, Kentucky, so that he could visit Paul I. Burks, owner of Paramount’s local distributor, P. I. Burks & Company, located on West Broadway. Laibly wanted Roberts to get a clear sense of what kind of records Burks believed his customers would buy. “We want to make some records just exactly as Mr. Burks wants them since he is the main one to sell them and we want everything absolutely right,” Laibly explained to Roberts. 81
Laibly made twice-yearly scouting expeditions in the company of regional scouts-cum-record dealers such as Harry Charles and H. C. Speir, visiting St. Louis, Birmingham, New Orleans, Mobile, Meridian, and Vicksburg, among other cities. But his dual responsibilities as Paramount’s sales manager and recording director meant that he was often more interested in securing new retail sales accounts than in hunting or auditioning talent himself. This resulted in a fairly random “open-door policy,” making it appear that he was willing to record just about anyone simply on the recommendations of dealers or scouts, without having first heard a prospective artist in person or on an audition record. Although this approach had produced spectacular results with Blind Lemon Jefferson, blues scholars Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow argue that, within a few years, “thanks to Laibly’s somnambulence, Paramount became a dumping ground for uncommercial ‘race’ talent.” 82
Laibly never replicated the enormous success he enjoyed with Jefferson. “By end of 1928,” Calt and Wardlow argue, “the bankruptcy of Laibly’s reliance on dealer discoveries was apparent. . . . Nearly all of the artists were dismal sales flops.” As an A&R man, Laibly was, they declare, “a rank failure.” 83 For Calt and Wardlow, what compounded Laibly’s twin crimes against creativity and commerce was that, flushed by his success with Blind Lemon Jefferson, he had marginalized J. Mayo Williams, celebrated in their history of Paramount as the one truly inspired A&R man at the label in the mid-1920s. As Laibly and Williams clashed over their relative roles, merits, and opportunities within the company, Laibly pulled rank and hired Harry Charles to approve Paramount records for release, a job previously assigned to Williams. Even worse for Williams—and for Calt and Wardlow—Laibly began using Aletha Dickerson, Williams’s assistant, as his own personal secretary. 84 The final straw, precipitating Williams’s departure from Paramount in the first months of 1928, came when Otto E. Moeser, vice president of the Wisconsin Chair Company, tried to put him under contract as a salaried employee, rather than allowing him to continue operating “more or less on an expense account,” with his main income derived from song copyrights and royalties. 85
The criticisms of Art Laibly made by Calt and Wardlow, as well as by Williams, Charles, and Speir, on whose partisan accounts they mainly rely, are not without foundation. But Laibly certainly was not the only A&R man to trust the marketplace more than his personal preferences in deciding who and what to record. “My personal opinion never comes into anything I ever have anything to do with when it comes to merchandizing,” Polk C. Brockman proudly declared in a 1961 interview. “I always look at it through the eyes of the people I expect to buy it.” 86 Laibly may have possessed a tin ear for musical talent, and he may have been cavalier to the point of recklessness about whom he agreed to record; but, insofar as he used retailers like R. T. Ashford, Paul I. Burks, and H. C. Speir to help him gauge the preferences and tastes of record buyers, he was utterly typical of A&R managers involved in interwar roots music. J. Mayo Williams did much the same thing. On a page headlined “What Does The Public Want?,” the 1924 Paramount catalog stressed that the label’s officials “will always continue to give the people what they want,” and reassured record buyers, “If your preferences are not listed in our catalog, we will make them for you, as Paramount must please the buying public.” Reaching out for ideas and referrals, the catalog declared, “There is always room for more good material and more talented artists. Any suggestions or recommendations that you may have to offer will be greatly appreciated by J. Mayo Williams, Manager of the Race Artists’ Series.” 87
Moreover, even if one accepts his critics’ assessment that, aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Laibly recorded little of enduring artistic merit (though, this would require dismissing the 1929–1931 sides that Laibly supervised by Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, and Willie Brown, among many others), that he was clueless on scouting trips, and that he failed to meet H. C. Speir’s fairly arbitrary “one hit in ten” strike rate test for a decent A&R man, those shortcomings need to be placed into broader context. 88 A&R work was never an exact science. When left, more or less, to his own devices in 1927 as manager of Black Patti, a short-lived label surreptitiously subsidized by one of Paramount’s competitors, Gennett, J. Mayo Williams failed to notch a single hit from among the fifty-five records he released by the likes of Sam Collins, Jaybird Coleman, and the Black Birds of Paradise. Distribution problems, compounded by racial prejudice against a black-run race records company—albeit one which, in a telling illustration of the eclecticism of the interwar roots recording industry and the opportunism of A&R officials, released at least ten sides by white artists—hampered Williams’s cause and contributed to the label’s collapse after only six months. 89

FIGURE 1.5. “What Does the Public Want?” Complete Catalog of 1924 Records, Paramount—The “Popular Race Record”—and Black Swan Race Records , featuring a photograph inset of J. Mayo Williams, Paramount’s “Recording Manager of Race Artist Series.” Southern Folklife Collection Discographical Files (#30014), Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Stephen Calt declares Williams “the most successful ‘race’ producer of his time. . . . By the venal standards of A&R work he may have been the most successful recording scout of all time.” Hyperbole aside, there is no doubt that, while at Paramount, Williams was a prodigiously effective and successful A&R manager. Yet some of the credit for his accomplishments ought to go to other company executives, particularly Maurice Supper, who initiated Paramount’s foray into the race records field and taught Williams basic studio-craft. When it came to the sessions themselves, Williams—who lacked any particular musical gifts or training and was unable to recognize any but the most glaring imperfections of pitch, timing, or tone—often ceded musical direction to either Aletha Dickerson or Lovie Austin, a vaudeville blues singer-pianist who worked as one of his arrangers and session musicians. Without that support system, Williams’s talent-scouting and hit-making credentials took a beating during his doomed Black Patti venture, only to be revived, at least partially, when he later worked for Jack Kapp, first at Vocalion beginning in 1927, and then from 1934 at Decca. 90
Williams’s dry streak at Black Patti demonstrated that A&R managers had no surefire formula for success, no matter how gifted, hardworking, ruthless, or ambitious. Even someone like H. C. Speir, who jazz and blues authority Ted Gioia claims “did more than any single individual to promote and preserve the music of the Delta region,” regularly misjudged the potential of artists. 91 Speir told Gayle Dean Wardlow that he had been unimpressed when Jimmie Rodgers auditioned in his store and, as a result, chose to pass on the figure that would become known as “The Father of Country Music.” 92 Speir also rejected singer Johnny Temple, who subsequently had a modestly successful career at Vocalion, Decca, and Bluebird, at the same 1931 auditions at which Speir heard Skip James for the first time and recommended him to Laibly. Speir even cut a test recording with Robert Johnson in 1936 but, having passed his name along to ARC scout Ernie Oertle, apparently never followed up on him. Speir quickly forgot about the singer-guitarist who would be hailed posthumously as perhaps the most important and influential of all the Delta bluesmen. Around this same time, Speir fell out with ARC after the company deemed fewer than 25 percent of the more than 170 recordings he had co-supervised at recent sessions in Jackson and Hattiesburg, Mississippi—with blues “discoveries” such as the Delta Twins, Sarah & Her Milk Bull, the Edgewater Crows, the Mississippi Jook Band, and Rajah Evans—suitable for commercial release. Under its contract with him, ARC had agreed to pay Speir only for issued sides. 93 As Gioia sensibly concludes, “While we can laud these early pioneers of field recording for their discriminating judgments and savvy assessment of talent, the dross they recorded far outweighed the memorable sides.” 94
Finding and Securing Talent
Dave Kapp, Decca records official, . . . will soon start on another of his trips to the South and Southeast with a portable recording truck to cut platters of hillbilly and primitive Negro music. He finds his materials in ginmills, honkytonks, private homes, street corners, plantation fields, and says that on some of the Negro records, altho English is sung, a white man can’t understand the words, so idiomatic and guttural is the language.
—“The Broadway Beat,” Billboard , November 20, 1937
REGARDLESS OF THEIR PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL backgrounds, the A&R officials who were involved in the interwar American roots recording industry proved endlessly resourceful in their efforts to find, sign, and record talent. If exploiting connections with record retailers and distributors represented one of the most common and successful strategies for doing so, those business relationships cannot compete for romance with colorful accounts of intrepid A&R men embarking on epic recording expeditions deep into the heart of rural America, particularly Southern Appalachia. However, the now-fabled excursions to Bristol, Tennessee, and to other destinations in this mountainous region accounted for a relatively small fraction of southern recording trips. A&R managers and their engineers conducted more than one hundred forays into the American South between 1923 and 1932, but they were chiefly to Atlanta and other cities in the Southern Piedmont. 1 “Mountaineer musicians of western North Carolina who know little of cities except by legend and who play by native instinct will come to Charlotte today to perpetuate their art for an invisible audience of hundreds of thousands of people,” proclaimed the Charlotte Observer in a front-page, August 9, 1927, article headlined “Records Made in Charlotte to Perpetuate Mountain Ballads.” The excitement was palpable as the Observer described the opportunities for local musicians: “They will make records for the Victor Talking Machine company for distribution in a dozen nations, it was declared yesterday by Ralph S. Peer, scout for the company. Folk-lore songs and banjo selections by artists of the soil who have never read a note but through whose music runs the passion of river torrents and mountain feuds and the melody of valley meadows are to be recorded.” 2
Recording hillbilly music was not the only goal of these ventures, however. Depending on the location, A&R men and their engineers also sought to capture country blues, gospel, hot jazz, Cajun, Mexican, and other foreign-language selections at the same sessions in order to expand these various series within their catalogs. 3 “At times,” according to Tony Russell, the recording crews of the various companies “were lining up behind each other. On October 22, 1928, as Victor [engineers] packed their equipment after twelve days in Atlanta, somewhere else in town Columbia [personnel were] unpacking theirs. For a few days during September 1929, while Victor was recording in Memphis’s Municipal Auditorium, a crew from Brunswick was similarly engaged just a few blocks away at the Peabody Hotel.” The Great Depression decimated phonograph and record sales and, by October 1932, had effectively halted field-recording activities. But, after a nearly seventeen-month interruption when there were no southern field-recording expeditions, record sales slowly began to recover and recording trips resumed. In 1934, Victor, Brunswick, and the newly formed Decca label collectively conducted field sessions at eight locations, generating no fewer than 774 recordings; three years later, in 1937, such trips produced some twenty-three hundred hillbilly, race, Mexican, and Cajun sides—the highest annual yield in the history of American field recording. 4
A&R officials did forage deep into the Mississippi Delta, the mountains of Southern Appalachia, and the Southwest. But for logistical reasons—like growing numbers of rural migrants—they invariably gravitated to the burgeoning cities of the southeastern United States. Primarily, this was because in these major trade centers record companies benefited from established networks of regional distributors and retailers who could identify prospective talent and even assist in recording that talent on location, all in an effort to help meet the growing demand for roots music records. Forty-three of the one hundred-plus field expeditions involving hillbilly artists prior to 1933 targeted the Piedmont cities of Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Richmond, and Winston-Salem. 5 Between 1928 and 1934, none of the Cajun recordings by pioneering artists such as Joseph F. Falcon, Cléoma Breaux, Dennis McGee, or Leo Soileau were waxed in the Acadian country of southwestern Louisiana; rather, these discs were cut in cities such as Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, and San Antonio, or, alternately, in New York or Chicago. 6 Moreover, as Eddie King’s 1924 Victor excursion to Los Angeles demonstrates, the American South was not the only destination for these recording trips. Tony Russell, who prefers the designation “location recordings,” notes that the forty-four recording expeditions staged between mid-1923 and mid-1927 by Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Brunswick, and Gennett encompassed eleven states and thirteen cities, among them such decidedly non-southern locales as Cincinnati, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, and Buffalo. Except for St. Paul, though, few if any examples of roots music were recorded at these locations. 7 By contrast, Chicago became an important site for recording blues and hot jazz, as the Pittsburgh Courier reported in 1923. “America’s musical center is moving westward,” the Courier declared. “So many race stage and song stars are now appearing in Chicago that the New York Recording Laboratories, makers of the famous Paramount Race Records, have temporarily shifted their recording offices from New York to Chicago.” Within a few years, several prominent record companies would establish fully equipped permanent studios in Chicago and, by the late 1920s, in Los Angeles and Oakland as well, marking a major industry shift that helped break what Talking Machine World called “the Eastern monopoly” on recording. 8 In August 1934, New York–based Decca further advanced this trend by making its first field recordings in Los Angeles with Stuart Hamblen, the Sons of the Pioneers, and other hillbilly acts. 9

FIGURE 2.1. Gennett engineer Harold Soulé and Grace Slovetsky, secretary of the Northwestern Phonograph Supply Company, examining the electrical recording equipment used at the May 1927 St. Paul, Minnesota, field session. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
As these statistics demonstrate, American roots recording in the interwar years was a profoundly modern and urban phenomenon. Although the music itself often retained an intimate relationship to the rural communities that continued to influence and inspire its artists, the commercialization of roots music was driven by the new technologies of recording, radio, and eventually talking motion pictures. It was also shaped by modern corporate business models of consolidation and vertical integration, whereby all stages in the process of finding talent and material, recording and copyrighting those musical selections, and then advertising, marketing, and selling the resulting records were controlled by increasingly bureaucratic, multinational corporations headquartered in northern cities, chiefly New York or, in the cases of Victor and Edison, in nearby Camden and Orange, New Jersey, respectively.
The largest of these firms were international enterprises with vast networks of offices, factories and pressing plants, subsidiary labels, distributors, and retailers scattered around the globe. To take one example, Brunswick, the nation’s third-largest record manufacturer, maintained its headquarters in the Brunswick Building on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago, with studios there as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Its main warehouse was in Long Island, New York, but it owned phonograph factories and record-pressing plants in New York; Chicago; Dubuque, Iowa; Muskegon, Michigan; and Toronto that employed some five thousand workers. By 1926, in addition to its cabinet factories and pressing plants, Brunswick controlled forty-five thousand acres of timber in northern Michigan and some forty miles of rail line, and claimed total annual revenue in excess of $29 million. In 1928, its foreign affiliates included British Brunswick Ltd. of London, Deutsche Grammophone Gesellschaft of Berlin, and Companhia Brunswick de Brasil of Brazil, which manufactured Brunswick records for distribution in Great Britain, continental Europe, and South America, respectively. 10 In a form of American cultural imperialism that gathered momentum and extended its reach after World War I, due largely to the export of motion pictures and music, Brunswick and other companies distributed their recordings of American roots music worldwide. Hillbilly records, for example, were marketed throughout the English-speaking world, including India, South Africa, and Australia, and even in parts of Sweden, Japan, and the French-speaking provinces of Canada. 11
Whether recording in permanent studios in the New York area or Chicago, or in provisional facilities temporarily set up in other cities across the nation, firms used state-of-the-art equipment, including, as of 1925, microphones and electrical recording machines, to capture the sounds of downhome blues and hillbilly musical forms that were widely conceived of and generally promoted as the quaint, unvarnished expressions of rural, sometimes small-town, American culture. Yet the association of these recorded musics with a kind of romanticized, premodern rusticity was always at odds with the thoroughly modern circumstances under which the records were made, distributed, advertised, sold, and ultimately played on one of the technological marvels of the age: the phonograph. 12 Though it runs counter to one of the most enduring myths about early country music’s origins and cultural significance, vast numbers of hillbilly records were made in northern studios by versatile professional “citybilly” singers who had few agrarian connections and who, often as a result of formal musical training, were able to perform in a wide range of musical styles. One-third of the estimated 11,400 hillbilly records issued in the United States before 1933 were waxed in northern studios using these freelance singers, quite often accompanied by professional session musicians, rather than at southern field-recording sessions by indigenous “folk” artists who performed solo, or with a musical partner, or with their own stringbands. Remarkably, nearly 85 percent of these northern-produced citybilly releases were recorded by just six artists—Vernon Dalhart, Carson J. Robison, Arthur Fields, Frankie Marvin, Bob Miller, and Frank Luther, all of whose records appeared under a bewildering number of pseudonyms on an equally overwhelming number of record labels. Between 1924 and 1931, Dalhart alone recorded more than eighteen hundred masters that appeared on more than five thousand sides issued by some one hundred US labels. An additional eighty-five or so labels carried Dalhart recordings worldwide. Roughly two-thirds of his recorded output was hillbilly music. 13 Recording amateurs or semiprofessionals at southern field sessions or in northern studios may have had its charm; it certainly generated some magnificent, heart-felt recorded performances. But A&R managers and their staffs often preferred working with professional studio singers and back-up musicians who turned up to sessions more or less on time, and who could read music and quickly learn new songs or arrangements.
None of this is to deny that the field-recording expeditions conducted by A&R men to recruit and record local performers were enormously important in the stylistic and commercial development of American roots music. Ralph Peer’s experimental OKeh sessions in Atlanta in 1923, at which Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded his—and, arguably, hillbilly music’s—first successful disc, established the basic format. It also established the regular practice of recording roots-based artists on location in hotel rooms, warehouses, radio stations, and other temporary facilities located far away from the permanent northern studios of most record companies. As Talking Machine World observed in July 1924, OKeh recording officials “established some time ago a policy of taking recording outfits at regular intervals to different sections of the country, and they have made very successful trips to Atlanta, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago. The early part of August an expedition will probably leave for Atlanta for additional recordings in that city.” 14
These domestic ventures were part of the recording industry’s global efforts to capture and market what Karl Hagstrom Miller calls “local music.” Since the dawn of the twentieth century, the London-based Gramophone Company and many of its competitors had been dispatching so-called recording experts to record singers and musicians on portable equipment in the capitals of Western Europe and the major cities of Russia, the Far East, Mexico, and Latin America. 15 Within the United States, the Victor Talking Machine Company began recording on location as early as 1908, sending its chief recording engineer, Harry O. Sooy, to wax several speeches by Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. 16 In 1915, when the outbreak of World War I cut off supplies of ethnic recordings from continental Europe, Columbia’s foreign records manager Anton Heindl took a portable recording machine to Chicago and, with the assistance of engineer William Freiberg, recorded “local German, Austrian, Bohemian, Polish, Spanish and Italian talent” in “a temporary but perfectly equipped laboratory” set up in the Atheneum Building on East Van Buren Street. “Although failing to bring Europe to America in a musical sense at this time, nevertheless, as a result of Mr. Heindl’s exhaustive study and marked initiative[,] the Columbia Co. is, so to speak, developing the Europe that is within us,” remarked Talking Machine World . 17
In a portent of how many future roots music recording expeditions would be organized, Heindl relied on local retailers to steer him to promising neighborhood talent, while also conducting his own scouting operations. Heindl not only called upon “all the dealers in the foreign colonies of the city,” explained Talking Machine World , but he also “visited cafes, dance halls, and attended concerts, and went every place where anything musical could be heard.” 18 Two years earlier, Heindl told the trade journal that the artists he recorded for Columbia’s foreign-language catalogs were “oft-times found in many peculiar places and under odd circumstances. Many of the best Neapolitan singers,” he observed, drawing upon contemporary ethnic stereotypes, “have been found in dark, ill-smelling basements where the light rarely enters and empty bottles bar the entrance. Cabaret shows, restaurants and music halls have all given their quotas to the foreign artist list, and no incident nor report, no matter how trivial, is overlooked in the search for talent.” 19
Beginning in 1921, these once-rare recording expeditions, as they were called in the trade, became somewhat more common. By June 1923, when Peer visited Atlanta, record companies had already dispatched supervisors and engineering staff to record dance orchestras and other locally popular acts in cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco. 20 Some crews had even ventured into the American South, where the first known location recordings occurred in 1908. In the midst of that year’s presidential campaign, Victor, Columbia, and Edison all recorded speeches by Republican nominee William Howard Taft at a hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia. The next year, an Edison crew made cylinder recordings in Richmond, Virginia, of Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, an African American singing group organized and directed by Miller, a local white banjoist, raconteur, and all-around entertainer. Like OKeh’s 1923 Atlanta sessions, this special effort appears to have been staged at the behest of a local phonograph distributor, in this case a man named Charles B. Haynes, owner of C. B. Haynes & Company, who happened to be a personal friend of Thomas A. Edison. 21 These, however, were one-off events, not conceived of as part of a coherent or sustained industry strategy. It was only after Peer’s Atlanta sessions that companies began to dispatch mobile crews on a regular basis to make commercial recordings on location. Within a few years, as labels pursued profitable recordings of artists and material unavailable in the New York area, field recording became standard practice within the emerging roots music field. It remained so for nearly two decades. 22
The precise circumstances surrounding Peer’s pathbreaking 1923 Atlanta sessions remain murky, but it seems that he initially organized them primarily to record Warner’s Seven Aces, a local white society jazz band. Once again, Peer appears to have been swayed by the recommendations of OKeh’s local distributor, Polk C. Brockman, who was aware of the dance orchestra’s growing popularity through its performances at local theaters and on fledgling radio station WGM. Radio broadcasts on rival Atlanta station WSB were also important in bringing Fiddlin’ John Carson to Brockman’s attention, although the colorful fiddler’s local celebrity predated his radio career. Beginning in 1913, Carson was a frequent participant in, and occasional winner of, the annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, which attracted extensive newspaper coverage in the Atlanta dailies. On June 15, 1923, shortly after Peer and his crew arrived, an Atlanta Journal article announced, “ ‘Canned music’ recorded by local musicians will be made for the first time in Atlanta by [the] Okeh company of New York,” using “a recording machine recently invented by an engineer of the Okeh company, which lowers the high cost of producing the records away from the home laboratories.” The article stated that “about thirty recordings will be made” during the visit, and it went on to list Warner’s Seven Aces, Carson, and a “quartet of negro singers” from Morehouse College among those scheduled to record. The eclecticism here reflected the wide net that A&R officials cast in their ceaseless pursuit of best-selling talent and material. 23 By the time Peer began recording in a makeshift studio rigged up in a loft on Nassau Street, Brockman had recruited a varied group of black and white performers from Atlanta and, in at least one case, Alabama. Among this crowd was singer Lucille Bogan of Birmingham, whose “The Pawn Shop Blues” (OKeh 8079) became the first race recording produced outside of New York or Chicago. 24
Most recording expeditions followed a broadly similar pattern. A&R men followed up on specific tips and sometimes acted on mere hunches about locally popular artists passed on to them by retailers, distributors, or other musicians. According to Brockman, he was somewhat unusual in this respect. He remembered the sessions in which he was involved as less haphazard and better organized, with much of the talent and even some of the material selected well in advance. During his A&R tenure with OKeh in the 1920s and early 1930s, he claimed that he personally canvassed cities and the countryside for talent and auditioned much of it himself before the OKeh recording crews arrived. This helped eliminate “no-hopers” and maximize the efficiency—and, label executives hoped, the hit-making strike rate—of field sessions, always a matter of great concern. “We had a programme all laid out ahead of time,” Brockman explained to Gayle Dean Wardlow. “We knew exactly what we were gonna do, unless something just bobbed up.” 25
Most location sessions, including many that Brockman organized and, occasionally, supervised, were rather less well structured than he implied. Even for the most successful A&R managers and talent scouts, there was always something inherently speculative and inscrutable about the process of finding promising artists and material to record, and then turning that potential into hit records. Consequently, A&R men usually left ample time for something exciting or unexpected to “just bob up,” as Brockman put it. Most field-session organizers maintained an open ear for possible hit songs and artists across all categories of American roots and popular music, recognizing that they were, to a large extent, at the mercy of happenstance and the range of talent available in any given location at any particular time. “Winston-Salem, where Okeh Records spent ten days in 1927, was a rich source of old-time music, but turned up no blues or jazz,” Tony Russell observes. “Victor’s June 1931 session in Louisville, by contrast, was replete with blues and jazz, but elicited very little local hillbilly talent.” 26 A&R managers needed to be pragmatic about such local vagaries, even as they sought to rationalize and, months in advance, carefully plan their field-recording operations. This helps explain why, prior to 1933, recording crews returned again and again to major metropolitan centers such as Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, and Memphis, where they had enjoyed previous success, rather than revisit smaller cities like Ashland, Kentucky; Shreveport, Louisiana; or even Nashville, which had produced only modest results.
Partial exceptions to this pattern were Fort Worth and San Antonio, which, although only medium-sized cities in the mid-1930s, had become disproportionately important in roots music recording, not least for the highly lucrative trade in Mexican music. In 1939, the San Antonio Express made an already familiar appeal to notions of cultural “authenticity” surrounding many roots music genres when it reported, “San Antonio is the center for the recording of Mexican music, a commercial venture using the material of genuine culture . . . [that] has reached the size and importance of a major musical industry. Twice each year the chief pho[n]ograph companies, Victor, Decca and Brunswick, send technicians and sound equipment to make records of Mexican music. Each of these companies has a special series that is devoted entirely to this type of music.” 27
Prior to 1933, mobile recording units also stopped over in southern cities like Savannah, Houston, and Louisville, while making more regular stops in New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Antonio. In the mid- to late 1930s, Art Satherley of the American Record Corporation (ARC), who was at that time mostly concerned with building Vocalion’s catalogs, organized expeditions to southern locales such as Birmingham, Memphis, and Jackson, Mississippi, that had either fallen out of favor or seldom been visited by recording crews. ARC teams traveled to new venues as well, including Augusta, Georgia; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Columbia, South Carolina. 28 As a rule, though, A&R men spent most of their time and energy targeting larger southern metropolitan centers. For recording officials hoping to catch a break, these were the most likely spots for discovering the broadest assortment of singers and musicians spanning the various genres of popular and roots music. In the process, A&R managers and their scouts helped define hillbilly music and downhome blues as distinctly “southern” phenomena and then deployed this regionalized image to reach national and international audiences, including many customers who were either still residents of, or migrants from, the American South. 29
Even Polk C. Brockman appreciated that some of his best musical “finds” had come to light by sheer chance rather than through meticulous planning. A case in point occurred when Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon wandered into a February 17, 1930, session he was supervising for OKeh in Shreveport, Louisiana. Brockman had organized the session expressly to cut a series of custom spoken recordings by W. K. “Old Man” Henderson, the nationally known, controversial owner and announcer of local radio station KWKH, who wanted something for his vanity label, Hello World Dog Gone—named for his on-air catchphrase. “We were up there on the roof (of a hotel),” Brockman recalled, “and they just strayed in while we were setting up there to record Henderson.” Chatmon and Vinson, with occasional support from Chatmon’s brother Armenter (better known on his solo records as Bo Carter), made up the black stringband that Brockman billed as the Mississippi Sheiks. Their unscheduled Shreveport session yielded the group’s first releases, among them the best-selling “Sitting on Top of the World” (OKeh 8784), a Vinson-Chatmon composition destined to be covered over the next few years by black and white performers alike, among them Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Light Crust Doughboys, Two Poor Boys, Charley Patton (retitled “Some Sunny Day”), and Big Bill Broonzy (as part of the Harum Scarums). “It wasn’t the thing you planned in recording,” Brockman mused, “but the biggest things have been by accident. Things you didn’t plan at all.” 30
One strategy that Brockman and other A&R scouts routinely employed to increase the likelihood of such happy accidents at field-recording sessions was advance advertising in local newspapers. Brockman claimed that as a result of these efforts, combined with spreading the word among his retail dealers, he sometimes found scores of hopeful performers waiting to audition at temporary local studios. “I’d go into a town,” he said, “and here was a hundred or two hundred of them there, all waiting for me when I got to town, just like the President was going to show up.” 31 The local press coverage that Ralph Peer orchestrated for his 1927 Victor sessions in Bristol, Tennessee—both ahead of and during his visit—proved to be an important factor in their immediate commercial success and their long-term historical significance. On July 27, following two days of sessions, Peer told a Bristol News Bulletin reporter that Ernest V. Stoneman, one of his most popular hillbilly artists and a talent scout in his own right, had earned $3,600 from recording work the previous year. The newspaper article “worked like dynamite” in turning out prospective talent, Peer later wrote, “and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains or on foot.” Among those who auditioned after seeing the news story were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both of whom would become patron saints of country music. 32 In nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, where Columbia A&R man Frank Walker organized “copycat sessions” in 1928 and 1929 hoping to replicate Peer’s success in Bristol, the powerful formula of print and word-of-mouth advertising worked just as well. Walker remembered how “people would show up sometimes from eight or nine hundred miles away” at location-recording sites, in “dozens and dozens of different places, all the way from San Antone to Houston and Dallas and Johnson City, Tennessee, and Memphis and Little Rock and New Orleans and Atlanta—everywhere.” 33

FIGURE 2.2. “We Want Fiddlers.” OKeh newspaper notice recruiting musicians to record “old-time songs not now on phonograph records” at an upcoming Memphis field session. Commercial Appeal (Memphis), February 10, 1928. Courtesy of T. Malcolm Rockwell.
Walker’s memories of these excursions perfectly capture the mix of serendipity and strategy, planning and plum luck, that often characterized interwar recording expeditions and helped determine their relative success or failure. Walker certainly relied on Columbia dealers, other talent scouts, and newspaper announcements to locate prospective artists for the field sessions he organized and supervised. As he explained in 1962:
So we would decide that we would record, for instance, in Johnson City, Tennessee. And you would write down to various people that you’ve heard about, and you’d let that be known, and it would be mentioned in the paper, and the word would get around in churches and school houses, that somebody was going to come down there for a recording—not session—but for a recording “to-do.” And we’d be very glad to listen to people.
And they came in from all over. We had a regular party. . . . We’d sit up all night long and listen to them, and we would weed out the things that we wanted and those that we didn’t want. . . . “We’ll use this” and “We won’t use that.” And you rehearsed them the next morning, and you recorded them in the afternoon and the evening. It was a twenty-four-hour deal, seven days a week. 34
In Texas, where a huge push to record Mexican music was well underway by the mid-1930s, the San Antonio Light regularly reported on the recording activities of visiting A&R men such as Eli Oberstein of RCA Victor, Dave Kapp of Decca, and Ralph Perez, Don Law, and Bob Pampe of Brunswick, then an ARC subsidiary. “The native music of Old Mexico—as sung and played in San Antonio—is being recorded here by the Brunswick Record company of New York so that the whole world may hear,” proclaimed the Light in its coverage of a 1932 recording expedition led by Perez. “A recording studio has been set up at the Gunter hotel, and 60 selections from the Mexican repertoire are being recorded. Virtually all the talent is drawn from San Antonio’s Mexican population.” 35 The local press also highlighted the success of local and regional Mexican recording artists such as singer-guitarist Lydia Mendoza (“La Cancionera de los Pobres”) and accordionist Narciso Martínez (“El Huracán del Valle”). A native of Reynosa, Mexico, who grew up near Brownsville, Texas, Martínez achieved the remarkable feat of cutting thirty sides in a single, three-and-a-half-hour session for Bluebird at the Blue Bonnet Hotel in San Antonio on September 13, 1937. For sheer productivity, the session may well be unsurpassed in the annals of commercial field recording. 36

FIGURE 2.3. Eli Oberstein supervising a 1936 RCA Victor recording session with Lydia Mendoza at the Texas Hotel, San Antonio. Originally published in the San Antonio Light , October 21, 1936. Courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio.
Newspaper accounts of local recording sessions also helped fix in the popular imagination the links between certain musical idioms and quite specific locations, adding to the sense that grassroots entertainers and their music were, quite literally, rooted in local cultures. “Almost everyone is familiar with the haymarket plaza and its chili queens and Mexican musicians in native costumes, for because of its picturesqueness, it is one of the favorite tourist haunts,” observed a 1939 San Antonio Express article. It continued:
It is not generally known, however, that these strolling musicians play a large part in one of the most unusual industries of the city, phonograph recording. . . . Many of the outstanding Mexican artists are native San Antonians. Lydia Mendoza, who sings and accompanies herself on the guitar, had the distinction of being the most popular artist in the low-priced field. Among the other prominent musicians are Eva Garza, songstress; Arturo Vasque, tenor and pianist; and [Juan] Gayt[a]n and [Francisco] Cantu, guitarists. Most of the performers are under contract to a specific company and are paid either on a straight salary basis or on that of royalty. Top price for a single recording is about $50. 37
This kind of press coverage inspired more Mexican singers and musicians to seek recording opportunities, either by auditioning when the next mobile unit came to town or by making the trek to other recording centers.
It was much the same with race records. In May 1926, Houston-born Victoria Spivey, an aspiring nineteen-year-old blues singer then living in the small town of Moberly, Missouri, was among the hopefuls lured to St. Louis by a published announcement that an OKeh recording crew was scheduled to visit that city. First, however, Spivey had to audition for Jesse Johnson, a freelance talent scout and owner of the local De Luxe Music Shoppe. On May 11 and 13, after passing that test, Spivey cut four sides, under the direction of OKeh musical director Justin Ring, in a temporary studio installed in the Wurlitzer Building, among them perhaps her most famous song, “Black Snake Blues.” Coupled with “No More Jelly Bean Blues” (OKeh 8338), the record reportedly sold 150,000 copies and marked the first of some forty recordings Spivey made for OKeh. Despite the continued decline in vaudeville blues’ popularity, she would go on to wax nearly three dozen additional issued sides for Victor, Decca, and Vocalion between 1929 and 1937. 38
A&R officials’ relentless efforts to replenish their catalogs were driven, in part, by the very nature of the roots music artists they recorded. As Charles K. Wolfe explains, most of the white Southerners who made hillbilly recordings “were basically amateurs who, though often highly gifted and innovative folk artists,” had limited repertoires of only four to six marketable songs, and had little, if any, formal musical training. Frank Walker recalled that most of the singers and musicians he encountered had “maybe eight or ten or twelve things that they did well, and that was all they knew.” Partly because few of these artists could read music, it was highly inefficient to teach them additional songs that A&R men might wish them to record. Although these artists could have learned new material by ear, A&R managers and scouts ordinarily could not afford to spend what limited time and resources they had on helping these performers develop larger repertoires. “It was a culling job, taking the best of what they had,” Walker explained. “You might come out with only two selections or you might come out with six or eight, but you did it at that time. You got everything that you thought they were capable of doing well and would be salable, and that was it.” Consequently, most hillbilly artists recorded only a few selections. Of the more than three hundred acts that appeared in Columbia’s 15000-D “Familiar Tunes, Old and New” series between 1925 and 1932, Wolfe estimates that “well over half” made only a single record, or two selections. 39 Much the same held true in other roots music genres, particularly downhome blues. “Many of the singers had just one recording session, in a makeshift studio in a southern city,” folklorist Jeff Todd Titon writes. Thus, under continuous pressure to expand their hillbilly and race catalogs, A&R managers were forced to locate more and more new talent to record, though, if their initial releases sold well, artists were often called back for a follow-up session. 40
Perhaps because of these realities, Frank Walker preferred to “amass as large a collection of master recordings as possible,” writes historian William Howland Kenney, “and recorded nearly everyone who applied”—again suggesting that Art Laibly’s approach at Paramount was not as unusual as Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow imply. 41 Still, prescreening of artists was common A&R practice. Some regional scouts, such as Birmingham’s Harry Charles, set up talent offices equipped with pianos, at which to audition hopeful singers and musicians. 42 In Jackson, Mississippi, H. C. Speir went so far as to install a recording machine on the second floor of his music store to make test recordings of aspiring performers, and then sent the discs to his contacts at various record labels for their review. If A&R officials at one of those labels deemed an artist acceptable, they wired Speir to schedule a recording session, and Speir, in turn, made the necessary arrangements with the artist. 43
Once scouts such as Charles and Speir established reputations as influential talent brokers whose recommendations record companies trusted and regularly accepted, ambitious singers and musicians often wrote to them or simply showed up to audition, thereby reducing the need to canvass city neighborhoods and rural districts for potential artists. In the late 1920s, Louisiana-born bluesman Willard “Ramblin’ ” Thomas and his younger brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas, who were both then living in Dallas, auditioned at a local record shop run by R. T. Ashford, who scouted for several labels. It remains unclear precisely how the Thomas brothers came to Ashford’s attention, but they may have been recommended by another of his discoveries, Blind Lemon Jefferson, with whom the elder Thomas sometimes performed locally in the “Deep Ellum” neighborhood. In any event, after passing their auditions, Ashford arranged for Ramblin’ and Babyface Thomas to record for Paramount and Victor, respectively. 44
J. Mayo Williams recalled that, during the mid-1920s, he rarely wandered far from his South Side Chicago office to seek out talent, confident that his status as the only African American race records scout in the city and his location in the heart of its premier black entertainment district on State Street would bring a procession of prospective recording artists to his door. “There wasn’t any trouble finding artists,” Williams later explained to researcher John K. MacKenzie. “By that time, so many [singers and musicians] had come up here from the South and other parts of the country, because this had become a recording center along with New York. They’d bum rides and hop trains to get up here, any way they could, to get somebody to make a record of them.” 45 As Williams told Stephen Calt, “We never sent anybody away, though a lot of ’em could talk better blues than sing them.” After allowing them about thirty minutes to audition their best material, Williams estimated that he accepted only about half of the artists who tried out. 46 Gus Nennstiel, phonograph department manager of the Knoxville, Tennessee, branch of the Sterchi Brothers furniture chain, scouted talent on the side and also managed some of his discoveries, among them hillbilly recording artists George Reneau, Mac and Bob (Lester McFarland and Robert A. Gardner), and Charley Oaks. “We would come home in the evening,” Nennstiel’s widow told Charles Wolfe, “and the yard would be full of musicians, sitting on the lawn, on the porch, waiting for us. They wanted Mr. Nennstiel to listen to them, to help them get on records.” 47
Many performers who passed their auditions were initially recorded on location, in cities hundreds of miles from record companies’ main studios, as happened with Victoria Spivey in St. Louis in 1926 and Babyface Thomas in Dallas in 1929. But A&R officials who primarily worked local or regional beats—including Harry Charles, H. C. Speir, Polk C. Brockman, Dennis Taylor, W. R. Calaway, Ralph Lembo, and J. B. Long—routinely sent the performers they rated most highly to studios in New York; Camden, New Jersey; Chicago; Richmond, Indiana; or Grafton, Wisconsin, sometimes personally escorting their discoveries to their recording sessions. 48 “If I ran across something I thought was exceptionally good,” Brockman explained, “then I’d wire New York and say, ‘How about a date for Thursday morning?’ or ‘When’s the earliest date you can give me? I’ve got something here that looks very good.’ And I’d go to New York with them.” 49 Up North, scouts handed off those performers to A&R staff members who then worked closely with the artists and supervised their recordings in permanent studios.
This pattern highlights an important dynamic within interwar A&R: there was a difference and sometimes an acute tension between two distinct kinds of A&R personnel. In one camp were recording managers like Ralph Peer, Frank Walker, J. Mayo Williams, Art Laibly, Art Satherley, and Dave Kapp. These were full-time record company executives who worked primarily in the North, where the major firms maintained their headquarters, while also making frequent trips to other regions to find and often record new artists. In the other camp were talent scouts and occasional session contractors who principally covered a local, usually southern, beat, often as a sideline to their regular employment as record distributors or retailers, or sometimes as club owners or concert promoters, or occasionally as radio station executives or jukebox operators. Relatively speaking, they seldom traveled to northern record company offices and studios, but they often recommended local artists to be recorded and occasionally supervised or assisted with their sessions on location in southern and midwestern cities. These regionally based scouts were rarely salaried record company employees; rather, they received finder’s fees, plus incidental expenses, for the performers they located and recommended, if those artists were ultimately accepted. Another financial incentive for some of these agents was the possibility of boosting sales at their stores by selling records of locally renowned artists they had helped secure recording contracts. Many southern retailers who scouted talent, including Polk C. Brockman and H. C. Speir, had initially entered A&R work for this very purpose. 50
RCA Victor’s February 1932 field sessions in Dallas clearly reveals the interplay between national and regional A&R men. As Ralph Peer, who supervised more than a week’s worth of recordings there, told the Dallas Morning News , “On almost every recording tour new artists are discovered and such is the desire of our current endeavor. Many artists found in this manner have later developed into internationally noted musicians and singers, with initial auditions in their own locality proving far more satisfactory than bringing them to New York for recording.” Cooperating with Peer to arrange the venture was William Schnelle, owner of the Texas Radio Sales Company, RCA Victor’s local distributor. Schnelle, the newspaper reported, was “firm in his belief that recordings made in Dallas of Southwestern artists will be in demand throughout this territory and in other sections of the country as well.” Scouting and securing those artists were George Jeffries, RCA Victor’s southwestern sales manager, and Otho C. Slover, Texas Radio Sales Company’s record sales manager. Both men, the Morning News emphasized, had conducted “an exhaustive survey of Texas talent . . . during the last few months” and were convinced “that this new recording effort will bring a large group of expert talent before the public.” 51
Dave Kapp’s memories of his first southern field trip for Decca, in January 1935, were quite similar. “My job was to build a hill billy catalog. That is the thing for which I was hired,” he later explained, although he also scouted and recorded other roots-based genres for the label. Leaving his Chicago office, Kapp traveled first to St. Louis, where he held impromptu “auditions of colored talent . . . with about forty colored people,” before moving on to Jackson, Mississippi, where he auditioned a parade of promising performers already identified by local scout H. C. Speir. “There was a furniture dealer there,” Kapp recalled, “who was in the record business, and who supplied talent for the record companies.” From there, “I went to New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta; and I signed my first talent.” Until 1942, Kapp spent six to eight weeks a year on recording expeditions to the South and, with the assistance of his engineer Brad Bradshaw, recorded hundreds of sessions of hillbilly, western swing, blues, jazz, Cajun, and Mexican music, sometimes making “two to three trips a year to Texas and [North] Carolina.” 52
How long A&R managers and their engineers stayed at each of their scheduled stops varied considerably. On October 18, 1924, OKeh’s mobile unit set up in Dallas for only a single day. During the summer of 1927, while Ralph Peer and his Victor crew spent ten much-feted days recording in Bristol, Tennessee, Gennett’s team camped out in Birmingham for almost two months and came away with nearly 170 recordings, most of them blues and hillbilly numbers. 53 Brunswick A&R man Richard Voynow spent three months on the road in 1929, visiting, in order, Knoxville, Memphis, New Orleans, San Antonio (where United States immigration officials granted him special permission to bring Mexican musicians across the border to record), Dallas, and Kansas City, before returning to company headquarters in Chicago. According to Talking Machine World and Radio-Music Merchant , Voynow supervised the recording of more than five hundred selections on this lengthy expedition. In addition to Spanish-language performances, sessions embraced “the types of record[s] known in the trade as the ‘hill billy, French-Cajan [ sic ], race and popular.’ ” 54
Some companies eventually established permanent or semipermanent recording facilities in cities their recording staff visited regularly. For instance, OKeh crews held their earliest Chicago sessions in a series of provisional studios temporarily set up at the headquarters of its local distributor, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, on West Washington Street. Then in May 1925, OKeh engineers installed a permanent studio in the building. “In the past, it has been necessary to transport from New York and install here a considerable amount of equipment in order to make Okeh records,” explained a Talking Machine World report. “The new laboratory will do away with this unnecessary labor and will effect a great saving in time.” 55 Several other northern-based companies set up similar workspaces in the South. Atlanta proved to be such an important recording center for blues and hillbilly music that, by the late 1920s, Victor and Columbia had both established permanent studios there, for a time occupying office space across the hall from one another in the same Peachtree Street building. 56 During the mid- to late 1930s, ARC held its Dallas sessions in a semipermanent studio installed in the Brunswick Records Building at 508 Park Avenue, headquarters of its local distributor. RCA Victor staged all three of its 1936 Charlotte field sessions in the second-floor warehouse of its distributor, the Southern Radio Corporation on South Tryon Street, but for its next few expeditions in the city, transferred its recording activities to a remodeled suite on the tenth floor of the Hotel Charlotte, located a couple blocks away on West Trade Street. 57

FIGURE 2.4. “Perpetuating Our ‘Hill-Billy’ Harmonies.” Full page of newspaper articles chronicling Brunswick’s 1930 Knoxville field session held in the St. James Hotel. Knoxville News-Sentinel , April 13, 1930. Reproduced from the book accompanying Ted Olson and Tony Russell, The Knoxville Sessions, 1929–1930: Knox County Stomp , 4-CD boxed set (Bear Family BCD 16097). Used by permission.
More often, however, A&R men and their recording engineers quickly rigged up temporary studios in hotels, warehouses, auditoriums, radio stations, and an assortment of other readily available spaces, including, on one occasion, a Ku Klux Klan hall, site of Victor’s October 1928 sessions in Atlanta. 58 Some of these sites have become the stuff of American roots music legend, none more than the Taylor-Christian Building at 408 State Street in Bristol, Tennessee. Leased by Ralph Peer during late July and early August 1927, this venue served as the site of Victor’s historic “Bristol Sessions,” now heralded, albeit hyperbolically, as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Another significant location was WNOX’s radio studios inside the St. James Hotel at 311–13 Wall Avenue in Knoxville, where Richard Voynow and Wilford J. “Bill” Brown held important hillbilly sessions for Brunswick in the summer of 1929 and again in the spring of 1930. Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel on East Houston Street in San Antonio, where, in November 1936, under the supervision of ARC’s Don Law, future blues icon Robert Johnson made his recording debut, also proved to be a much-revered historic recording site. 59
Jesse Johnson, the resourceful owner of St. Louis’s De Luxe Music Shoppe, successfully scouted blues artists for a number of labels, including Victor, Paramount, Brunswick, and OKeh. Although he often attended recording sessions of his newly found artists, it remains unclear if he was present in the studio in May 1926 when Victoria Spivey cut her first OKeh recordings. Nor is it known if he ever personally supervised any recording sessions. Still, Johnson’s A&R activities highlight the importance of retailers in finding new artists, while also providing a different perspective on how these scouts sometimes unearthed their finds. In addition to running his music store, Johnson promoted dances and concerts in St. Louis (including several “battles” between aspiring local bands and nationally renowned jazz orchestras), and wrote songs. One of these, “Mr. Johnson’s Blues,” appeared on the first release (OKeh 8253) by the influential blues and jazz guitarist-singer Lonnie Johnson (no relation), who recorded it in St. Louis in November 1925. The enterprising Johnson installed a piano in his store, partly for entertainment, but also so he could instantly audition aspiring singers and musicians who wished to make recordings. He also staged regular talent shows as a means of finding potential recording artists, often at the Booker T. Washington Theatre, a major black vaudeville venue that was located across the street from his store. In these ways, Johnson and his wife, blues singer Edith North Johnson, used their contacts among local and traveling entertainers to find prospective recording artists they could recommend to A&R officials at various labels. 60
One of their discoveries was blues-boogie-woogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes, who had auditioned for Johnson on De Luxe’s in-store piano. Johnson, Sykes recalled, “decided that the numbers were all right and that they would go,” and then accompanied Sykes to New York. There, on June 14, 1929, Sykes waxed six sides for OKeh, including his first release, “44 Blues” / “Boot That Thing” (OKeh 8702). Over the next decade, as Sykes became better acquainted with the recording industry and its seamier practices, he cut a series of pseudonymously issued sides for Paramount (credited as by Dobby Bragg), Vocalion (Easy Papa Johnson), Victor (Willie Kelly), and Champion (St. Louis Johnny) that modestly increased his income. He also began to scout for Johnson, as well as for J. Mayo Williams and Jack Kapp. “Those fellers figgered I knowed pretty well about blues singers and that I knowed pretty good materials when I heard it, so they ask me would I go out and find some new artists for them,” he told blues scholar Paul Oliver. His A&R contacts even provided him with a formal letter of introduction, which proved particularly useful when he recruited blues singers from among black laborers on southern plantations and farms owned by suspicious white landlords. “You had to show them what you was up to; that you didn’t come to steal the guy away and to show them what you was up to in that you be there for makin’ records, and you didn’t come to take nobody off their job and they’d return right back and carry on with whatever they were doin’,” Sykes explained. This whole situation spoke volumes about the complicity of A&R officials in the oppressive structures of the Jim Crow South, where white planters and employers even attempted—with mixed success—to control how African American workers capitalized on the musical talents they honed during their precious leisure time. One of Sykes’s first finds was blues singer Walter Davis, for whom he scheduled an audition with Jesse Johnson. Johnson, in turn, arranged for Davis to make recordings, initially for Victor at a June 1930 session in Cincinnati’s Hotel Sinton, with Sykes himself backing Davis on piano. 61
Not all A&R officials used talent to beget yet more talent. H. C. Speir claimed that he never employed any of the many blues singers he discovered as talent scouts. Rather, he preferred to do his own recruiting and bragged to a succession of interviewers about his infallible instincts when it came to identifying top-grade talent and material. As Jeff Todd Titon notes, “Speir had no formal training; he simply relied on his musical taste. Unlike other scouts, he placed no weight on the prospective singer’s popularity in his community.” In particular, Speir prided himself on his ability to distinguish between those performers who communicated well in live settings and those whose voices and songs reproduced well on recordings. 62
There is no denying that Speir compiled an impressive résumé. Among the blues acts whose recording careers he launched or otherwise enabled were Tommy Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Bo Carter, Ishmon Bracey, and, perhaps most important, Charley Patton. That track record earned gushing praise from Gayle Dean Wardlow, who interviewed Speir on several occasions between 1964 and 1970, and dubbed him “the Godfather of Delta Blues.” “If Speir hadn’t been there,” Wardlow maintains, “the greatest of the Delta blues singers would probably never have recorded.” 63 There is no particular reason to challenge Speir’s claim that, in the spring of 1929, he drove out to Dockery Plantation, west of Cleveland, Mississippi, to hear Patton and quickly determined that he would work well on record. But it is worth noting that Patton, a veteran entertainer and a mentor to several local bluesmen who had already made commercial recordings, had previously written to Speir, in either late 1928 or early 1929, to request an audition. It is also highly likely that Patton had been recommended to Speir either by other musicians or by black record buyers who patronized his store. 64 Similarly, Speir admitted to Wardlow that, in 1930, he had sought out Blind Joe Reynolds at a sawmill-camp barrelhouse near Lake Providence, Louisiana, precisely because another artist—either Bo Carter or Charley Patton—had recommended him. 65 Despite Speir’s attempts to weave a magical spell around his allegedly preternatural talent-spotting abilities, and the willingness of commentators to accept the notion that he was some kind of iconoclastic blues savant, it strains credulity to think that he did not regularly avail himself of the same kinds of preexisting intelligence networks of customers and musicians that his A&R colleagues regularly relied on.
In truth, ambitious and savvy A&R men throughout the recording industry were usually only too eager to take advantage of local expertise and were grateful to performers who could supply them with tips on new talent and, sometimes, assist them in getting that talent into the studio. According to blues singer-guitarist Sleepy John Estes, it was veteran recording artist and fellow blues singer-guitarist Jim Jackson (ironically, one of H. C. Speir’s “finds”) who initially encouraged him and mandolin player Yank Rachell to audition at a September 1929 Victor field session that Ralph Peer was then supervising in Memphis. 66 Will Shade, leader of the prolific and versatile Memphis Jug Band, performed A&R duties for Victor and later RCA Victor, introducing banjo player Gus Cannon and other local black artists to label officials. During the firm’s May–June 1930 sessions in the Memphis Auditorium, Shade even assisted Peer in the studio as a session supervisor for several blues acts’ recordings. At the peak of the Memphis Jug Band’s popularity and Shade’s scouting success, Victor put Shade on a weekly retainer, and before he lost everything in the Great Depression, he was able to purchase a house and $3,000 worth of the company’s stock with his earnings. 67
In Chicago, J. Mayo Williams was beholden to blues singer-guitarist Kansas Joe McCoy, first husband of Memphis Minnie, for persuading the frenetic slide-guitarist Kokomo Arnold to take time off from his moonshine liquor business and record with Williams for Decca in 1934. 68 Several years earlier, during his tenure at Brunswick, Williams had formalized with Cow Cow Davenport what was usually an ad hoc arrangement between A&R officials and talent-scouting artists. One of Davenport’s first recommendations was fellow blues pianist Pine Top Smith, whom he introduced to Williams by letter in 1928, beginning a process that soon led to eight boogie-woogie piano sides for Brunswick’s subsidiary label, Vocalion. 69
With his songwriting gifts and a string of hit records under numerous guises, Big Bill Broonzy ranks as one of the most successful blues recording artists of the interwar years. But he also proved invaluable to Lester Melrose’s A&R efforts on behalf of many labels during the 1930s and 1940s. This was particularly true after the Chicago-based Melrose made an ill-fated scouting trip around 1938 into the heart of the Mississippi Delta searching for bluesman Tommy McClennan on a farm outside of Yazoo City. Following a terrifying experience during which angry white locals, alarmed at the sight of a Yankee stranger prowling around the plantations where hundreds of black workers toiled, chased him away and forced him to abandon his automobile, Melrose vowed never to return to the South in search of talent. Instead, according to Broonzy, “he used to send me all the time after artists. He never did go down South again.” 70
In the hillbilly recording field, A&R officials likewise responded favorably to tips from trusted artists. Ernest V. Stoneman, for instance, advised Victor A&R man Ralph Peer to make field recordings in Bristol, Tennessee, in the summer of 1927. Stoneman, of Galax, Virginia, also exemplifies how would-be recording artists often went in search of A&R officials, rather than wait for talent scouts to find them. In 1924, underwhelmed by the first OKeh recordings he heard by fellow Virginian Henry Whitter, Stoneman traveled to New York by train, at his own expense, to audition for several labels, among them OKeh, where Peer was director of record production. Impressed, Peer signed him to a five-year personal management contract, during which time Stoneman recorded for OKeh, as well as for Edison and Gennett, before following Peer to Victor. 71 By 1927, Stoneman was not only a recording artist but also Peer’s friend, musical advisor, and talent scout. In preparation for an upcoming recording expedition, as he recalled, Peer asked him “to go out in the mountains and hunt up people that have got something on the ball, that we can use.” Stoneman, in turn, found a rich bounty of musical talent in the Virginia-Tennessee border region near Bristol, whose main street actually straddles the line separating the two states. Accepting Stoneman’s recommendation, Peer famously chose Bristol as one site of his three-city recording expedition, telling the Bristol Herald Courier that “in no section of the south have the pre-war melodies and old mountaineer songs been better preserved than in the mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.” 72
According to his biographer Barry Mazor, Peer may have first learned about Jimmie Rodgers, one of his major discoveries at the Bristol sessions, from another of his former OKeh recording artists, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who had heard Rodgers performing on WWNC-Asheville. Along with WBT-Charlotte and WPTF-Raleigh, WWNC became a key broadcasting outlet for hillbilly singers and stringbands during the 1930s. Like many radio and stage entertainers, Rodgers was busily firing off letters to record labels, looking for an opportunity to make recordings and bragging of the regional popularity his radio appearances had earned him. 73 Peer recalled that, once he began releasing race and hillbilly records at OKeh in the early to mid-1920s, he started to receive “a tremendous amount of correspondence” from aspiring recording artists. But, he explained, “I’m thinking it’s the hillbilly it applies to mostly because the niggers can’t write.” His crude language and stereotyping aside, Peer rightly suggested that “the production of these records, both the race and the hillbilly, led to the discovery of new artists. One sort of led to the other, and we got a lot of mail, especially on hillbilly . . . from actual artists.” 74
In truth, the whole concept of “discovery” is quite slippery and of limited value when discussing A&R work in the interwar roots music field. Most “discoveries” were made on the basis of referrals: sometimes from distributors or retailers, sometimes from other singers and musicians, and sometimes in the form of self-referrals. Moreover, most referrals concerned artists who had already garnered considerable experience and local, perhaps even regional, renown from live performances, radio broadcasts, or both. A&R officials may have honed raw talent and shaped recording careers, but they were rarely, if ever, the first persons to recognize the musical gifts of the blues and hillbilly artists they recorded. Nevertheless, in their efforts to advance their own careers or burnish their legacies, they often took more than their fair share of credit for finding the artists they brought into the studio and immortalized on records.
During the 1920s, commercial radio became essential to the world of A&R. Initially, some record company executives resisted the broadcasting of recorded music lest it undermine the careers of working musicians or, more importantly, damage sales of phonographs and records. But radio quickly proved itself both a rich source of talent and a valuable publicity tool for record companies. Radio broadcasting was increasingly seen as a means to promote records and boost sales. This was one reason why radio stations were so reluctant to pay for the privilege of broadcasting phonograph records, arguing that they were, in effect, providing advertising for those discs. Beginning in 1923, this conflict of interest spawned a spate of bitter and protracted legal battles between radio broadcasters and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the preeminent performance rights licensing organization, which then represented most of America’s major music publishers and an elite group of some eleven hundred writer members who penned the vast bulk of the nation’s vaudeville hits and sheet music favorites. ASCAP—alarmed about the prospective loss of revenue to its members from decreasing sheet music sales as a result of the growth of the recording and radio industries, and eager to secure performance royalties for the broadcasting of music, whether in live performances or on records—initiated a series of lawsuits against individual radio stations and eventually the powerful national radio networks. Although there were some local variations, by the mid-1920s, blanket licensing agreements allowed many stations and network affiliates to broadcast an unlimited number of ASCAP-licensed songs over the airwaves in return for fixed annual licensing fees. In 1930, under the terms of these agreements, ASCAP collected about $800,000 in royalties from broadcasters; by 1948, that figure had risen to $6.5 million. That revenue was channeled back to the writers and copyright holders of the songs that were aired, which sometimes meant the money went into the publishing arms of record companies formed or administered by A&R men such as Ralph Peer and J. Mayo Williams. In short, performance royalties from radio airplay became an increasingly lucrative source of additional income not only for older, well-established, ASCAP-affiliated music publishers and writers but also for record companies and occasionally, depending on their contractual arrangements, performers. 75
Further complicating commercial music’s business relationships was a series of radio and record company buyouts, beginning, most significantly, with the Radio Corporation of America’s purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company in January 1929, followed in December 1931 by the sale of the Columbia Phonograph Company to the Grigsby-Grunow Company, a Chicago-based radio manufacturer. When Grigsby-Grunow went bankrupt in 1934, Columbia was bought by ARC, which, in turn, was purchased, along with its subsidiary Brunswick Record Corporation, by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in December 1938. 76 In the new media conglomerates created through these acquisitions, record companies and their A&R departments usually operated as separate corporate entities from their parent company’s radio operations. Nevertheless, these buyouts and mergers were symptomatic of important changes in the broader economic landscape of mass media and entertainment in the United States. With the advent of “talkies”—movies with soundtracks—in the late 1920s, Hollywood motion picture companies began purchasing major music publishing firms, or at least acquiring controlling interests in them, so the studios could avoid being held hostage by publishers in negotiating rights to use copyrighted music in films. As the radio and motion picture industries competed for consumer dollars and advertising revenue, recording companies and music publishing firms often became pawns in bigger corporate battles. 77
If financial considerations and business associations were more than enough to keep A&R managers in close contact with broadcasters, radio’s continued use of live music also offered a potentially rich source of new, as yet unrecorded, talent. African American blues artists were seldom heard on radio during this period, but jazz orchestras, gospel quartets, and hillbilly stringbands regularly broadcast on local stations and, by the early 1930s, on national networks as well—and A&R men were listening. John Hammond discovered much of his recording talent at jazz clubs and bars in Manhattan, but he also heard promising new musicians performing live on nighttime broadcasts carried up and down the Eastern Seaboard. In September 1933, for example, Hammond was listening to his car radio when he first heard elegant jazz pianist Teddy Wilson performing a live set at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Café. Enchanted by what he heard, Hammond telephoned station WMAQ to ask who the musician was. After learning Wilson’s identity, he gave bandleader and saxophonist Benny Carter $150 to bring Wilson to New York and then immediately placed him with Carter’s orchestra at Columbia. Hammond would later team Wilson with Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday for some of the most important sessions in jazz history. 78
Similarly, Harry Charles recounted how one night while driving in Tennessee he heard an unidentified female trio on his car radio. “Just turned on my radio about 4:30 in the morning and those girls was singing. . . . I found them at the studio and signed them,” he explained. 79 Van Sills, an A&R scout from Charlotte, North Carolina, who managed the record department of the Southern Radio Corporation, RCA Victor’s regional distributor, was introduced to the Blue Sky Boys, a guitar-and-mandolin brother duo, via WGST-Atlanta around 1936. Their sponsor, J. W. Fincher, president and manager of the Crazy Water Crystals Company of the Carolinas and Georgia, had encouraged Sills to tune in to their broadcasts. Sills subsequently recommended the act to Eli Oberstein at RCA Victor. 80 A few years later, Sills, then scouting for Decca, found a similar act, Whitey and Hogan, on WGNC-Gastonia, North Carolina, and sent them to that label. “Evidently, Dave Kapp and the folks up at Decca in New York knew Van pretty well,” Roy “Whitey” Grant remembered. Like most record retailers and distributors, “Van knew his numbers. He knew records, knew what would sell.” 81
Particularly significant links between broadcasters and A&R officials were forged around the many radio barn dances that crowded the nation’s airwaves during the 1920s and 1930s. One of the most important in this regard (though not the first) was the National Barn Dance , which premiered on WLS-Chicago on April 19, 1924. Over the next decade or so, it was joined by dozens of similar shows, including WBT-Charlotte’s Crazy Barn Dance , WRVA-Richmond’s Corn Cob Pipe Club and Old Dominion Barn Dance , and WSB-Atlanta’s Cross Road Follies . Initially, most of these programs catered to regional audiences, but beginning in the early 1930s, some were broadcast coast-to-coast over major radio networks. As a result, several achieved national and enduring prominence, including the National Barn Dance , WLW-Cincinnati’s (later WHAS-Louisville’s) Renfro Valley Barn Dance , and, most spectacularly, WSM-Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry , the nation’s longest-running radio program. 82 While these programs often featured well-established recording artists, they also provided A&R scouts with opportunities to hear popular but unrecorded talent. Sometimes bullish radio executives and producers even assumed A&R functions in their own right, promoting their performers as a means to publicize their stations and programs. One chief example was George D. Hay, a former WLS announcer who served as WSM-Nashville’s radio director and founded the Grand Ole Opry . In 1927, Hay personally arranged for three of the program’s regular attractions to record for Columbia at an Atlanta field session: white singer-Jew’s harp player Obed “Dad” Pickard, a black gospel group called the Golden Echo Quartet, and, most popular of all, African American “harmonica wizard” DeFord Bailey. “WSM artists are meeting with unusual success in the field of musical records as a result of their broadcasting,” crowed the Nashville Tennessean , adding “WSM is holding its own as regards representatives on the big records.” A couple of weeks later, Hay used his contacts to secure Bailey a second recording date, this time with Brunswick in New York. On April 18 and 19, 1927, Bailey recorded eight selections, six of which were released in Brunswick’s new “Songs from Dixie” series, while an equal number of them appeared on its Vocalion subsidiary in its “Old Southern Tunes” counterpart, a reminder of the often-unacknowledged racial diversity of interwar hillbilly series. 83
Like Bailey, Bradley Kincaid had already established himself as a popular radio singer-guitarist who specialized in sentimental ballads and mountain songs on WLS’s National Barn Dance before he secured a recording deal in 1927. Clayton “Jack” Jackson, the Gennett assistant sales manager-cum-A&R man who first recorded Kincaid for that label and its subsidiaries, dutifully acknowledged this radio pedigree by billing his rising star on record labels as a “WLS Artist,” just as George D. Hay had encouraged Columbia to identify DeFord Bailey and the other Opry stars on their releases as “of Station WSM, Nashville, TN.” 84 Jackson also signed and recorded other WLS talent, including Chubby Parker, the Arkansas Woodchopper, and the Maple City Four, whose members may actually have first tipped off Jackson about Kincaid’s growing radio following. 85 “We were hunting talent, that was my main occupation after hours, finding talent we could hire,” Jackson said of his time trawling Chicago’s radio stations and nightspots. “You had the Trianon Ballroom, the Aragon Ballroom, you had WGN. That’s where we found Gene Arnold. We found Chubby Parker in a beer joint up in the north end of the Loop. We found George Gobel in a cellar there in the Loop.” 86
Bradley Kincaid proved to be a significant recording artist, going on to enjoy success with Gennett, Brunswick, Bluebird, and Decca into the mid-1930s, and with several other labels after World War II. 87 Roy Acuff turned out to be an even greater find, coming to the attention of ARC’s A&R man W. R. Calaway thanks to the reputation that Acuff and his band had developed as stage performers and as regulars on both WROL and WNOX in Knoxville. Calaway was particularly excited at the prospect of recording what, by then, had become Acuff’s signature song: “The Great Speckled Bird”—a song of such convoluted provenance that it was subject to multiple copyright claims. Acuff’s first recording of the song (Vocalion / OKeh 04252, plus other releases)—or “The Bird,” as he affectionately called it—as well as his classic rendition of the Carter Family’s “Wabash Cannon Ball” (Vocalion / OKeh 04466, plus others), were both waxed for ARC in Chicago under Calaway’s supervision in October 1936. Calaway also oversaw Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans’ session in Birmingham, the following March. By the time Acuff became a rising national star, singing “The Great Speckled Bird” on the Grand Ole Opry in February 1938, his relationship with Calaway had soured, however. “He wanted ‘The Bird,’ ” Acuff later said. “He didn’t want me.” 88

FIGURE 2.5. Cover of the Crazy Water Crystals Company of the Carolinas and Georgia’s Souvenir of the Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands folio (ca. 1934). Courtesy of Old Hat Records.
Acuff’s comment reflects the critical importance that songs and their copyrights held for many A&R officials involved in interwar American roots music. Along with Polk C. Brockman, J. Mayo Williams, and Ralph Peer, the North Carolina–born Calaway was one of the first to appreciate the true potential of copyrighting the material his recording artists composed or arranged. Working as a freelance scout for Gennett in the late 1920s and then as sales manager for ARC throughout much of the 1930s, Calaway wheedled his way into receiving royalties on a number of songs that he copyrighted in his own name—with doubtful creative input—notably selections by the prolific hillbilly singing duo John McGhee and Frank Welling. Later, after he joined ARC, Calaway redoubled his efforts to appropriate other lucrative song copyrights. In eight years, he filed registrations for approximately 180 songs; the last, in 1938, was for Acuff’s hugely popular version of “Wabash Cannon Ball.” 89
Calaway’s strategy offered a lesson in the economics of the roots recording industry that Acuff took to heart. In 1942, Acuff co-founded Acuff-Rose Publications with Fred Rose, a former vaudeville entertainer turned radio performer, recording artist, and Tin Pan Alley songwriter. “Fred had so many talents,” recalled Jimmie Davis, the former two-time governor of Louisiana, enormously successful singing star (best known for “You Are My Sunshine”), and purveyor of a heady mix of hillbilly prurience, religion, and sentimentality. As Davis’s testimonial emphasizes, A&R officials often wore many different hats with equal aplomb: “[Fred] was a great songwriter, he was a good A&R man, he could direct a recording session,” in addition to making a number of his own recordings for Brunswick during the 1920s and touring briefly as a pianist with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. 90 From its headquarters in Nashville, Acuff-Rose would become a major force in the postwar music industry, especially after Rose began shepherding one of country music’s most memorable songwriters and recording stars, Hank Williams, in 1946.
When the Columbia Broadcasting System acquired ARC in December 1938 and formed the Columbia Recording Corporation, Roy Acuff signed with that company and began working closely with pioneering A&R man Art Satherley. Satherley supervised all of Acuff’s Columbia recordings, released across the complex of subsidiary labels that Columbia soon acquired or revived, especially Vocalion and OKeh. 91 Satherley also accelerated the rise of another major hillbilly star of the interwar years, a man whose career illustrates not only the close connections between radio stations and A&R departments but also the growing links between those departments and an even newer entertainment technology: talking motion pictures. That artist was Gene Autry, nicknamed “Public Cowboy No. 1” after the title of one of his 1937 western films.
As with many origin myths, the precise circumstances by which Autry secured a recording contract and eventually transformed himself into the greatest of Hollywood’s “singing cowboys” are hotly disputed. What is clear, however, is that several A&R men played important roles in his story. In 1928, the ambitious Autry, then working as a telegraph operator in Vinita, Oklahoma, traveled to New York to try his luck with a number of record companies. Johnny Marvin, a popular Victor recording artist and fellow Oklahoman whose family Autry knew, almost certainly helped arrange an audition at the label. Autry later preferred to recount how he had loitered in the lobby of Victor’s offices, waiting for his chance, eventually singing a version of “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time” for the receptionist that was overheard by the song’s composer, Nat Shilkret. In Autry’s account, Shilkret, Victor’s New York studio manager and musical director, recommended Autry to his assistant, Leonard Joy, who supervised a test record with Autry. Joy apparently liked Autry’s voice, but considered the twenty-year-old singer-guitarist’s performance too nervous and unpolished to warrant an actual recording session. As Autry remembered, Joy advised him to “go back to Oklahoma and get a job on radio and get some experience and then in maybe six months or a year, you come back.” 92
Autry dutifully took Joy’s advice. Back in Oklahoma, he secured a regular time slot on KVOO-Tulsa and built a regional reputation as the “Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy”—a sort of Jimmie Rodgers with chaps—before returning to Victor in October 1929 to begin his recording career. His first Victor releases were cut under the direction of Loren L. Watson, the same Memphis record distributor, talent scout, and occasional session supervisor who had recommended bluesmen Gus Cannon and Frank Stokes to Art Laibly at Paramount. Soon, however, Autry was working with Eli Oberstein, who replaced Watson in 1930 as Victor’s record sales manager, but who, like many record company executives, still worked with talent in and out of the studio. Over the next eight months, as was common for nonexclusive artists, Autry also waxed a mix of originals songs and cover versions under a variety of pseudonyms for cheaper competing labels, among them Harmony, Velvet Tone, Grey Gull, QRS, and Gennett and its subsidiary, Champion. With the growing success of his records and his expanding radio exposure, thanks to a new spot on WJJD-Chicago (where Dave Kapp was program director), when Autry and Art Satherley first met in late 1930, the singer was a rising, if hardly yet a major, star. 93
At the time of their first studio collaboration, in November 1930, Satherley was working for ARC, a new company formed by the merger of several dime-store labels, including those marketed by the Plaza Music Company. Only a month earlier, Consolidated Film Industries (CFI), one of the nation’s leading motion-picture processing laboratories, had purchased ARC, opening up promising possibilities for the cross-promotion of songs, recordings, and movies. CFI’s president, Herbert J. Yates, encouraged Satherley to expand ARC’s involvement in roots music. In 1935, after he had secured control of Republic Pictures, Yates also supported Satherley’s efforts to refashion Autry’s radio and recording celebrity into what proved to be an extraordinarily successful on-screen persona as a singing cowboy star. This fueled a commercial and creative synergy between Hollywood motion pictures, western imagery (both lyrical and sartorial), and hillbilly musical stylings that deeply influenced the development of country music. 94

FIGURE 2.6. Gene Autry and Art Satherley (ca. 1941). Autry’s inscription reads: “To ‘My One Pal Who Made Me’—Always Best Wishes to the greatest of them all Art Satherley.” Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
By the time he appeared in his first starring movie role in Republic Pictures’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds in 1935, Autry was a major radio star, due to his regular broadcasts on Chicago’s WJJD and WLS, and one of the era’s best-selling hillbilly recording artists. His long streak of hit records began with the phenomenally popular “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” which enjoyed multiple concurrent releases on ARC’s assortment of dime-store labels (Banner 32349, Oriole 8109, Perfect 12775, and Romeo 5109, among others). Satherley had personally selected “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” from among Autry’s repertoire and then supervised his recording of it (with duet partner, Jimmy Long, the song’s composer) in New York on October 29, 1931. Again blurring the lines between the scouting, producing, and selling aspects of A&R work, an excited Satherley took a test pressing of Autry and Long’s sentimental ballad to Jeff Shay, chief buyer for the music department of the Chicago-based mail-order firm, Sears, Roebuck & Company. Shay recommended that Autry start appearing regularly on a time slot the company sponsored on WLS, home of the National Barn Dance . By gaining Sears, Roebuck’s support and underwriting a WLS program for Autry (“We paid Gene Autry $30 a week for nearly two years out of our petty cash,” Satherley later recalled), the A&R man did not so much “discover” Autry as help him shift his career into a much higher gear. 95 “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” reportedly racked up sales of a half-million copies, and despite complex legalities, Autry eventually signed something resembling an exclusive contract with both Satherley and ARC that guaranteed him eight record releases a year. By the end of 1932, Autry had earned roughly $2,200 in royalties from the record company, although as a result of a “hand-shake agreement,” Satherley took a 25 percent standing commission. 96
Two years later, Satherley brokered a meeting in Chicago between Autry and Nat Levine, a Hollywood film producer for the independent Mascot Pictures. Soon afterward, Autry debuted in the B-western movie, In Old Santa Fe (1934). He sang a handful of songs and, in the role of a traveling entertainer, was credited as “Gene Autry—Cowboy Idol of the Air.” As historian Douglas B. Green puts it, this cameo heralded “the transformation between cowboys who sang . . . and singing cowboys.” 97 In June 1935, Yates’s CFI empire acquired Mascot Pictures. (Autry’s first two starring films with Republic Pictures, though, still bore the legend “Nat Levine Mascot Production.”) Three months later, Republic released Tumbling Tumbleweeds . Autry’s first starring feature film included not only his best-selling song to date, “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” (which was reissued on Vocalion 02991 as a tie-in with the movie’s release), but also what would become another hit, the title song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (Banner 33348, Oriole 8434, Perfect 13113, Romeo 5434, and Vocalion 03007, among others). From this point forward, motion pictures worked in much the same way as did radio for Autry: as one part of an intersecting network of mutually beneficial media outlets for records and songs. For the next decade or so, Autry biographer Holly George-Warren explains, “Gene’s movies would cross-promote his record releases, while his well-known songs gave recognition to his new films.” 98
Art Satherley created Autry’s singing cowboy persona neither by himself, nor out of whole cloth. Rather, he and Autry both credited Anne Williams, announcer for WLS’s Conqueror Record Time program on which Autry made his radio breakthrough, for helping hone that image. There were also links to his “Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy” days. Nevertheless, from 1930 onward, Satherley exerted the strongest influence on Autry’s career, both inside and outside the recording studio. Together they created a smooth, wildly popular fusion of cowboy aesthetics and hillbilly music that fed directly into the mainstream of American commercial music, radio, and film. “I sang cowboy songs, not because I felt the listeners like ’em better,” Autry later admitted, “but because Arthur insisted up on it.” Autry also acknowledged that it was Satherley who had eased him into movies in the first place: “I think that Art Satherley recommended me. Naturally.” The final, ambiguous “naturally” speaks volumes about both Satherley’s importance and ambitions as an A&R man. It was only “natural” that Satherley would be on the lookout for new ways to promote his artists and their music to the widest possible audience. That was, after all, what A&R representatives did. 99
Art Satherley carefully guided Gene Autry’s recording career for some two decades, eventually producing roughly 450 sides with the nation’s favorite singing cowboy, including his million-selling 1947 hit, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” (Columbia 37942). Satherley maintained a similarly close, almost proprietorial connection with several of his other major acts, among them Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. This proved to be a common practice in the A&R field, where the tasks of finding, recording, and managing talent often overlapped. Ralph Peer signed all his talent to his management agency and supervised almost every recording by his best-selling acts, notably Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Likewise, J. B. Long managed North Carolina bluesman Blind Boy Fuller and arranged all his sessions for ARC, although Satherley oversaw them. 100 Such attentiveness to established acts reflects another aspect of A&R work that tends to get lost amid the romance of scouting expeditions, the thrill of making major discoveries, and the excitement of first recordings. A&R officials actually spent a considerable amount of time developing artists who they—or others—had initially discovered and already recorded. In the unruly and underregulated world of interwar roots recording, A&R officials often dedicated themselves to courting and recording singers and musicians who had already established themselves with rival companies and who were often legally still under contract to them. Like some kind of bizarre plot in an Autry Hollywood western, talent rustling was endemic in the interwar recording industry—and sheriffs were scarce.
Regardless of the provisions of their recording contracts, few successful roots music artists recorded for a single company. Even if they were nominally signed to a particular firm as exclusive artists, many disguised their true identities behind aliases to make recordings, often of the same material, for competing labels. A telling example can be found in the discography of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers. In May 1929, Poole and his bandmates attended a recording session in Manhattan for their regular label, Columbia, but brought along two additional musicians with the intention of recording as a five-piece band instead of as their usual trio. They also planned to record “A Trip to New York,” a lengthy skit scripted by the group’s guitarist, Roy Harvey, that recounted the misadventures of a hillbilly stringband on its first recording trip. Columbia A&R man Frank Walker, however, refused to record both the larger ensemble and the comedy skit. A frustrated Poole, backed only by his customary two sidemen, was left to record a series of by-now-familiar material for Columbia at these May 6 and 7 sessions. 101
Although signed to Columbia as exclusive artists, Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers responded by making clandestine recordings for two rival companies. A day or two after completing their Columbia sessions, the musicians cut six sides as an expanded, five-piece band for Paramount, which credited the releases to the Highlanders. Some of these sides were simultaneously released on Broadway, Paramount’s budget-priced subsidiary label, on which the group was billed as the Tennessee Mountaineers or, alternatively, the Mountaineers. On May 11, at their fourth recording session of a busy week, Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers waxed Harvey’s four-part skit, “A Trip to New York,” for Brunswick (Brunswick 324 and 325), with the discs credited to the Allegheny Highlanders. 102 It is not entirely certain whether Poole and his band invented these aliases to evade their contractual obligations to Columbia and successfully hoodwinked the A&R staffs at Paramount and Brunswick, or whether, as seems more likely, the recording officials at those labels knew perfectly well who they were dealing with and assigned or approved these pseudonyms in order to avoid legal complications. Either way, this episode reveals that disgruntled or enterprising recording artists, whether acting independently or in collusion with A&R men at competing companies, had few qualms about breaking their exclusive contracts whenever opportunities presented themselves.
Regardless of who was responsible, this practice of disguising artists’ identities proved to be so widespread that it makes compiling reliable discographies of pre–World War II American roots music records a treacherous business. Freelance studio singer Vernon Dalhart’s remarkable ninety-eight known nom de disques on domestic releases alone may have put him in a league of his own, but many roots music performers, even ones with relatively modest recording careers, followed suit. “I recorded under about ten different names,” recalled blues singer-pianist James “Stump” Johnson, among them Shorty George, Snitcher Roberts, and the Little Man. Equally telling, Johnson claimed to have “signed a contract with just about every big recordin’ company there was.” 103
A&R officials were often as complicit as recording artists in encouraging this furtive dance of allegiance and betrayal, and of naming and renaming. “At Victor they didn’t even ask you what name you would like to go under besides your own name,” recounted Dwight Butcher, a Tennessee-born hillbilly singer-guitarist who first recorded in December 1932 at a New York session for the short-lived Crown label. Adrian Schubert, the A&R man who supervised the session, released Butcher’s debut sides, “Lonesome Road Blues” / “Mystery of Old Number Five” (Crown 3433), under the billing Slim Oakdale. Schubert even played chimes on a couple of Butcher’s later recordings, “Cowboy’s Heaven” (Crown 3503) and “Prairie Lullaby” (Crown 3529), both of which also appeared under this same pseudonym. Meanwhile, in 1933, Butcher signed a personal management contract with Ralph Peer. Over the next few years, he cut material for Victor, its Bluebird subsidiary (whose catalog Eli Oberstein managed), Decca, and, until its demise in the fall of 1933, Crown. Butcher also saw his sides issued domestically on Champion, Continental, Electradisk, Montgomery Ward, and Varsity, and, in Canada and overseas, on HMV, Melotone, Minerva, Panachord, Regal-Zonophone, and Twin. Because he had signed with Peer, rather than with RCA Victor, Butcher was free to record for as many labels, under as many names, as he and Peer desired. Butcher explained that A&R men at the different companies often chose his pseudonyms. “While I was under contract with Peer, a suggestion was made by the record company . . . that since I was from Oakdale, Tennessee—I had a little trio then . . . [by] the name of the Slim Oakdale Trio, and I recorded [for] Crown under the name of the Slim Oakdale Trio as well as my own name.” All of Butcher’s Victor releases appeared under own name, but “they called me Joe Smith the Lonesome Cowboy on Bluebird. Slim Oakdale, and Slim Butcher, and Hank Hall, and all these names . . . you know, that Eli Oberstein would put on the labels and keep putting out new labels.” Still more of his releases were credited to Slim Dwight, Tex Slim, the Texas Drifter, Andy Long, and Bill Palmer. 104
The whole business of renaming artists and rerecording, or reissuing, their most popular sides highlights an important, if not especially glamorous dimension of interwar A&R. Intrepid scouts may sometimes have found magnificent singers and musicians in dancehalls, bars, theaters, churches and on radio stations and street corners, and helped them record their music for the first time, but they also devoted considerable energy to scouring rival companies’ catalogs with a view to poaching well-established artists, often recording them incognito. Scruples were in short supply among this first generation of A&R managers and scouts as they competed for hot talent and hit records. In 1926, to cite one case, Harry Charles spotted James Jackson playing on the streets of Birmingham and that August, after receiving Art Laibly’s approval to record him, accompanied the singer-guitarist to Chicago by train for a session with Paramount. Once there, Charles presented his new artist as Bo Weavil Jackson and purposefully neglected to provide the bluesman’s contact information to the label. At the conclusion of Jackson’s recording debut, Charles escorted him a few blocks to Brunswick’s studios on South Wabash Avenue to record for the Vocalion label. This time, all of Jackson’s releases, including the coupling of “Poor Boy Blues” and “Jefferson County Blues” (Vocalion 1057), were credited to Sam Butler. When Paramount officials discovered that a recording artist they believed was under exclusive contract had recorded for a competitor at the instigation of one of their own talent scouts, they sent a flurry of telegrams to Charles, who was then working in Charlotte, North Carolina. According to Charles, “[Art] Satherley came to Charlotte the next mornin’ when I wouldn’t answer the wires. He asked me: did I jump ’em? The deal on that talent? I told ’im ‘ Yes! —they wasn’t payin’ me enough.’ . . . I said ‘I’m gonna sell ’em all —you don’t have a contract with me.’ ” 105
Even allowing for Charles’s characteristic braggadocio and disdain for Satherley’s prowess as a talent scout (“When he was with Paramount, I didn’t think he knew a nickel’s worth,” Charles told Gayle Dean Wardlow. “I don’t know why they hired him”), his bullish attitude suggests the power that effective A&R representatives wielded. 106 As talent brokers, as human gateways to the artists and songs that record companies needed to generate salable product and profits, A&R officials occupied a vital place in the structure of the roots recording industry. In a corollary to the kind of shenanigans Charles described, firms routinely raided the artist rosters of their competitors, luring away, if only for a single session, some of their exclusive-contract artists and, occasionally, even a few of their best-selling ones. In 1927, for instance, OKeh’s recording director Tommy Rockwell and Polk C. Brockman traveled to Dallas in search of Blind Lemon Jefferson, then the nation’s most popular country blues artist. Undeterred by Jefferson’s exclusive contract with Paramount, they took him to Atlanta to record eight sides for OKeh. Only one record was issued, “Black Snake Moan,” a remake of one of Jefferson’s previous Paramount hits, coupled with the first recording of his now-classic “Match Box Blues” (OKeh 8455), before Paramount sued OKeh for damages and secured its promise not to release any more material from its surreptitious session. 107
Although such duplicitous practices were rampant in the cutthroat world of interwar American roots music, respect for laws and contracts did occasionally break out, with A&R departments and recording artists formally agreeing to nonexclusive arrangements. In 1927, when Paramount’s recording manager Art Laibly sought to recruit Doc Roberts, he asked the Kentucky fiddler to send confirmation that he had secured a release from his Gennett contract to record for other labels. “For information and at the same time an insurance against possible legal difficulties, wish you would forward a copy of this release to this office,” Laibly instructed Roberts, “since I remember that you said . . . you had just signed up for a period of two years with an extension of two years.” 108 Once Roberts provided the necessary documentation, Laibly arranged to record him. Initially, Laibly hoped to spare Paramount some of the travel costs of bringing Roberts from his home in central Kentucky to Chicago by piggybacking on the artist’s next scheduled recording date for Gennett in Richmond, Indiana. “It would be better for you as well as ourselves to make the trip all in one. For instance, if you are recording for the Gennett people—come to us either before or after,” he wrote. But he also recommended that Roberts keep his upcoming session for Paramount a secret, advising him to “say nothing to the Gennett people that you expect to go ahead to Chicago or that you have been to Chicago, whichever the case may be.” Laibly understood that Roberts had “a partner and that you will both play.” Clearly anxious that Roberts’s Paramount sides be as distinct as possible from those he had recorded for Gennett, Laibly requested that “since you are under contract with the Gennett people that you record as a duet exclusively for the Paramount Co.” Laibly also urged Roberts to develop new material for his Paramount sessions. “We are leaving it up to you that you give us a fair shake—that you do not record records for us that you have recorded for Gennett, as undoubtedly they would make the same request were they apprized [ sic ] of this fact.” 109
Helen Oakley Dance also recruited and recorded established artists, and as one of the most significant women involved in A&R between the wars, her career merits especially close attention. Born in 1913 in Toronto, the daughter of a prosperous textile mill magnate, Oakley enjoyed a privileged upbringing that included a series of English governesses, regular European tours, and a finishing school education in Switzerland. 110 After moving to Chicago in 1934 to be nearer the heart of her beloved hot jazz scene, Oakley juggled assignments as a journalist for the Chicago Herald-Examiner and the jazz magazine Down Beat , with concert promotion as a member of the Chicago Rhythm Club. Among her many shows was a pathbreaking Easter Sunday concert by Benny Goodman’s band at the Congress Hotel on April 12, 1936, during which she organized a short, racially integrated set featuring two white musicians, clarinetist Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa, with black pianist Teddy Wilson. Although John Hammond had previously encouraged the cautious Goodman to record with African American musicians behind closed studio doors at Columbia, Oakley later proudly boasted, with a good bit of license, that this “was the first time that inter-racial anything was ever given in public.” 111 In addition, Oakley began to organize and direct recording sessions for local jazz musicians, among them Jess Stacy, George Wettling, Paul Mares, and Boyce Brown, an alto saxophone player who was a particular favorite. “Boyce Brown was the one,” she recalled in a 1998 interview, her enthusiasm for the music and respect for the musicians undiminished by the passing years. “He was a white boy and he was blind, and very soulful. . . . If you hear those records you will see that he had a natural gift and it was wonderful.” 112
An independent operator, Oakley used money from the sold-out concerts she promoted in Chicago hotels to pay for the recording sessions she oversaw, frequently at Brunswick’s studios in the American Furniture Mart building on North Lake Shore Drive. “The concert would be a special event apart from their run in the hotel. . . . And we’d sell tickets. And whatever we made on it we put that aside for a record session,” she explained. 113 As her reputation as a successful music journalist and concert promoter grew, so too did her personal connections with a long parade of jazz musicians, including nationally known luminaries such as Goodman and Duke Ellington. In 1936, Irving Mills (born Isadore Minsky), Ellington’s manager and song publisher, hired Oakley to assist him in setting up Master Records Inc., a new recording venture in New York that went on to release some classic jazz sides on both its Master and Variety imprints. At the outset, Oakley helped Mills secure funding from prospective investors and ensure that the proper legal paperwork was filed. Once arrangements for financing, pressing, and distribution were sorted out in early 1937 (thanks to a deal with Herbert Yates of ARC, which already distributed the Columbia, Brunswick, and Vocalion labels), Oakley assumed much of the responsibility for running Master Records and securing its talent. 114
Bright, articulate, and passionate about music, Oakley was simultaneously charming and determined. Those characteristics, coupled with her reputation as a mover and shaker in Chicago’s jazz circles, helped generate at least a modicum of respect when she entered the male-dominated world of label management in New York. “I used to sit at this long table with about twenty accountants and people,” she recalled, “and then they said to me, ‘What have you to say?’ And . . . so somebody said, ‘She did those Goodman things, and she did this and she did that,’ you see.” 115 Although her gender made her unusual and doubtless presented her with challenges not faced by her male counterparts, in other ways Oakley’s story was quite typical. She successfully handled the kind of multitasking—talent scout, accountant, fund-raiser, label manager, session supervisor, publicist—that characterized the careers of many A&R managers involved in interwar American roots music.

FIGURE 2.7. Helen Oakley (in light-colored dress) and guests enjoying a jam session featuring drummer Chick Webb, clarinetist Artie Shaw, and pianist Duke Ellington, at Master Records Inc.’s studios in New York on March 12, 1937. Oakley helped her boss, Irving Mills, organize the event to promote the debut of the firm’s two record labels, Master and Variety. Oakley’s future husband, jazz critic Stanley Dance, stands in the rear at center. Photograph by Charles Peterson. Used by permission.
At Master Records, Oakley was able to indulge her first love, which was to bring talent into the firm’s newly constructed, state-of-the-art studios at 1776 Broadway to record. Master’s first official release was “I’ve Got to Be a Rug Cutter” / “The New East St. Louis Toodle-O” (Master 101) by Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra. Six more Ellington records followed, including some solo piano sides, before the label folded less than four months later. Master tended to mix innovations in jazz with novelty numbers that sometimes enjoyed impressive sales—a juggling act exemplified in the Raymond Scott Quintette record, “Minuet in Jazz” / “Twilight in Turkey” (Master 108). “That was terrible music,” Oakley somewhat uncharitably remembered. “But that was Master Record’s big hit,” she admitted, recognizing that, notwithstanding her own predilections, the chief role of any A&R manager was to deliver commercial product and, if possible, best sellers. 116
More generally, Oakley’s tenure at Master Records reveals the enduring tensions between creative and commercial agendas that shaped A&R decisions and defined the recording business. To use Oakley’s words, Charlie Weintraub, the company’s accountant, was one of the first “bottom-line men” she had encountered in the industry. Uninterested in the music per se, Weintraub focused exclusively on matters of revenue and cash flow, questioning any projects that Oakley or her artists might propose that seemed to lack clear money-making potential. 117 Ultimately, as cultural historian Harvey G. Cohen suggests, the growing influence of bean counters like Weintraub probably stunted the artistic development of swing music, privileging recordings that repeated proven formulas over pathbreaking experimentation. “The ‘bottom-line’ short-term thinking of men like Weintraub may have led to better quarterly reports for a while,” Cohen argues, “but that formulaic, conservative approach also probably helped speed the artistic and financial demise of the Swing Era.” 118 Nevertheless, as Helen Oakley’s A&R work at Master Records suggests, in the ongoing, sometimes fraught negotiations that occurred within record companies, the accountants did not always win. Sometimes the artistic vision and innovation of recording artists and the enthusiasm of A&R officials like Oakley complemented, trumped, or simply transcended base commercial calculations and concerns.
More indicative of Helen Oakley’s own tastes, and her real pride and joy, were the records she supervised for Master Records’ budget-priced Variety label, beginning with Cab Calloway & His Orchestra’s “Swing, Swing, Swing” / “That Man Is Here Again” (Variety 501), waxed in March 1937. On the premium, flagship label Master, Irving Mills and Charlie Weintraub exercised more control and had more input; on Variety, in contrast, Oakley was largely free to recruit and record whomever and whatever she wanted. In particular, Oakley displayed a real flare for assembling novel combinations of jazz musicians, often drawn from the ranks of well-established orchestras, to make intimate, irresistibly swinging records. Ellington’s orchestra supplied a particularly creative and fruitful crop of musicians from which to organize these classic small-group sessions. Under Oakley’s supervision, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, and vocalist Ivie Anderson all recorded sides in 1937 as the leaders of various small combos. According to Cohen, however, only one of the now-revered eighty-eight sides released by Ellington or his sidemen on Master and Variety even approached being a hit record, and eventually the bottom line bit back. 119
By October 1937, just seven months after its first release, Variety was defunct. Master had ceased issuing records even earlier, in mid-July. Both labels fell victim to the crippled economy of the Great Depression and to the fierce competition within the crowded marketplace for swing records. As the Master and Variety labels folded, Mills sold his back catalog to ARC, which, in turn, reissued them on Brunswick and Vocalion, respectively. Meanwhile, Master Records Inc., with its coveted new studios, remained in business until 1940, producing new recordings for Brunswick and Vocalion. For those final few years, Helen Oakley remained in place as chief talent scout and producer. When World War II broke out, she closed that chapter of her life and joined the Office of Strategic Services, working both in the United States and abroad for an intelligence organization that was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. 120 After the war, she returned to writing, producing a fine 1987 biography of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. With her husband, British-born jazz critic Stanley Dance, she remained a prominent fixture of the jazz and blues scene until her death in 2001. 121
The story of Helen Oakley Dance illuminates and complicates the history of roots music A&R in important ways. During her time at Master Records Inc., she oversaw the recording of an astonishing array of legendary jazz talent, including Sidney Bechet, Chick Webb, Claude Thornhill, Hot Lips Page, Chu Berry, Charlie Barnet, and Glenn Miller, as well as old friends Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, all of whom were by this time seasoned studio veterans. She also organized sessions for some fabulous new groupings of established talent in her small combo recordings. Oakley did occasionally find, develop, and record new talent. These discoveries included Boyce Brown, who first recorded with Paul Mares & His Friars Society Orchestra under her supervision in Chicago in 1935, as well as Chauncey Morehouse & His Swing Six, Jo Sodja’s Swingtette, and Frank Newton & His Uptown Serenaders, all of whom she recorded in New York during the late 1930s. 122 Yet her real forte was assembling experienced, often extremely well-established recording artists, supplying them new material and new session-mates to inspire their creativity, and allowing them to record in new combinations that rarely threatened prior contractual obligations.
Much the same can be said of Milton “Milt” Gabler. Born in 1911, the Jewish son of an Austrian immigrant father and a native New Yorker mother of Russian lineage, Gabler got into the business of recording hot jazz after an apprenticeship working in his father’s radio store and then, after taking over its management in 1931 and converting it into a phonograph and record store, running his own Commodore Music Shop on East Forty-Second Street in Manhattan. Having aquired tens of thousands of old, discarded jazz and blues records at bargain prices from record companies, Gabler’s shop became a mecca for record collectors and music fans, particularly of original Dixieland-style jazz. In 1936, as his stock dwindled, Gabler began reissuing classic and in-demand rare recordings on his own United Hot Clubs of America (UHCA) label. Two years later, he formed the Commodore label, which, like its UHCA predecessor, was among several small jazz specialty labels founded during the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Blue Note, Savoy, Keynote, and Signature. 123 The goal of Commodore, as Gabler envisioned it, was to rerecord old standards, along with some new material, performed by veterans of the 1920s hot jazz scene. Among the artists he rerecorded were Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, George Buries, Bunk Johnson, and Wild Bill Davison, many of whom had been languishing in obscurity and sometimes poverty since their glory days in New Orleans and Chicago. Although Gabler continued to trade in reissues of older sides by the likes of Cow Cow Davenport, Django Reinhardt, and Fletcher Henderson, he eventually expanded Commodore’s scope to include original recordings by a new crop of swing and blues artists, sometimes in unusual settings. In 1938, for example, Gabler recorded Lester Young playing clarinet rather than his usual tenor saxophone. Perhaps most famously, Gabler produced Billie Holiday’s now-classic 1939 recordings “Strange Fruit” / “Fine and Mellow” (Commodore 526) by agreement with her label, Columbia, and her A&R man there, Gabler’s friend John Hammond, who, although deeply committed to social and racial justice, was still nervous about releasing the politically charged “Strange Fruit,” with its searing indictment of southern white racial violence. 124
As the 1940s dawned, Gabler slipped into a more familiar A&R role, turning the operation of his store over to his brother-in-law Jack Crystal, father of comedian Billy Crystal. In 1941, Jack Kapp recruited Gabler to work at Decca, where, over the next two decades, he was instrumental in developing the careers of Peggy Lee, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Jordan, the biggest star of the 1940s jump scene. Jordan’s musical stylings paved the way for what would become rock & roll, a form whose breakthrough Gabler also did much to facilitate. In 1954, he signed a perennially minor-league western swing band, Bill Haley & His Comets, and produced their smash hit “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (Decca 9-29124). Gabler initially put the song on the B-side of the deservedly now-long-forgotten “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” a song of jaw-droppingly bad taste and relatively modest commercial appeal that described the romantic opportunities available to the lone male survivor of a nuclear holocaust. 125 It remains a reminder of the fallibility of even the best A&R men.
Meanwhile, as his A&R work diversified, Gabler kept Commodore going with a string of quality jam-session recordings that mobilized the after-hours talents of some remarkably loyal hot jazz musicians. Gabler’s generosity, sometimes at the expense of his own business interests, became legendary and was celebrated by saxophonist Bud Freeman in “Tappin’ the Commodore Till” (Commodore 508). Guitarist Eddie Condon signed with Decca in 1939 only after securing a provision in his contract stipulating that he could also record for Commodore whenever Gabler needed him. “Milt picked me up off the floor,” a grateful Condon remembered, and he, in turn, wished to repay the debt. In saltier language, another musician described Gabler as “the nicest bastard I know.” 126 In an industry where exploitation was rife, this kind of rugged affection for an A&R man was not exactly universal among musicians. The key point here, however, is that Gabler broke into A&R work chiefly by recruiting and arranging sessions for extensively recorded, if no longer much in-demand artists, rather than by discovering and developing new ones.
The careers of Helen Oakley Dance and Milt Gabler represent only a few of the myriad ways in which singers and musicians judged to have record- and hit-making potential came to the attention of A&R managers and scouts. Some of these performers, such as Doc Roberts, Duke Ellington, and Eddie Condon, were already veteran recording artists; others were unrecorded but presented themselves to A&R officials as likely hit-makers by writing letters, making telephone calls, or auditioning in person; some recording artists recommended other performers to their A&R contacts, as did many record distributors and retailers with their fingers on the pulse of who was creating a buzz in their localities; and, in some cases, A&R scouts did find promising artists performing on street corners, in theaters and juke joints, at churches, or on radio broadcasts.
But finding talent was only part of the job. The courtship dance between A&R representatives and their discoveries (and rediscoveries) did not end until the terms and conditions under which those artists would record had been settled and a contract signed. In 1927, for instance, Paramount’s recording director Art Laibly proposed to pay Doc Roberts and his two bandmates a “straight 2¢ per record of two sides less 10% and your transportation both ways as well as reasonable hotel and meal expenses while at Chicago.” As part of the contract, however, they were required to “relinquish all claim to [Paramount] to all numbers recorded.” 127 As interwar roots music recording evolved, this represented only one among numerous possible financial arrangements that A&R officials offered blues and hillbilly artists in return for their efforts.
Contracts and Copyrights
I was better than 50 percent honest, and in this business that’s pretty good.
—J. Mayo Williams
Ink Williams robbed me. Not only me, everybody. The people who didn’t know how to have their songs copywritten [ sic ], he took all their music.
—Alberta Hunter
AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT A&R RESPONSIBILITIES, located somewhere between scouting for talent and recording that talent, was the business of contracting with singers and musicians for their recorded performances and, often, their compositions as well. “I was equipped to give a contract right on the spot to anyone that I felt was worthy of recording,” recalled Art Satherley of his days as a recording manager at Paramount, the American Record Corporation (ARC), and Columbia during a career that spanned some thirty years. 1 Although not everyone involved in pre–World War II A&R enjoyed quite this latitude—and even Satherley was accountable to his record company paymasters for his choices and expenditures—A&R managers and their staff members were often heavily involved in determining how and how much roots music artists and songwriters were paid for their work, or sometimes were not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few of the formal contracts or the many less formal incentives offered to artists and songwriters were models of unbridled generosity.
The contracts offered to race and hillbilly artists during the 1920s and 1930s were invariably weighted heavily in favor of the record companies. For example, the contract Arizona Dranes signed on June 17, 1926, to record exclusively for OKeh stipulated that it was to remain “in force and effect for a period of indefinite years.” During the unspecified lifetime of the agreement, she was to record “as many selections as the Company may require,” at a rate of $25 per selection, “payable upon the acceptance by the Company of a master recording.” The contract also gave OKeh “the exclusive right to use her name and photographs, or other reproductions of the Artist’s likeness, in connection with or as part of advertisements, printed matter or any other material or act designed to promote or assist in the sale of phonographs, phonograph records or any parts or articles pertaining to phonographs.” The firm retained this right, though nonexclusively, even after the termination of the contract. 2
Dranes’s contract made no mention of either “mechanical” or “performance” royalties: she was destined to make the same flat fee of $25 per released side, regardless of how many copies of her records were sold. This was common practice. “Mechanical royalties” for an artist, or a songwriter, or a publishing firm that owned the copyrighted selection, were directly related to the sales of records; “performance royalties” were notionally due whenever a piece of music was played publicly, whether in a studio, at a concert, or over the radio. If contracts that assigned decent mechanical royalty rates to roots artists and songwriters were as rare as gold dust, then contracts offering them performance royalties were more like hen’s teeth.
Doc Roberts’s 1928 exclusive contract with the Starr Piano Company contained similar provisions to the one Dranes signed. “First Party [Starr Piano],” it specified, “may require each number to be repeated until a record satisfactory to First Party and fit for its purpose is produced, and shall be sole judge whether any recording made is acceptable for the catalogue. First Party does not bind itself to make any fixed number of records at any time or place, nor pay Second Party’s [Roberts’s] expense of any sort unless other terms are agreed to in a separate writing signed by both parties.” The agreement also conferred to Starr Piano “the optional right to command the personal services of Second Party, as performer and artist, at times and places and as frequently as First Party may determine necessary or desirable, for and during the period of two years from and after the date of exercise of said option.” Every recording that Roberts produced under the contract, “together with all rights and privileges of every character and together with all profit, benefit and advantage pertaining thereto and from publishing, vending, using and dealing in and with the same, shall be the sole property of First Party.” Under the agreement, Roberts was to receive mechanical royalties of “one cent per side” on the sales of each of his Gennett records, with a reduced royalty rate of “one half cent” per side for releases on all of Starr Piano’s subsidiary labels as well as the “stencil” labels it custom pressed for client companies. Roberts, in turn, agreed “not to give or lend” his name “or use an assumed name . . . in connection with, or for the purpose of the production, reproduction, use, sale or advertisement of phonograph records, whether for compensation or otherwise.” If such a violation were to occur, Starr Piano would be “released and entirely freed from any obligation under this contract,” including payment of royalties. Furthermore, the company was “entitled to sue” and “collect damages” for breach of the agreement.” 3
By the late 1930s, recording contracts had become even more complex and restrictive. On September 26, 1939, Jelly Roll Morton signed a contract with RCA Victor to cut four selections with his orchestra, billed as the New Orleans Jazzmen. The agreement granted the company and its subsidiaries
(1) the right to manufacture, advertise, sell, lease, license or otherwise use or dispel of in any or all fields of use, throughout the world, or to refrain therefrom, throughout the world or any part thereof, records embodying the performances to be recorded hereunder, upon such terms and conditions as the Company may approve; (2) the right to use your name and photograph, and the name and photograph of the Musical Organization, or any of its members, if desired, in connection with the exploitation of said records; and (3) all rights in and to the matrices and records, and the use and control thereof, upon which are reproduced the performances to be recorded hereunder. 4
The contract prohibited Morton as well as his orchestra from performing “for any other person, firm or corporation for the purpose of producing commercial sound records of any of the musical selections recorded hereunder.” In the event of such a breach, RCA Victor was “entitled to an injunction to enforce same, in addition to any other remedies available to it.” In exchange, Morton’s seven sidemen each received the regular “union scale” (then $30) for the session, while he earned double that rate as the “contractor and leader,” plus a “total of $75 for 4 arrangements.” 5
Even when singers and musicians signed exclusive recording contracts with companies, A&R officials at rival firms often conspired with those artists to enable them to record pseudonymously for other paymasters. Some A&R personnel were equally promiscuous when it came to their own employment status. Most of the biggest players in the interwar roots recording business had exclusive contracts with individual companies. Yet, even among those elite A&R men, moonlighting for competitors was not uncommon. The best personnel were always being courted and sometimes hired away by other firms, making it hard to keep track of who was “A&R-ing” for which companies at any given moment. In 1927, J. Mayo Williams managed both Paramount’s race record catalog and, unbeknownst to that label’s executives, that of a short-lived competitor, Black Patti. 6 Indeed, interwar A&R was very much a revolving-door occupation, as recording department personnel frequently resigned from one record company to join another, or sometimes dropped out of the business entirely to pursue more lucrative or fulfilling opportunities in the allied fields of radio, music publishing, or motion pictures. That many A&R scouts and contractors, particularly those working territorial beats away from record companies’ northern headquarters, recruited talent or occasionally oversaw sessions for many labels simultaneously only intensified this confusion.
With multiple connections and allegiances, freelance scouts and session contractors employed a wide variety of contractual arrangements—and displayed an equally broad range of attitudes toward honoring them. Harry Charles, for example, located race and hillbilly talent principally for Paramount in the mid- to late 1920s, but always on a nonexclusive basis. 7 J. B. Long received a flat “finder’s fee” for bringing his discoveries into the studio and estimated that he “averaged about [$]250, $300 above all expenses” for arranging each of Blind Boy Fuller’s eleven blocks of sessions for ARC and eventually for Columbia between 1935 and 1940. 8 This was a fairly common model of remuneration for A&R personnel who were not formally on record company payrolls. H. C. Speir, who scouted for at least nine labels between 1925 and 1936, received no royalties but rather a flat-rate fee of $100, plus expenses, for each artist he found who was recorded. Speir later complained that W. R. Calaway at ARC never paid him for the seventy or so recordings—most of them allegedly unusable or at least unmemorable—that they had supervised together at a July 1936 field session in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Clearly, A&R men sometimes duped not only their artists but also one another. 9
Other A&R representatives enjoyed more regular and plentiful income, especially when their discoveries were selling well. Irving Mills, Duke Ellington’s controversial manager, song publisher, producer, and putative co-composer of some of his most popular numbers of the 1930s, was initially “recording for all the different record companies,” before signing “a very terrific deal” with ARC in the early 1930s. That deal, according to Mills, made him “the highest priced A&R man in the whole business at that time.” 10 Between 1925 and 1931, Dennis Taylor, a Kentucky farmer turned talent scout, facilitated hillbilly recordings for Gennett and its subsidiary and stencil labels by perhaps as many as one hundred singers and musicians, among them Doc Roberts, Asa Martin, John D. Foster, and Red Foley. The paternalistic Taylor, who according to scholar Tony Russell “ran his cadre of musician-employees in the style of a plantation owner,” signed many of his artists to personal management contracts under which he covered the costs of working up songs and transporting his musicians to the recording sessions and then paid them a flat-rate fee per recorded side. In exchange, Taylor pocketed any royalties from the sales of those records, an arrangement that displeased more than one of his artists. In his best years, Taylor regularly earned between $800 and $900 per month from Gennett. 11 Similarly, J. Mayo Williams said that he was never a salaried employee at any of the record companies he worked for between the early 1920s and the mid-1940s. “I never had no salary contract, nothing like that because I would get mine from the royalties from the songs,” he explained. 12

FIGURE 3.1. Dennis Taylor (third from left), flanked by (from left) guitarist Edgar Boaz, singer Welby Toomey, and fiddler Doc Roberts, at Gennett’s studio in Richmond, Indiana (1925). Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives, Berea, Kentucky.
This business model was typical for many enterprising A&R managers and scouts, who often earned the majority of their income in the recording industry from controlling copyrights. For many roots recording artists and subsequent critics, however, the harvesting of copyrights and royalties was one of the most contentious and exploitative aspects of A&R work. While the sometimes shady contracts and dubious copyright deals arranged by A&R men may seem far removed from the passion, artistry, and inspiration that fans like to imagine fueled the making of the now-classic blues and hillbilly recordings of the 1920s and 1930s, these practices constituted the vital financial lifeblood—as well as the dark heart—of the interwar roots music recording business.
When it came to artists’ contracts, J. Mayo Williams claimed, “[Gennett] wouldn’t pay any flat salaries for artists, but they’d give them royalt[ies]. . . . No advance, nothing but paid expenses down there and back, and if your record sells you make something. . . . If it don’t, you’ve had a nice trip.” 13 In truth, even at Gennett, there was a far wider range of practices than Williams remembered. According to chief recording engineer Harold Soulé, while more established acts were placed on a “royalty basis,” most “starters” and “beginners” received only a single “out-and-out payment” for their performances, usually $50 per selection, with “right and title” ceded to the record company. The recording artist had “made his record and gotten paid for it and that was all[;] he wasn’t entitled to any more money,” Soulé explained. 14 His colleague, assistant sales manager and occasional A&R man Clayton “Jack” Jackson, remarked, “In those days recording companies didn’t pamper artists. Nobody paid their expenses. . . . Hell, we didn’t even buy them a sandwich.” And even if some of the more successful artists did receive royalty agreements, Jackson colorfully confessed, “Gennett fucked them on royalties,” not only by offering them an appallingly low rate but also by sometimes withholding payments. This was especially true on sales of the company’s cheaper Champion records, on which the identities of artists were almost always disguised behind pseudonyms and sides were occasionally released without those artists’ knowledge. Although Jackson somewhat defensively insisted that, after the contracts with singers and musicians had been signed, decisions about who ultimately got paid what were beyond the control of A&R men and in the hands of Gennett executive Fred Gennett, the bottom line remained that “they didn’t pay [royalties] to a lot of them.” 15
The mixed moral, financial, and legal economy at Gennett indicates a wide range of practices when it came to contracting with and compensating roots music artists—and an equally variable set of standards when it came to delivering on what had been promised. As at Gennett, OKeh in the mid-1920s usually offered first-time recording artists only a flat-rate fee, but this was not always the case. Victoria Spivey, for example, received a $5,000 royalty payment for the sales of her 1926 debut release, “Black Snake Blues” / “No More Jelly Bean Blues” (OKeh 8338). The label’s more established artists regularly secured a share of royalties. In an all-too-common occurrence, however, Spivey was forced to sue her manager, Jesse Johnson, the A&R scout who had discovered her, for cheating her out of more than $2,400 in royalties from the sale of these and eight of her other compositions, which, she alleged, he had copyrighted in his own name. 16 In 1931, four years after he had signed Doc Roberts to a royalties-plus-expenses deal, Paramount recording manager Art Laibly allowed bluesman Skip James to choose between a deferred royalty scheme and a flat fee for his first recordings. James, confident in the commercial appeal of his records, opted for the former, plus a basic $250 fee to cover the recording of more than twenty sides over the next two years. As the Great Depression deepened, however, record sales became increasingly sluggish and James probably would have been better off taking the flat fee rather than gambling on royalties from sales. 17
Unlike James, few struggling roots music artists, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds making their first records and facing an uncertain future in the industry, were willing to turn down cash in hand for the prospect of future royalties. Most Cajun musicians, for example, gladly accepted flat fees of between $25 and $50 per recorded side, knowing that this far exceeded the $4 or $5 they could expect to receive for playing at a local dance, and that a single session was likely to pay as much as several months of backbreaking work as an agricultural day laborer. 18 In order to balance the risk of failure against the potential for sizeable royalties from a hit record, some savvy artists did manage to negotiate a mixed-payment scheme with A&R officials. At Decca, Roy “Whitey” Grant and Arval Hogan struck an agreement with Dave Kapp to pay “so much flat and so much royalty” on their recordings, starting with $360, plus travel expenses, for the sixteen sides the duo cut in New York on November 8, 1939. In an interesting counterpoint to the more common tales of duplicity and deceptive written agreements, Grant later said that the “contract that we had with Decca was more or less an oral contract.” Apparently confident that he and his partner had received what was due to them from their label, Grant somewhat romantically explained, “Back then, in 1939, when a man told you something, that was almost as good as a contract then.” 19
Diverse business practices notwithstanding, J. Mayo Williams’s generalization is largely on target: A&R officials preferred to pay artists a flat-rate fee for their studio work, rather than negotiate royalties linked to record sales or, in the case of original, copyrightable compositions, tied to what were known as “mechanical royalties.” According to the Copyright Act of 1909, mechanical royalties at the rate of two cents per copy of every recording sold were supposed to be paid to the copyright holder of the music reproduced on cylinders or 78-rpm discs. This provision extended not just to the first recording of any musical composition, but to all subsequent recordings during the life of the copyright. Until 1978, that time period was fixed at twenty-eight years, renewable once for an additional term by the author, his or her heirs, or whomever held legal claim as the proprietor of the copyright. 20 By the mid- to late 1920s, A&R men such as Williams, Polk C. Brockman, W. R. Calaway, and Ralph Peer had come to appreciate the enormous profits to be reaped through controlling song copyrights and encouraging multiple recordings of each song. This may help explain the relaxed attitude of some, if by no means all, A&R officials toward artists who used pseudonyms to record copyrighted songs for multiple record companies. As long as the mechanical royalties derived from record sales—or at least a substantial portion of them—flowed into the coffers of the labels (or their publishing arms), or, better yet, into the pockets of the A&R men themselves, all was well.
These peculiar economic and legal dynamics launched A&R officials on a feverish search, not just for new talent to record but also, more specifically, for new talent with original material that might be copyrighted. With the roots recording industry still in its infancy, definitions of “new,” “original,” and “author” were conveniently elastic: new versions of traditional songs, or even new arrangements of more recent compositions, could also be copyrighted as original compositions. As Art Satherley told a writer for the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, in his role as a Columbia A&R man he would willingly travel far and wide to record a hillbilly singer who had “a very original ballad.” Along these same lines, H. C. Speir maintained that whenever he found a bluesman he liked who had only two original songs, he encouraged him to develop additional material because most record companies were only interested in an artist who came to the studio with “at least four different songs of his own composition.” 21
In this madcap scramble for original material, roots artists who composed their own songs, or who arranged traditional pieces, or who recast more recent numbers in ways that made them copyrightable, often signed away their own copyright claims. In return, they received what were usually modest onetime payments from the record companies or their publishing affiliates, which became, in legal parlance, “proprietor of copyright in a work made for hire.” Under these conditions, these songwriters were virtual company employees; the fruits of their creative labors were owned exclusively by that firm, to be exploited for its own—rather than for the artist’s or the songwriter’s—benefit, in whatever ways it wished. 22
The flat-rate fees offered for recording work and song copyrights varied widely according to an artist’s previous sales figures, the predicted commercial prospects of that particular artist and his or her compositions, and the general state of the economy at any given time. Earlier in his career, while still working at Paramount, Art Satherley’s first major success in the race market occurred with the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet’s gospel number “My Lord’s Gonna Move This Wicked Race” (Paramount 12035), waxed in New York in April 1923. Although his recollections fluctuated about the precise compensation the group received for this recording (claiming at different times payments of $6 or, less likely, $100), Satherley consistently stated that it was a flat-rate fee, with no royalties from sales. As was customary, however, the quartet’s members were reimbursed for travel and expenses to attend the session. 23
In a 1965 interview, Son House remembered that, in the early 1930s, Paramount was “paying $15 a side”—although at other times he claimed it may have been as much as $40. 24 Even $40, though, was significantly less than the $75 per usable side that the same label had paid fellow Mississippi blues singer-guitarist Charley Patton for his debut recordings, made in Richmond, Indiana, on June 14, 1929, before the Wall Street Crash. Given that Paramount issued all fourteen songs he recorded that day—albeit with “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” / “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” (Paramount 12805) pseudonymously credited to the Masked Marvel and the two-part sacred number “Prayer of Death” (Paramount 12799) to Elder J. J. Hadley—Patton may have left Richmond with more than $1,000 in fees for a day’s work. On one hand, this was an astonishing sum for an itinerant African American blues musician to take home to the Delta. On the other, it was barely a drop in the Mississippi River compared to the profits Paramount reaped from any one of the hits Patton recorded that day, among them the seminal “Pony Blues” (Paramount 12792). 25
With the onset of the Great Depression, record sales plummeted from about seventy million discs generating $75 million in income in 1929 to only about four million discs yielding $5 million in 1933. Whereas a hit pop record might sell 350,000 or more copies in the late 1920s, within a few years average sales for a best-selling record sank to around five thousand copies. 26 This economic collapse forced record companies and their A&R departments to recalibrate their payments to artists in all genres. In roots music, the example of Ralph Peer is again instructive. At the dawn of commercial hillbilly recording, Peer had offered Fiddlin’ John Carson the standard mechanical royalty rate of two cents per side for his second set of OKeh recordings, made in New York in November 1923, following the success of his debut record. Polk C. Brockman, however, maintained that OKeh quickly placed Carson on a monthly salary once he had demonstrated his commercial viability, again indicating that the single most important factor in determining remuneration to recording artists was usually their actual or perceived market value. 27
By 1926, when he moved to Victor, Peer fully grasped the importance of securing and controlling song copyrights in order to cash in on the mechanical royalty payments that he had once routinely assigned to Carson and many of the other hillbilly and race artists on his OKeh roster. At Victor, Peer famously negotiated a contract for himself whereby he waived all but a token salary in exchange for being allowed to copyright and publish the blues, gospel, and hillbilly songs he recorded. Here the innovative Peer was pioneering a new model of vertical integration within the American roots recording industry; he placed the development and exploitation of new copyrighted musical properties at the core of a management structure that gave him enormous influence over every aspect of the music business: artists, repertoire, recording, publishing, and marketing. 28
Between 1926 and 1934, Peer signed all his talent to exclusive contracts with his Ralph S. Peer Inc. artist management agency and recorded a guaranteed minimum number of selections with those artists each year. In return, his artists usually received a flat fee of $50 a side, plus travel, room, and board expenses. Jimmie Rodgers, for instance, received a total of $100 for his recordings of the traditional “Sleep Baby Sleep” and his own composition, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” (Victor 20864), both of which were waxed at his debut session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 4, 1927. By this time, Peer was prioritizing, almost to the point of exclusivity, artists like Rodgers and the Carter Family—his other major Bristol “find”—who could write or arrange their own original material. Peer copyrighted and published that music through his Southern Music Publishing Company Inc., which he formed in 1928. As his biographer Barry Mazor explains, this model virtually gave Peer a license to mint money, and by the following year, he was earning an estimated $50,000 per month “from mechanical royalties, the publisher’s share of performance royalties, and smatterings of sheet music publishing.” 29 Between 1928 and 1935, Peer’s Southern Music deposited with the United States Copyright Office almost thirty-five hundred pieces of music, either as original compositions or, where copyrights already existed, as new arrangements. This constituted more than 75 percent of all the blues, gospel, and hillbilly selections released by Victor or its successor, RCA Victor, during this period. 30
Unusually, however, in the cutthroat world of A&R, Peer never bought copyrights outright, eschewing a widespread industry practice that effectively captured for record companies and their publishing subsidiaries all the mechanical royalties that might otherwise have gone to the songwriter. Nor did Peer ever insert his own name as co-writer, as was also a fairly common practice. Irving Mills, for example, regularly claimed co-authorship of Duke Ellington’s compositions, including “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Sophisticated Lady,” which, according to Harvey G. Cohen, “he almost certainly did not help write.” To compound this dubious arrangement, that music was then published by Duke Ellington Inc., a company two-thirds owned by Mills and his lawyer Samuel Buzzell, thus leaving Ellington with just a one-third share of his compositions’ royalties, which had already been reduced by having to share composer credits with Mills. While this arrangement may have been better than those that many of Ellington’s contemporaries endured, it would later, as Cohen notes, “be viewed as unethical (especially Mills’s and his lawyer’s take of the proceeds).

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