musical shenanigans

Big Bill Broonzy

Race record sales peaked between the 1920s and the 1940s, which corresponded with the golden age of Jim Crow laws in the United States (and not just in the South) and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a political force. Racial hatred and white supremacy were undertones to the Roaring Twenties. Black musicians being able to sell records only to black audiences was ironically a great deal for recording companies in those heady days because they could easily take advantage of the ignorance, naivete and inexperience of black musicians. All they had to do was find an unknown blues player (usually in the South) and ask him or her to perform for a recording, often offering no contract, recognition or even royalties. In the early days of blues recording, black blues performers were so flattered to be approached by a recording company that they did not ask, much less demand, any compensation. Bingo! The record companies could create huge new cash cows with no strings (or risks) attached. Another scheme was for recording companies to “give” expensive cars (usually Cadillac convertibles) or tailored clothes to black performers as “payments.” What these performers did not realize was these “presents” were bought with money from record sales that should have been paid out to them as royalties in the first place. It was like shooting fish in a barrel of water.

For example, Chicago-based bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), who recorded hundreds of songs during his long career, laments being Shanghaied. “I didn’t get no royalties, because I didn’t know nothing about trying to demand for no money, see?” he said in a 1947 interview. “Until I started running in this music business, I had never lived around no people that would kill they own brother, like, for a lousy dollar.”

What Broonzy was alluding to is the natural tension between performing artists and music producers; the former just wants to create music while the latter is only in it for the money. Screwing over naïve or ignorant performers was just part of their game. “Not only were there no contracts offered and no royalties paid, but part of the deal was also anonymity; that means that the names and stories of countless black musicians from the early 20th century have just been lost. Some of the most groundbreaking music in blues and jazz comes from artists we simply don’t know anything about today, because they were seen as a way for largely white-owned record companies to make a fortune,” wrote Debra Kelly in a July 16, 2020 article in grunge.com.

Fast forward to the 1950s. Rockabilly singer Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” was previously recorded by black blues artist Big Mama Thornton (1926-84), though it was written by the white team of Leiber and Stoller. Irahman Jones of BBCNewsbeat wrote in 2016: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on Earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.” The song stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Thornton collected only $500. Elvis went on to earn $4.3 billion in his career while Thornton died in poverty in 1984.

Some traditional blues players, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-82) of Texas, had gotten wise to the shenanigans of the music recorders by the 1950s. Hopkins performed and recorded at Gold Star Studio, a modest affair just off Telephone Road in Houston, a few miles from his home ground in the predominantly black 5th Ward. Gold Star was owned and operated by Bill Quinn, a radio repairman who had expanded into recording, so he did not have the typical cut-throat mentality of the large recording companies. At Gold Star, Hopkins established his singular method of recording: “Pay me $100 cash, and I’ll sing you a song. Give me another $100, I’ll sing another.” He wasn’t going to be taken in by the scheming executives of those city-slicker producers. Put up or shut up was the way Lightnin’ did business.

Other black bluesmen took their complaints to court, and won. Willie Dixon (1915-92), the former heavyweight boxer turned upright bass player, was one of the founders of the Chicago Blues, along with Muddy Waters. In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Memphis-based Chess Record’s publishing company, Arc Music, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music. In 1987, explains Wikipedia, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band’s use of his music in “Bring It on Home” and lyrics from his composition “You Need Love” (1962) in the band’s recording of “Whole Lotta Love.” With the proceeds of this outcome Dixon founded the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.

Blues players, like performers in other genres, finally found that getting tough with recording companies paid dividends.

Lightnin’ Hopkins performs “The Blues”

race records

This year (2020) marks the 100th year anniversary of the breakthrough blues recording of “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith (1883-1946), which sold so well (75,000 copies in the first couple of months) that it made blues recordings profitable and turned the heads of recording companies. Black women of the day opened their purses and bought Mamie’s revolutionary recording in droves, convincing recording companies to pick up their own divas. Suddenly black female blues singers were all the rage. “And though they’re rarely acknowledged in histories of music, the Black women and girls who responded to Smith’s sound en masse helped upend the anti-Blackness of America’s nascent record business in the early 20th century,” states an August 11, 2020 New York Times article entitled “100 Years Ago, ‘Crazy Blues’ Sparked a Revolution for Black Women Fans.” Those African American ladies were especially turned on by the song’s lyrics.

“I can’t sleep at night
I can’t eat a bite
‘Cause the man I love
He don’t treat me right

He makes me feel so blue
I don’t know what to do
Sometime I sit and sigh
And then begin to cry
‘Cause my best friend
Said his last goodbye

There’s a change in the ocean
Change in the deep blue sea, my baby
I’ll tell you folks, there ain’t no change in me
My love for that man will always be.”

What the above article was referring to was the fact that black customers in those days could not find Mamie’s record (or any other recording by a black artist) in any white owned or operated record shop, as such sales there were not allowed between the 1920s and 1940s. The fragile 78-rpm discs were called “race records,” and/or “race music,” and sales were aimed at black audiences in the South and in the Northern ghettos where blacks had fled in what later was dubbed the “Great Migration.” In the early days, such discs were played on wind-up Victrolas as electricity was not yet available in many rural areas. Made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, Victrolas were literally radio before radio. Race music endured as a commonly accepted term until the late 1940s, when it was rechristened rhythm and blues (R&B).

African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News and Dallas Express carried ads for race records drawn and written by whites, pandering to stereotypical images of blacks as lazy drinkers and gamblers. White performers in blackface were also used in such ads. “Despite the often demeaning, blackface depictions of black men and women in their advertisements, the ‘race records’ sold by record companies such as Columbia and OKeh helped to popularize these blues singers and their messages throughout the urban and rural African American populace, making many of these singers household names and, in effect, some of the first African American popular entertainers,” explains The Encyclopedia of the Blues. “Even in the recording industry, blacks found themselves labeled by race. When Mamie Smith made ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920, the first vocal recording using the blues form, it was called a ‘race record’ and not a blues record.”

Black recordings were not sold in white-owned record stores, but there were other marketing routes available. Newsboys sold black records as a side business, so did door-to-door salesmen and black railway porters carried a stash of race records that they would hawk at whistle stops. The Chicago Defender urged its readers to buy records produced by black performers and before long such recording companies as OKeh, Vocalion, Paramount and Columbia had developed specialty catalogs for black audiences. Race records were selling more than five million copies per year during the 1920s.

The surging success of race records during the Roaring Twenties ended abruptly with the 1929 stock market crash. “The Great Depression of the 1930s destroyed the race record market, leaving most African American musicians jobless. Almost every major music company removed race records from their catalogs as the country turned to the radio. Black listenership for the radio consistently stayed below ten percent of the total Black population during this time, as the music they enjoyed did not get airtime,” explains Wikipedia. “The exclusion of Black artists on the radio was further cemented when commercial networks like NBC and CBS started to hire White singers to cover Black music. It was not until after World War II that rhythm and blues, a term spanning most sub genres of race records, gained prevalence on the radio.” Between 1945 and 1949, originally measuring the number of juke box plays, Billboard’s Harlem chart became known as the “Race Records” chart, but by the 1950s, the R&B classification had prevailed.

One has to wonder how the American music scene would have developed differently had the early recordings of African American performers been allowed into the mainstream between the 1920s and the 1940s. White control of the music industry was tested in 1921 with the founding of Black Swan Records by Black entrepreneur Harry Pace, but the Black-owned company only lasted three years. White owners then issued threats against Pace to cease and desist.

This year marks another centennial: the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote (for white women), but black ladies had less luck at the polls. They were intimidated with numerous roadblocks such as literacy tests, poll taxes and threats of lynching from the KKK. It took decades for ladies of color to gain full access to the polls. If you listen carefully, you can still hear blues singer Bessie Smith’s complaints echoing through the decades.  

Mamie Smith sings “Crazy Blues” (1920)

a bluesman’s lament

By the time the British Invasion in the 1960s had re-stimulated an interest in traditional American blues, the still-living masters were aging. Mance Lipscomb of Texas was in his 70s, Muddy Waters of Mississippi was in his fifties, and many other such performers were already senior citizens. Even the understudies of these old masters are now in their senior years. Take Buddy Guy (born 1936), who performed with Muddy in Chicago for years, is now in his mid-80s. This blues icon worries that the traditional blues of the South, the music created and performed for and by African Americans, may be disappearing forever.

When Buddy Guy played in Germany at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, he got booed, he said, because the audience thought he “looked too young, dressed too slick, and my hair was up in a do. Someone said he was also disappointed that I didn’t carry no whiskey bottle with me onstage. They [white Germans] thought bluesmen needed to be raggedy, old, and drink,” stated a 2019 article by David Remnick called “Holding the Note” in The New Yorker magazine.

Back in the United States, Guy also felt hurt that black audiences, particularly younger black audiences, were moving away from the Chicago blues. B. B. King told Guy that he cried after he was booed by such an audience. “He said that his own people looked on him like he was a farmer wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe,” Guy recounted in his memoir. “They saw him as a grandfather playing their grandfather’s music.”

The “grandfather” role could be seen as far back as the 1930s. When he performed at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and ’39, Chicago blues performer Big Bill Broonzy, known as a slick dresser, was told to dress down for his stage performances. Broonzy, who had played electric guitar as a session man in Chicago for decades, gladly donned overalls and played an acoustic guitar for adoring white fans. And yes, he had that mandatory whiskey bottle in his back pocket. Other bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, refused to play that role.

Buddy Guy worries that there is not a new generation of blues performers to carry on the great tradition. In 1983, Buddy shared that vision with his close friend Muddy Waters, who implored “Don’t let them goddam blues die on me, all right?” A couple of days later Muddy passed. Losing the blues altogether is a legitimate worry, but not entirely accurate. Remnick writes, “There are still some extraordinary musicians around who play and sing the blues with the sort of richness that Guy admires: Robert Cray, Gary Clark, Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Adia Victoria, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland. Guy has even coached a couple of teen-age guitar prodigies: Christone (Kingfish) Ingram, who comes from the Delta, and Quinn Sullivan, who first performed onstage with Guy when he was seven.”

Copeland, a singer and the daughter of the late and great Texas guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland (1937-97), says: “The blues as Buddy knows it, as he does it, really will be gone when he is gone.” She did not mean that traditional blues was going to die, only that its popularity was fading, which it was and is.

Blues music has always been an outlet for African Americans to express their grievances with white majority rule, particularly with Jim Crow laws in the South. These gripes had to be voiced subtly and in dog whistle fashion as lyrics being too clear or too precise were dangerous. As the blues began to lose popularity following the British Invasion of the 1960s, the music began to be replaced by hip hop among young blacks. Then came rap (or vice-versa), which started as an urban underground sound emanating from Bronx streets in New York City in the 1970s, spurred by the invention of the boom box.

“One of the first rappers at the beginning of the hip hop period, at the end of the 1970s, was also hip hop’s first disc jockey, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant. He started delivering simple raps at his parties [in the Bronx], which some claim were inspired by the Jamaican tradition of toasting,” explains Wikipedia. Toasting is a style of lyrical chanting which — in Dancehall music and reggae — involves a deejay talking over the rhythm of the song.

With the decline of disco in the early 1980s, rap became a new form of expression, with a beat. Rap arose from musical experimentation with rhyming and rhythmic speech and was a clear departure from disco. Sherley Anne Williams refers to the development of rap as “anti-Disco” in style and means of reproduction, states Wikipedia. But more than just a new style, rap seemed to be a new venue for angry black Americans to let off steam. Take the lyrics of gangsta rapper Tracy Lauren Marrow (a.k.a. Ice-T)’s 1992 song “Cop Killer,” for example.

“I got my black shirt on.
I got my black gloves on.
I got my ski mask on.
This shit’s been too long.

I got my twelve gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off.
I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off.”

Interestingly, Ice-T now plays a New York City policeman on the nationally televised weekly TV show called Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. Ironic? Certainly, but not necessarily a sign of the times. A quick look at the evening news these days suggests that racial conflict in the United States is getting worse, not better.

Rap may be slowly displacing the blues, but it is unclear if that is an improvement or a step in the other direction. I guess that depends on who’s listening to it.

Robert Cray and Shemekia Copeland “I Pity the Fool” duo. Incredible!

eddie who?

Eddie Durham

Blues histories like to loudly proclaim that Muddy Waters started guitar electrification in Chicago in the 1940s. What they normally don’t explain is that such electrification started decades before Muddy Waters ever fatefully boarded that train headed for the Windy City. Early blues players coming from impoverished Southern states could not afford guitars (they mostly used fiddles or harmonicas), but all that changed in 1888 when Sears & Roebuck started catalog sales of the instruments for an affordable price. The Sears catalog, and its cheap guitars, gave Mississippi Delta and Texas bluesmen the tools they needed to revolutionize American music. Still, these acoustic instruments had a problem: they were often drowned out by background music or the ambient sounds of  the bars and jukes where the blues were being played. Thus the need for an enhanced audio system became implicit.

The first electric pickup and electric amplifier for guitars was produced in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until around 1936 when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian (1916-1942) began using an acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to the body, with the intention of playing guitar solos in his band. This is said to be the birth of the electric guitar. Sales of the famous Rickenbacker “frying pan” guitar had started in 1932.

However, a major difficulty for the first electric guitars with pickups attached to their bodies was an acoustic phenomenon called “feedback,” where sound amplified by an amplifier caused the instrument to resonate, creating a cacophony of sound. “A clever way of solving of this annoying issue was to remove the hollow cavity from the guitar body, making it difficult for sound to resonate. This led to the creation of the solid-body guitar, in which the body is carved from a single piece of wood,” explains an article in Yamaha.com called “The Birth of the Electric Guitar.”

Move over Muddy, the first musician to publicly record a blues song, called “Hittin’ the Bottle,” (for Decca Records) with an electric guitar came in September 1935 from a Texan named Eddie Durham (1906-87), a virtuoso trombonist and guitarist. “Of African American, Irish, Mohawk and Cherokee Indian descent, Eddie Durham was part of a musical family from San Marcos, a city so deep in the heart of Texas, he spoke mainly Spanish as a youngster. For many years, Durham knew little English. His father was a fiddler who made his violin louder by putting dried rattlesnake rattles inside it; so the urge to amplify was in young Eddie’s genes,” states Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume Two.

Eddie started his career in a travelling Indian Wild West circus which supported touring acts like Mamie Smith, famous for cutting the blues breakthrough record “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Backing Smith (no relation to Bessie), Eddie and two other multi-instrumentalists played 12 instruments between them in the blues diva’s house band. “Eddie Durham’s experiments with amplification started in 1929 when he started recording with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, probably the most influential jump blues band touring the mid-west at the time. The all-black band featured the hard-stomp beat that Kansas City was famous for, which helped develop the riffing style synonymous with later big bands.”

Sadly, Durham’s many contributions to American music have been unreported and/or overlooked by both the media and blues scholars, even though he was a great musician and musical arranger during the Great Depression. Jazz historian Phil Schaap, who knew Durham for decades, called Eddie “the most neglected musical genius of the 20th Century.” How could writers or scholars not notice or simply overlook Durham’s many achievements? Eddie was “the quantum musician most responsible for rearranging the rhythmic nucleus of jazz. He was Moten’s [original promoter of swing] trombonist-guitarist-arranger, who embossed his charts with the fluid, prairie-open, 4/4 stamp of the Southwest,” wrote Jim Gerard in an article entitled “Genius in the Shadows” in allaboutjazz.com. “He had a vision that Chicago jazz in the 1920s was relatable to that from Texas, yet different, and that was the beginning of his desire to orchestrate.”

Throughout his long career, Eddie demonstrated a musical curiosity and a blues-type inventiveness. For instance, he once experimented with a home-made vibrato arm, later called a whammy bar on more modern guitars. He told the following story to Guitar Player in an August 1979 interview: “I took a clothes hanger, bent it making a hook for my little finger. I hooked the other end on my movable bridge. I could hit a chord, and shake the hanger, and I’d get a nice effect. I don’t believe I ever used that on a recording, however.”

Perhaps Eddie’s quiet, unassuming attitude was his undoing. If he’d been more aggressive and loudmouthed he would’ve probably attracted more media and scholastic attention. But that was not his personality; Eddie never believed that you have to break a window to get attention. But remember: between 1937-38 he wrote most of the songs Count Basie later played, he arranged “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller and he formed and led several all-female orchestras, among many other musical achievements. Eddie was also a major purveyor of the boogie-woogie style associated with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.

Not bad for a quiet lad from deep in the heart of Texas.

Eddie Durham on guitar in “Hittin’ the Bottle”