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Ralph Peer Ralph Peer was born in 1892 in Independence, Missouri, son of a furniture dealer. Surrounded by the cabinet-sized radios and record players in his father's store, Peer fell in love with the new medium, and when he was eighteen years old he went to work for the Columbia Phonograph Company in Kansas City. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, and upon his return took a job with the General Phonograph Company, where he distinguished himself as an ambitious climber of the corporate ladder.

A Bright Idea
Eventually Peer earned the directorship of General Phonograph's lackluster recording division and its Okeh record label. Changing musical tastes and the round-the-clock availability of music on the radio were starting to take their toll on the sales of such luminaries as Enrico Caruso. Peer had a bright idea: "[He] was one of the first people to figure out that there was a big listening audience out there and they didn't want to just listen to Caruso," says Mark Zwonitzer, author of the Carter family biography, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? "He was going to the places where they were making the people's music."

Old Songs Made New
Peer's first hit recording of Southern music was fiddler John Carson from Atlanta, Georgia, whose first recording of The Little Old Log Cabin and The Old Hen Cackled sold more than 500,000 copies nationwide. In 1924 he began recording songs by the West Virginia musician "Pop" Stoneman, focusing on hits about the Titanic and other famous disasters. "What Peer loved about Stoneman," says Zwonitzer, "was that he didn't do just the old traditional songs that everyone knew. He had made something new of the Titanic poem."

$1 Million in Royalties
LOOK! Victor Artist In 1926 the blue-chip Victor Company, maker of the Victrola record player, whose artists numbered among them the great Caruso himself, lured Peer away from Okeh. Like Okeh, Victor's record sales had been falling, and the company saw hillbilly music as a potential fix to the problem. Peer was no saint, and he was in the business because he smelled money, not because he loved music. He had a gift for giving the American people what they wanted to hear, and in the process he made a lot of money for Victor -- and a lot for himself as well. In a deal that Victor must later have rued, he had agreed to work without salary on the condition that he receive a cut of the royalties for every record sold and every song played on the radio. Peer was making $1 million a year at a time when the average American family earned $700 per year -- and when he was paying artists like Stoneman a mere $3,000-$4,000 per year.

Bristol Sessions
In July 1927 Peer headed south to make some more records with Stoneman, and decided while he was there to hold an audition and recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, for other aspiring Southern musicians. Held in an abandoned hat factory, these were the famous "Bristol Sessions," after which the town would later become known as the "birthplace of country music." In Bristol he "discovered" the Carters, whom he added to his stable of hillbilly greats alongside Victor's best-selling artist, Jimmie Rodgers.



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