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Race Records

Primarily excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music with contributions by Loren Schoenberg, Saxophonist and Conductor
Audio sample Back Water Blues by Bessie Smith
Recorded February 17, 1927
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Okeh Race Records
Okeh Race Records
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

After the Victor Talking Machine Company introduced the Victrola — one of the first phonographs — in 1901, the recording industry became big business. But, before 1915, no one had thought of recording jazz. Then, that December, a spokesman from the Victor Talking Machine Company approached Creole trumpeter Freddie Keppard and his Original Creole Orchestra about recording their music. But first, he explained, they would have to hold a try out to see if the firm's primitive recording device could pick up the sound of the band's bass player. Keppard turned them down, insulted that the spokesman was asking them to audition without pay. His clarinetist George Baquet recalled him saying, "Nothing doing, boys. We won't put our stuff on records for everybody to steal." Within two years, the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band would sell over a million copies of their version of New Orleans jazz — outselling best-selling artists such as tenor Enrico Caruso and the composer/bandleader John Phillip Sousa.

By the 1920s, records were big business. Despite the popularity of African-American bands and musicians, record producers felt that white audiences would be more inclined to buy jazz recordings made by white musicians. Other specialty record labels, offering recordings aimed at a particular audience, began when record companies discovered an untapped market in new immigrants yearning for the sounds of home. Special catalogs of ethnic records included both re-pressed recordings from Europe, and new recordings by American immigrant artists marketed directly to various ethnic (Polish, Jewish, Italian, Irish) communities, where they sold prodigiously. While many of these performances traffic in stereotypes that make them difficult to listen to today, the term race, in this context, was not used or understood as a pejorative at the time.

Victor Race Records
Victor Race Records
Image courtesy of Institute of Jazz Studies

During the Great Migration — the northern exodus of southern blacks that began in 1917 — approximately 1.5 million African-Americans left the South in search of a better life in the economically thriving North. Record companies such as Okeh, Paramount, Vocalion, and Columbia soon began to market special labels of "race records" — music by and for an African-American audience, especially recent migrants longing for Southern sounds. Blues singer Bessie Smith's 1923 recording of Down Hearted Blues was Columbia Records first popular hit and race record. This new genre of recordings allowed many African Americans artists to reach a national audience for the first time. "There's 14 million Negroes in our great country and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own," said the pioneering black record producer Perry Bradford in 1920, "because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle."

Harry Pace established the first black owned record company, called Black Swan, whose pointedly ironic slogan was "The Only Genuine Colored Records — Others Are Only Passing for Colored." Sales of race records soon reached five million copies a year.

A large segment of race records were marketed directly to an African-American audience, and soon became part of the black community's culture. The Chicago Defender encouraged "lovers of music everywhere and those who desire to help in the advance of the Race" to purchase these records. Listening to and enjoying these recordings not only unified the listener with the artist, but also with African-Americans in other communities across the country, giving them a voice and a place within the chaos of urban life. Newsboys sold blues records. So did door-to-door salesmen. Pullman porters carried copies south with them and peddled them at whistlestops. The records that singer Bessie Smith and her rivals made were a sensation in black communities all over the country. Smith sold so many records, got so famous that she was cast in an early sound film — one of the first to feature black performers.

Child playing phonograph
Child playing phonograph
Image courtesy of Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Soon, these race records intended for the African-American community went on to expand beyond just jazz and blues. Record companies were eager to increase their markets, and even developed some non-musical recordings, including recorded sermons, gospel music, spirituals and comedy routines.

Eventually, white record producers recognized the appeal of African-American bands and made a deliberate attempt to market them to white audiences. But the chronic idiocies of race among the men who ran the recording industry decided what music was appropriate for each audience. Sweet and sentimental tunes should remain the dominion of white bands, while black orchestras had better stick with the blues and stomp numbers that supposedly came to them "naturally" and would be the kind of race records African-Americans would want to buy.

The booming record industry nearly collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression, when the Stock Market Crash of 1929 brought the so-called Jazz Age to an end. After selling more than 100 million records a year in the mid-1920s, record company sales dropped to six million. Okeh, Gennett and Paramount Records all when out of business. The RCA Victor Talking Machine Company stopped making record players altogether for a time and sold radios instead. In Chicago, shivering jobless men burned old phonograph records to keep warm. As the misery of the Depression spread to every part of the country, membership in the American Federation of Musicians fell by one third — even after their dues were cut in half, many musicians could no longer pay them. Even the blues no longer seemed to ease the pain. "Nobody wants to hear the blues no more," Bessie Smith said. "Times is hard."

By the time the recording industry got on its feet again in the mid-30s with the advent of crooners such as Bing Crosby and bandleader Benny Goodman, what had been known as "race" music was firmly ensconced in the center of the popular culture. As race records gradually receded from view, there were exceptions, most notably the "Sepia" Decca 7000 series, and many items on the Bluebird label.

The next major period of growth in the record industry was immediately after World War II. Restrictions on materials were lifted, the fractious recording strike between the Musicians Union and the recording labels was settled, the soldiers came home, and the economy boomed, for a time. Small Jazz, Race (by now reacting to growing sophistication of jazz with what became known as rhythm and blues) and Hillbilly labels flourished, eagerly competing for the small but still financially rewarding segment of the population ignored by the major labels. Gradually, the majors began recording their own versions of the whatever hits the independents were lucky enough to have, and by the 50s, race recording labels became superfluous. It is important to remember that this segment of the music business was not limited exclusively to white upon black exploitation. As noted by authors Russell and David Sanjek in their classic history American Popular Music Business in the 20th Century, the great black comedian Dusty Fletcher had a big hit with his National recording of Open The Door Richard only to have it "covered" and outsold exponentially by Louis Jordan's band on Decca. But it is indisputable that most of the artists who recorded for the all of the "race" labels were exploited out of performer, composing and publishing royalties, and that the great bulk of exploitation was directed at black and other minority artists. This has colored the perception of these recordings and the context within which they were made.

For a contemporary analogue to the race labels, one may look to the small independent companies that continue to cater to the segments of the music public ignored by the major labels. The main difference is that there is no effort made to participate in the major leagues of the industry, as there was back in the 20s and 30s.