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”