RECORD MAKERS and BREAKERS: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers
University of Illinois Press (2009) Urbana & Chicago.
RALPH PEER and the Making of Popular Roots Music
Chicago Review Press (2015) Chicago
COWBOYS AND INDIES: The Epic History of the Record Industry
Serpent’s Tail (2015) London.
As there are few-to-none of the old style African American blues musicians left for us White folks to “discover” out in the real world in the USofA, and few coming along who aren’t generally devotees of the “bluze” (“Any damn fool can mash a string and holler!”: Homesick James to author… mid 70s) of today – loud and electric…, and did I say loud? So new blues publications (books and journals) have had to wander into parallel or unexpected territory, dig further afield than those from back then, and necessarily have different foci for their work. This has included books on many of the earlier researchers/collectors themselves [see O&S #84 for my initial delve into such tomes]. Other subjects of interest have become the commercial “record men” who produced the old recordings of blues (a/k/a “race”) music, jazz (a/k/a “hot”) music, and country (a/k/a “hillbilly”) music who have been more recently referred to as A&R or producer. This piece looks at three books of that ilk, two being quite recently published (2015) – they write ’em; we should know about ’em! And maybe even read ’em. Here is an interesting selection.
The first book up is an “oldie but goody” that does exactly what the cover says it does – chapters about various independent record companies (i.e. – not Decca, Victor, or Columbia!) and the folks who ran them, generally, after WW II. They were often regionally localized in their initial musical focus and audience, a community action of a sort – some were commercially successful for a time, a very few of a longer duration, while most were not. All also generally had people who actually LIKED the music that they recorded on some level besides monetary! Based mainly on oral history (you know, interviews) and various media from that time, this is a seriously devoted look at the growth of US vernacular musics in post-war America. It is also extremely well-written and well-balanced.
Broven, a Brit now living on Long Island (NY), may be known to some of you from his writings on post war New Orleans R’n’B, and other forms of Louisiana-based popular music. He does his homework thoroughly and with love of the music’s involved. His “prime period covered is 1944-1963” and takes the reader on many parallel stories of discovery, popularity, and disappointment as business models. It covers the post-war boom and bust, the creation of the “teen ager” as a lucrative marketplace as well as the move of African American musics into conjugation with European American musics to create another “American” cultural musical creolization (to use the term linguistically!) that has impacted on the popular music of much of the world. Lots of photographs as well as seven appendices dealing with: US records 1921-1969; independent distributors; record pressing plants, 1946; postwar labels to date; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record men; selective bio data of record men; oral history listings. There are copious notes and a bibliography – all this makes for a deep and factual ride that bears multiple readings.
Next book up is a different slant, focusing on a single person involved in much of the popular music history of the 20th Century, Ralph Peer. Beginning in the 20s with OKeh Records as a producer, Peer opened the doors to local vernacular musics being recorded, beginning with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920 for OKeh, as well as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five discs for the same label. Peer also was one of the initiators of “field” recording sessions where he took a recording studio on the road to various southern cities and recorded much local talent. He considered to have brought about the birth of recorded country music, first for OKeh (Fiddlin’ John Carson) and Victor. Think “The Bristol Sessions” for the latter with the “discovery” of The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers!
When Peer moved over to Victor, he took no direct pay except the song publishing rights of anyone he recorded for his budding company and signed the artists to him rather than the company, forming Southern Music to handle the publishing. This was quite profitable for Peer and eventually became his main source of income rather than producing or scouting for talent. His impact on popular/vernacular musical styles was immense, stretching later into “causing’ the popularity of Cuban and Dominican music’s (rhumba, meringue, cha cha cha) in the forties and fifties. Once the book leaves the A&R years, it becomes a bit one-dimensional and repetitive, but the book is still worth a read. One man’s major impact on the music biz! Mazor is a known quantity around here and has done a very thorough job with Peer’s story.
The final book by Murphy (a Brit) chronologically covers all the possible bases up until a year or so ago, touching on both American and British record men over the ages! This telling of the story leaves the beloved vernacular by the end of WW II and deals solely with pop musics, not leaving out the likes of producer John Hammond who spanned multiple eras! While the latter chapters may not be of much interest to readers here, they do demonstrate the placing of that which we love musically within the context of popular music as a whole. The interplays of people and genres over time are fascinating! Today, the music business is generally not the bailiwick of one who loves music, but is controlled mainly by lawyers and accountants… the “suits”, as they are known! Yet “music” lives on.
The only constant in life is change and the music business is no exception to that rule-of-thumb – the fact that we can give it that commercial designation (“business”) tells the tale in a proverbial nutshell. Books of this nature do give us outsiders a peek into the machinations involved in getting the records we love into our hot little hands. It’s not always easy or always pretty, but Pax vobiscum, baby. And play on.
A few additional studies of labels and record men –
COHEN, Rich: MACHERS AND ROCKERS: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll. Norton (2004) New York/London.
MARMORSTEIN, Gary: THE LABEL: The Story of Columbia Records; Thunder’s Mouth Press (2007) NY.
BASTIN, Bruce: Never Sell a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene, 1916-1978. Storyville Publications (1990) Chigwell, UK. [available now as: The Melody Man: Joe Davis and the New York Music Scene, 1916-1978. University Press of Mississippi (2012) Jackson, MS.]
SZWED, John: Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World; Viking (2010) NYC.
VAN DER TUUK, Alex: Paramount’s Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company and its Recording Activities; Mainspring Press (2003) Denver, CO.
GODRICH, John & R.M.W. Dixon: Recording the Blues: Studio Vista (1970) London. [available as part of Yonder Come the Blues, edited by Paul Oliver, Tony Russell, Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, Howard Rye: Cambridge University Press (2001) Cambridge.]
HOLZMAN, Jac and Gavan Dawes: Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture: FirstMedia Books (2000) Santa Monica, CA.
Peter B. Lowry Sydney, Australia May 2016
submitted – IAJRC Journal