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)