Prior to the emergence of rhythm & blues as a musical genre in the 1940s, “race music” and “race records” were terms used to categorize practically all types of African-American music. Race records were the first examples of popular music recorded by and marketed to black Americans. Reflecting on the segregated status of American society and culture, race records were separate catalogs of African-American music. Prior to the 1940s, African Americans were scarcely represented on radio, and live performances were largely limited to segregated venues. Race music and records, therefore, were also the primary medium for African-American musical expression during the 1920s and 1930s; an estimated 15,000 titles were released on race records—approximately 10,000 blues, 3,250 jazz, and 1,750 gospel songs were produced during those years. Race records are significant historical documents of early-twentieth-century African American music and have been and remain influential to artists, audiences, and scholars alike. Most twentieth-century white, popular music—especially rock ‘n’ roll and country—has roots in race music, in particular jazz, swing, and blues.
The terms “race music” and “race records” had conflicting meanings. In one respect, they were indicative of segregation in the 1920s. Race records were separated from the recordings of white musicians, records solely because of the race of the artists. On the other hand, the terms represented an emerging awareness by the recording industry of African-American audiences. The term “race” was not pejorative; in fact “race was symbolic of black pride, militancy, and solidarity in the 1920s, and it was generally favored over colored or Negro by African-American city dwellers,” noted scholar William Barlow in “Cashing In: 1900-1939.” The term “race records” first appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, within an OKeh advertisement in 1922.
Race music and records resulted from the concentrated commercialization of American popular music beginning in the early twentieth century. In 1920 Mamie Smith, a female African American singer little known outside of vaudeville, recorded the song “Crazy Blues” for the small OKeh record label. The record unexpectedly sold over 100,000 copies by the end of the year and turned the nascent recording industry’s attention to African-American artists and audiences. The early 1920s were a period of declining revenues for the recording industry, and race records emerged in part as a way of expanding the consumer market for recorded music. The two dominant record companies, Victor and Columbia, had seen their status erode dramatically. Victor’s sales had fallen from $51 million, and Columbia’s sales had declined from $7 million to $4.5 million in the period of 1921 to 1925. The combined impact of radio and competition from new labels were catalysts for the emergence of race records. The onset of commercial radio broadcasts in the early 1920s impacted the recording industry’s dominant position as the gatekeeper of recorded music. Prior to a lawsuit in 1919, the two dominant recording companies controlled the patents for phonograph record production. Following this lawsuit, however, the industry was opened to competition. Many of the new record labels that emerged, such as OKeh, Paramount, and Gennett, would be instrumental in the development and production of race records.
The production of race records was a more profitable endeavor than the recording of white artists. As in other endeavors, African-American artists were paid less than their white counterparts for recording sessions and were often exploited. Artists’ ignorance of copyright law, and the lack of an independent accounting body to track sales, allowed industry personnel to grossly underpay or waive royalty monies. Bessie Smith, “the queen of the blues,” recorded over 160 songs for Columbia and never received royalty payments in the ten years she recorded for the company. Folk blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House, were also more profitable to record because their songs could be copyrighted. Unlike their urban peers, folk-blues artists’ songs generally had not been published, thus record companies could make money off the published songs in addition to sales of records. Once published, songs became commodities and any future recordings would result in royalty payments to the publisher. This practice has remained widespread throughout the twentieth century.
With few exceptions, the labels that produced race records were white-owned and-controlled. One significant exception was Black Swan, formed in 1921 by Harry Pace, W.C. Handy’s former partner, as a division of Pace Phonography. Musician and arranger Fletcher Henderson was retained as musical director and recording manager. In 1924, largely due to a lack of sustained financial success, Black Swan sold its catalog to Paramount. Paramount also had a connection to the other major African American-owned label of this time, Black Patti. Black Patti was started in 1927 by J. “Mayo” Williams, an African American who was recording director for the Paramount label. While employed there Williams started the label with money from disgruntled Paramount vice president E.J. Barrett and Richard Gennett, brother of Gennett Records owner Harry Gennett. After releasing approximately 50 records, Black Patti folded in less than a year. Other African American-owned labels include Sunshine and Merritt. Overall, the race labels constituted a small minority in the context of race record production during this period which was dominated by white-owned businesses. Segregation and racism, combined with only fleeting access to capital, technology, and distribution—which were almost exclusively controlled by whites—placed the African-American labels at a disadvantage and ultimately contributed to their quick demise.
Race music and records in the 1920s were characterized by the popularity of two significant genres of music and the dominance of three race record labels. In particular, jazz and blues became part of the American musical idiom in the 1920s, popularized in large part through recordings released on Columbia, Paramount, and OKeh. Jazz, the dominant American indigenous popular music, emerged from the New Orleans area to become national, and eventually international, in popularity and practice. For example, Joe “King” Oliver was a seminal figure in jazz, and his band featured Louis Armstrong. Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band came out of New Orleans and was a mainstay in several Chicago clubs; the group recorded some of the earliest and most influential jazz records for the Gennett label. Likewise, Jelly Roll Morton, an influential pianist from New Orleans, recorded groundbreaking songs for the Gennett label.
The blues emerged from diverse regions of the American South and Southwest and had urban and rural progenitors. In the urban North, the vaudeville blues became popular in the early 1920s, especially following the success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording. Female blues artists in particular were quite successful during the early 1920s. Artists such as Alberta Hunter, who recorded for Paramount, and Sean Martin, who recorded for OKeh, had a large following through their recordings. The folk-blues, with origins in the rural South, became popular in the latter half of the 1920s. Artists such as Texan Blind Lemon Jefferson, who recorded 75 songs for Paramount between 1926 and 1930, were popular with audiences and would influence later generations of blues artists. Other folk-blues artists of note who recorded during this period were Missippians Charley Patton—a.k.a. “The Masked Marvel”—and Son House; both recorded for Paramount.
During the 1930s, the commercial success and expansion of race music and records were impacted by the Great Depression. While sales of race records had reached $100 million in 1927, they had fallen drastically to $6 million in 1933. In response, the record companies dropped their record prices from an average of 75 cents in the 1920s to 35 cents in the 1930s. Until the mid-1930s, few new songs were released and virtually no new race recordings were made; instead the industry re-released titles and songs that had been previously unreleased. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the demand for live music increased. And in the late 1930s, the emergence of the jukebox stimulated sales of records. Three race record labels dominated the production of recordings in the 1930s and reflected the impact of the Depression on the music industry: Columbia, RCA-Victor, whose race label was Bluebird, and Decca. Columbia, which had acquired OKeh in 1926, was profitable until 1938 at which time it was sold to CBS. The RCA-Victor label had emerged from RCA’s purchase of Victor in 1928. Decca, a new entry into the race market, was a subsidiary of London-based Decca. Despite the economic downturn, the 1930s were a creative period for race music.
In the 1930s race music was expanded by the popularity of swing. Swing grew out of big-band jazz ensembles in the 1920s. Unlike the jazz bands of the 1920s, however, the swing was more often arranged and scored, instead of improvised, and used reed instruments as well as the brass instruments that dominated earlier jazz. Swing in the 1930s was epitomized by the Fletcher Henderson Band which featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, and arranger Don Redman. Other notable swing bands during this period included Chick Webb’s band, which had vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Lunceford’s band, Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra, and Cab Calloway’s Orchestra.
During the 1940s race records as a distinctly separate catalog of recordings waned due to several factors. The United States’ entry into World War II curtailed the production and consumption of recorded music. In 1942 the government rationed shellac, a key component in the manufacture of record discs, which limited the number of releases. Likewise in 1942, the American Federation of Music announced a ban on all recording, and as a result the studios were closed for two years. Following the war and the lifting of the recording ban, recording resumed with verve, but the industry concentrated on mass-market sales and neglected their race catalogs. Small labels that emphasized African-American music emerged in the Midwest and South and challenged the status of the major labels. Significantly, these labels—such as Chess, King, and Vee-Jay—did not use the nomenclature “race records.” Race music during this period was greatly expanded. While blues and jazz titles were still being recorded and released, a diversity of styles, collectively known as “rhythm and blues,” began to coalesce. Although race music was still largely produced for and consumed by black audiences, the segregated status of the music and recordings was declining.
—Matthew A. Killmeier