Kennedy and McNutt profile ten of the most influential independent record labels from the 1920s through the 1960s. While the major labels over this period garnered the lion's share of the market, the small labels produced some of the most significant music recorded at the time. Moreover, independent labels catapulted many artists to fame—e.g., Elvis Presley on Sun, Charlie Parker on Dial. Because the little labels typically served smaller geographic areas and concentrated on a single genre (jazz, blues, etc.), they provide better historical documents for researchers looking for eddies below the popular mainstream. Collectors have long recognized the importance of recordings issued by independent labels, as demonstrated by the high prices these records fetch. Now more researchers are paying attention to these artifacts, as the study of discography expands in scope. Although Kennedy and McNutt provide plenty of worthwhile information about artists, Little Labels concentrates on the fortunes of the owners/producers. Some of these stories have been told elsewhere (for example, in Kennedy's Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy, CH, Oct'94, which looks at the Gennett studio). The authors relied heavily on personal correspondence and interviews with surviving label owners; their secondary documentation is sparser or lacking. A worthwhile book for large music collections.J. Farrington, Eastman School of Music, Choice, December 1999
Little Labels - Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Musicby Rick Kennedy, Randy McNult, Randy McNutt
Now in paperback!
Little Labels Big Sound
Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music
Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt
Foreword by Al Kooper
A wild ride through American popular music.
"[T]hese cats had their ears to the ground and cut vinyl that created the hip sounds of the day, sounds that still reverberate today.... Little Labels
Now in paperback!
Little Labels Big Sound
Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music
Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt
Foreword by Al Kooper
A wild ride through American popular music.
"[T]hese cats had their ears to the ground and cut vinyl that created the hip sounds of the day, sounds that still reverberate today.... Little LabelsBig Sound is a great primer into the history of these... independent record labels."
Blue Suede News
"[L]ike the labels it celebrates and the 45s and the 78s those labels put out... full of exciting and vital content."
San Francisco Chronicle
"In this straightforward and engaging collection of histories and profiles, the authors present a brisk overview of important indies and a look at several distinctive companies and the men who ran them..." Billboard
"Show me a man today who could stand up to a Syd Nathan or a Don Robey, and I’ll show you a man behind barsnot behind a desk. Why, without Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and the man who unearthed Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, and Howling Wolf to name but a few, there might not even have been any rock ’n’ roll, electric blues, or rockabilly music."
Al Kooper, from the Foreword
Rick Kennedy, a media relations manager and former journalist, is author of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy (Indiana University Press).
Randy McNutt, a longtime reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer, is author of We Wanna Boogie and a book on Ohio ghost towns.
March 2001 (cloth 1999) 224 pages, 33 b&w photos, 6 x 9, notes, bibl., index, append.
cloth 0-253-33548-5 $24.95 t / £18.95
paper 0-253-21434-3 $17.95 t / £13.95
"... close-up portraits of risk-taking label owners who often gambled their careers and livelihoods to release music they believed in." —Billboard
J. Farrington, Eastman School of Music
- Indiana University Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.61(d)
Read an Excerpt
"The studio was a dreary looking Rube Goldberg place with lily-shaped horns sticking oddly from the walls. It didn't have the effect of soothing me."
Hoagy Carmichael, composer of "Stardust"
In April 1923, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, the rage of Chicago's black nightclub district, took a five-hour train ride across rural Indiana to the Starr Piano factory in the small industrial town of Richmond. The sprawling factory complex, operated by Henry Gennett and his three sons, sat secluded beside a river in a vast glacial gorge known locally as Starr Valley. The family also produced its own Gennett record label in a primitive, wood-framed studio along the factory's railway line. Musicians crowded around megaphone-style horns, as a recording stylus etched sound vibrations directly onto blank, soft-wax discs.
Though wildly popular at Chicago's Lincoln Gardens dance hall, cornetist Oliver and his young New Orleans jazz players had never stepped into a recording studio. "It was something none of us had experienced and we were all very nervous," drummer Baby Dodds said. "We were all working hard and perspiration as big as a thumb dropped off us." The studio engineer recorded 28 takes in the hot, non-ventilated room. Oliver's second cornetist, future legend Louis Armstrong, stood farthest from the acoustic horns for fear that his Herculean tone would cause the needle to bounce on the wax master disc. Oliver's group caught the next available train back to Chicago. The Gennettstudio staff carefully packed the fragile wax discs from the session and delivered them to the factory's metal-plating room for processing, unaware of the history they had just preserved.
The first batch of Oliver's 78-rpm shellac discs released on Gennett captured a landmark day in American music, and the most significant jazz recording session to that point. Although the first jazz records were produced in New York in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Oliver sides from April 1923 in Richmond are considered jazz music's first recorded masterpieces. These old Gennett discs document a highly refined, polyphonic New Orleans ensemble tradition, brilliant solos by Armstrong, Oliver, and clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and several original compositions from the seminal group of early 1920s jazz.
It would seem to be a remarkable coup for a small record company in rural Indiana, more than 60 miles from the closest major cities of Indianapolis, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet, in fact, Gennett Records, by documenting the convergence of New Orleans and Midwestern jazz musicians in early 1920s Chicago, debuted a remarkable parade of future jazz giants: Oliver, Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Leon Roppolo, George Brunies, Freddie Keppard, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Gennett's association with Chicago jazz led Indiana composer Hoagy Carmichael to Richmond, where he recorded his first songs, including the timeless "Stardust."
The Gennetts sold records to black and rural people largely neglected by the dominant New York labels. In addition to Gennett, the family produced a discount label, Champion, and also recorded and pressed discs for Sears' mail-order discount labels, targeted for rural buyers in the 1920s. This market focus encouraged the Richmond studio not only to pioneer jazz recording, but also to produce some of the first discs by country blues singers, Appalachian string bands and white country gospel groupstraditional regional music that was the bedrock of country-western and early rock `n' roll. Gennett's notable country and blues singers included Gene Autry, Vernon Dalhart, Bill Broonzy, Bradley Kincaid, Ernest Stoneman, and Roosevelt Sykes. Before collapsing during the 1930s Great Depression, Gennett Records preserved and promoted the soulful, undiluted sounds of America's musical grassroots.
The legacy was unintentional. The Gennetts were not musical visionaries, but hard-nosed piano manufacturers and retailers who sold records as a sideline business. Starr Piano, founded in 1872, first blossomed along Richmond's Whitewater River in the late 19th century under owners James and Benjamin Starr. In 1893, Henry Gennett, a slight, swarthy Italian from Nashville, Tennessee, bought into the company and moved his family to Richmond. Within a decade, he and his three sons, Clarence, Harry, and Fred, acquired control of Starr Piano, which they developed into one of the nation's largest piano manufacturers. By 1915, Starr Piano produced 15,000 pianos annually, selling them through a chain of stores in Ohio and Indiana, and in the cities of New York, Detroit, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
In quaint Richmond, Indiana, a prosperous town of 25,000 people, the Gennetts were quintessential small-town business leaders in America's Victorian Age. Henry, often sporting a white Panama hat and cane with a gold knob, and his impeccably dressed wife, Alice, daughter of a Nashville millionaire, supported the local symphony, financed visits from touring performers, and created a 1,200-seat Gennett Theater downtown. They built a mansion on Richmond's Main Street with a spacious third-floor ballroom. Their three sons each raised families in stately homes a short walk from their parents and a few blocks from their piano factory, the town's industrial cornerstone.
With piano sales booming, the Gennetts expanded in 1915 into phonographs and records, a sporty new industry dominated by New Jersey's Victor Talking Machine Co. Starr Piano built recording studios above its Manhattan store and in Richmond's Starr Valley. But sales for Starr records lagged because independent dealers avoided selling records so closely associated with Starr pianos. Even worse, vertical-cut Starr records, like Edison's Diamond discs, couldn't be played on the ubiquitous Victor and Columbia phonographs, which played only lateral-cut records.
The Gennetts changed the label's name to "Gennett" to minimize the Starr association. Then, in 1919, they challenged Victor by introducing their own lateral-cut records, a technology protected by Victor patents. Victor sued Starr Piano for patent infringement, and several court battles ensued, with Starr supported by other small record companies. Ultimately, the courts ruled that Victor did not invent lateral-cut recording technology. Starr Piano's final court victory in 1922 put the technology into the public domain, thus allowing smaller labels to compete in an industry virtually controlled by the giants Victor, Columbia, and Edison.
The early 1920s, before the dawn of cheap home radios, were peak years for Gennett Records. While still dwarfed by New York's leading labels, the Richmond pressing plant pressed millions of eclectic discs: symphonies, opera and black-faced vaudeville singers, ethnic language, comedy dialogue, exercise records, sacred choirs and soloists, speeches and prayers by William Jennings Bryan, marimba bands, marching brass bands, xylophone trios, and hotel dance orchestras.
Gennett also custom-pressed thousands of discs for the Ku Klux Klan. These discs were often adaptations of sacred hymns, such as "The Bright Fiery Cross" (based on "The Old Rugged Cross"), "Onward Christian Klansmen" ("Onward Christian Soldiers"), and "Cross by the Wildwood" ("Church by the Wildwood"). While many Starr Piano employees were active in the local klavern, the Gennetts didn't participate. They quietly pressed the discs because the Klan paid cash for all the discs pressed.
In mid-1922, Gennett Records made its historic venture into Chicago jazz. Prohibition-era Chicago, with the nation's largest black urban population, was a lightning rod for black and white New Orleans jazz players, who attracted large crowds in the city's numerous dance halls and speakeasies. Fred Wiggins, manager of Starr Piano's downtown Chicago store, was taken by a young, white jazz band at the nearby, mob-controlled Friars Inn. He urged his boss and longtime friend, Fred Gennett, to set up a recording date in Richmond for the band, known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (NORK).
Fred Gennett, a small, thin man of 36 with receding black hair and horn-rimmed glasses, headed the record division. He lacked his father's hard-edged business skills. "Pop was a smart fella, but money never meant anything to him," recalled Fred's son, Richard. Fred had no personal interest in jazz, but to his brothers' chagrin, he was attracted to the latest fads. "It drove the family at Starr Piano half-crazy, but if it was something new, Pop would try it," his son added.
Fred Gennett also had confidence in Fred Wiggins, a thin man with a high-pitched voice and a stogie perpetually dangling from his mouth. Wiggins was born in Richmond and joined Starr Piano in the shipping department in 1906. He rose through the sales department to become manager of Starr's Chicago store. Notoriously opinionated, Wiggins, who was 46 years old in 1922, had no training in music but kept close tabs on Chicago's young musicians, looking for business opportunities.
Since 1919, the Gennett label had recorded numerous jazz-style, commercial bands in its Manhattan studio. But with Chicago's more distinct sound of pure New Orleans jazz still untapped by the large record companies, Fred Gennett heeded Wiggins' advice and signed the eight-piece NORK, fronted by three New Orleans players: trombonist George Brunies, cornetist Paul Mares, and the remarkable Leon Roppolo on clarinet. In August 1922, the musicians loaded a sedan, strapped their instruments to the running boards, and headed to the Richmond studio for the first of three recording sessions with Gennett.
They found the studio in a gray wooden warehouse, along a row of factory buildings. It stood three feet from a secondary railroad spur for slow-moving cars hauling freight through the congested factory. To make matters worse, the main Chesapeake & Ohio railroad ran above the Starr Piano factory along the ridge of Starr Valley, also producing tremendous noise and vibration. Because of the two railroad lines, recording sessions were frequently interrupted. The studio's attempt at soundproofing involved packing sawdust between the studio's interior and exterior walls. Inside, sound resonance was minimized by hanging monk's cloth draperies from ceiling to floor. A large Mohawk rug from Harry Gennett's home was hung on one wall.
Situated in a humid river gorge, the studio was naturally hot in the summer. But to keep the blank wax master discs soft for recording, the studio was kept hot year-round. Achieving proper sound balance, which could take hours, required placing performers at various distances from the recording horns. Numerous wax test records were made and played back through the horns. Certain musicians, such as banjo players, were positioned on high stools. Brass players stood farthest from the horns.
The Gennetts rarely hired music professionals for the Richmond studio and generally recruited staff from the piano factory. This practice proved significant, especially for jazz, blues, and country musicians visiting the studio, because the staff simply waxed the discs and didn't intrude. Not only were musicians free to express themselves, but the staff allowed them to record their own songs. With music publishing still dominant over the emerging record industry, studios commonly required musicians to play only the popular published tunes. The Gennett studio offered more latitude and thus provided an atmosphere for greater creativity.
This freedom clearly benefited the NORK. Of the band's 31 sides issued on Gennett in 1922-23, several original songs, including "Tin Roof Blues," "Bugle Call Blues," and "Farewell Blues," became standards in the early jazz repertoire. Equally significant, these records preserved the fluid, emotional improvisations by clarinetist Roppolo, an eccentric Sicilian who was arguably the first jazz virtuoso ever recorded. (Within a few years, Roppolo would begin a lifetime confinement in a mental institution.) Gennett's NORK releases caused a sensation with aspiring musicians in 1920s Chicago, including future jazz stars Bud Freeman and Jimmy McPartland.
Brisk sales for the NORK releases led Gennett to Chicago's most celebrated black jazz band, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Among the 13 songs released from two visits to Richmond in 1923, the Oliver band debuted several future jazz classics, such as "Dippermouth Blues," by Oliver and Armstrong; "Chimes Blues," "Just Gone," and "Snake Rag," each by Oliver; and "Weather Bird Rag," by Armstrong. All were highly original numbers created for the Gennett sessions. Through its "Gennett Colored Artists" catalog, Gennett sold the Oliver releases with several white jazz bands, including the NORK.
Gennett's Oliver releases helped preserve a brief, memorable period in history when Armstrong teamed with Oliver, his only acknowledged musical mentor. They created breathtaking, telepathic cornet duets, the likes of which the world of jazz has rarely heard since. Within a year of its first session on Gennett, the legendary Oliver band dissolved. Louis and Lillian Armstrong and Johnny Dodds made history in 1925-26 with their Hot Five recordings on OKeh Records. By the late 1930s, Oliver had faded into obscurity and died a penniless janitor, while Armstrong was an international star.
Original compositions on Gennett by the NORK and Oliver bands were sold as stock arrangements and sheet music by small-time Chicago music publishers Walter and Lester Melrose. Combined, Gennett discs and Melrose Brothers sheet music made Chicago jazz accessible to a national audience. Certain Melrose stock arrangements often referenced the corresponding Gennett discs to provide further musical guidance. Equally important, the Gennett-Melrose connection led Fred Gennett to preserve the timeless artistry of pianist Jelly Roll Morton, a Melrose staff composer and self-proclaimed inventor of jazz.
The well-traveled Morton, another New Orleans musician seeking his fortune in Chicago, had been a pool hustler, pimp, club operator, vaudeville performer, ragtime piano virtuoso, and published composer when he visited Richmond in mid-1923. At the session, Morton teamed with the NORK on what is considered the first interracial recording session in jazz history. (The NORK secured Morton a hotel room in Richmond by claiming he was Latin American, according to the NORK's Brunies.) Gennett released six sides from the collaboration, including versions of Morton classics "Mr. Jelly Lord" and "Milenberg Joys." His ragtime-style piano lends a pleasant, easy-going atmosphere to these records while his songs were an excellent vehicle for Roppolo's lyrical improvisations.
During 1923-24, Gennett also released 15 sides of Morton on solo piano. These low-fidelity recordings are noted for Morton's lightning piano runs, intricate counterpoint, and for the multi-thematic nature of his compositions, such as "Wolverine Blues," "The Pearls," and "King Porter Stomp." These solo performances, which become more celebrated with each passing year, comprise one of only three series of recordings produced by Morton during his lifetime. The 1923 collaboration with Morton was the NORK'S last Gennett session. Within two years, the group disbanded after Chicago's Friars Inn opted for a new floor show. Yet, during the band's reign there, the Friars Inn attracted scores of young jazz musicians.
Several of them became Gennett artists. On a college break in the early 1920s, Hoagy Carmichael, an Indiana University (IU) law student, piano player, and jazz fanatic, journeyed to the Friars Inn, where, at one of the small cabaret tables, he first met Bix Beiderbecke, an amazing white cornetist from Iowa. Their paths crossed again in 1924 when Beiderbecke headed the Wolverine Orchestra, a fledgling jazz band that barnstormed Ohio and Indiana, lived hand-to-mouth, and recorded for Gennett. Carmichael booked the band for Greek parties at IU in Bloomington, Indiana. Carmichael, who led his own campus jazz band, was mesmerized by Beiderbecke's gorgeous tone and improvisations. Their eccentric personalities, and mutual interests in music and bootleg whiskey suited each other. They fast became close friends. On a drunken Sunday at IU's Kappa Sigma house, Beiderbecke encouraged Carmichael to pursue his desire to compose music. Some weeks later, Carmichael assembled the Wolverines around a piano to debut his first song. To Carmichael's astonishment, the Wolverines recorded the untried New Orleans-style song, ultimately called "Riverboat Shuffle," in Richmond in May 1924. Carmichael received a contract from New York's Irving Mills for the song's publishing rights and a remarkable composing career was underway.
Over the next several months, the Wolverines found work in Indiana and finally at New York's Cinderella Ballroom. Gennett issued more than a dozen Wolverines sides, providing an aural diary of Beiderbecke's early musical development. When he joined the more-established Jean Goldkette Orchestra in October 1924, the Wolverines were doomed.
Perhaps Beiderbecke's greatest triumph on Gennett was his last Richmond recording session in January 1925, when he was out of work and drifting around the Midwest. Carmichael drove him to Richmond to meet friends from Goldkette's band, most notably trombonist Tommy Dorsey, who arrived with bottles of gin. With little written down, the six-piece pickup band produced an arrangement for a melody Beiderbecke created, which he dubbed "Davenport Blues." The record, issued under Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers, preserved his advanced explorations into rhythm and harmony. Six years later, Beiderbecke died from dissipation at age 28.
Carmichael's association with Gennett, on the other hand, had just begun. In early 1925, a jazz band from southern Indiana, Curtis Hitch's Happy Harmonists, recorded Carmichael's "Washboard Blues" in Richmond with the composer on piano. "The studio was a dreary looking Rube Goldberg place with lily-shaped horns sticking oddly from the walls," Carmichael later wrote. "It didn't have the effect of soothing me. The horns sticking from the walls looked spooky and I was pretty upset by the time we were ready to make test records." When the first test record of "Washboard Blues" came up 20 seconds short, Garmichael filled out the recording with an impromptu piano solo. (Years later, that solo became the framework for Carmichael's 1933 hit "Lazybones.")
After completing law school in 1926, Carmichael pursued the uncertain career path of jazz musician and composer. In 1927, while based in central Indiana, he experimented with a melody he said was inspired by a lost romance from his IU days. He arranged the song in ragtime style and played it at local gigs. An IU student dubbed the song "Star Dust," the title to be changed ultimately to "Stardust."
In October 1927, Carmichael recruited Indianapolis band leader Emil Seidel, and seven members of his band, and drove through the night across Indiana to the Richmond piano factory to debut "Star Dust" on record. Carmichael got Gennett recording engineer Harold Soule out of bed at 3 A.M. "I got the first take at 5 o'clock in the morning," Soule recalled. "Old Hoagy fell backwards off his piano stool and says, `My masterpiece,' and it was." The ragged, up-tempo instrumental rendition of "Star Dust" on Gennett is a remarkable glimpse into the birth of an American classic. The record's highlight is Carmichael's meandering, contrapuntal piano solo. Haunted by the song's melody, reminiscent of a Beiderbecke improvisation, Carmichael later recalled: "Back there in the old ratty recording studio, I was vague in mood as the strains hung in the rafters of the place. I wanted to shout, `Maybe I didn't write you, but I found you.'"
Gennett paid Carmichael the standard one penny per side in royalties. Musicians never got rich off Gennett royalties, and Carmichael's "Star Dust" earnings probably only covered expenses to travel to Richmond and back. Undaunted, he returned the following spring with another pickup band of Indiana players. "We never really thought much about cutting a record," said Bud Dant, then an IU freshman and the session's cornetist. "Jazz was so new in those days and we just thought going over to Richmond with Hoagy would be a kick." Gennett issued two excellent sides from the session, Carmichael's "March of the Hoodlums" and a standard, "Walkin' the Dog," with Carmichael on scat vocal and playing unsteady cornet.
At the session, Carmichael made a second recording of "Star Dust," on which he sang his own lyrics. Fred Wiggins, who was now the Richmond studio supervisor for Fred Gennett, reviewed the "Star Dust" take and wrote on the recording information card: "Reject. Already on Gennett. Poor seller." By 1930, Carmichael had moved to New York where Mitchell Parish added lyrics to "Stardust," now a one-word title. Within a few years, Carmichael was a major composer on Tin Pan Alley and "Stardust" was America's most recorded song.
Carmichael's rise in the music industry coincided with the steady decline of Gennett's recording division. It stayed in operation, in large part, due to Fred Gennett's resourcefulness. From 1925 to 1928, the Richmond studio recorded hundreds of sides and pressed millions of discs for Sears' mail-order record labels, such as Silvertone and Challenge. Also, Gennett's Champion label (sold at three records for $1) duplicated the Gennett master discs with the artists' true identities hidden behind pseudonyms.
Many Gennett artists knew nothing of this practice and never received the tiny royalties owed them for the Champion releases. In naming artists for the Champion label, the Richmond staff commonly paged through the telephone book or used names of friends and relatives. Some pseudonyms were downright ridiculous; the Fletcher Henderson orchestra on Gennett became Jack's Fast Steppin' Bell Hops on Champion, while Syd Valentine & His Patent Leather Kids became Skillet Dick & His Frying Pans.
In the latter half of the 1920s, sales diminished even further for the mainstay "Electrobeam Gennett" label, the name given the label with the advent of electronic recording. No longer at the jazz forefront, the Richmond studio turned to country music (called "old time" or "hillbilly" music), and, to a lesser extent, country blues. "All the Gennetts were interested in was hillbilly music," said Joe Geier, a Gennett studio engineer in the late 1920s. "That's where they made their money, because the Gennetts catered to Sears, and Sears catered to the hillbillies."
Dennis Taylor, a Kentucky farmer, recruited more than a hundred Appalachian musicians, most notably Fiddlin' Doc Roberts, for sessions in Richmond, where the discs were pressed on the Gennett, Champion, and Sears labels. Gennett paid royalties to Taylor, who paid the naive rural musicians a few dollars for each recording date. For a short time, Gennett set up a studio in Chicago and recorded country singers from the Sears-owned WLS (World's Largest Store) radio station, such as Bradley Kincaid (one of America's first national radio singing stars) and Chubby Parker. Reminiscent of the Richmond studio, Gennett's Chicago studio on South Wabash Avenue was frequently interrupted by noise from a nearby elevated passenger railway.
In late 1926, Fred Gennett recorded Native Americans. He and an Arizona resort operator conjured up the idea of recording Hopi Indian tribes and selling the discs to Grand Canyon tourists. The Gennetts took a portable recording truck to Arizona and produced several sides. These were probably the first purely ethnic discs ever issued by a commercial record label. But Hopi songs such as "Tacheuktu Katcina" never reached the Hit Parade.
To compete in the race market, Gennett recorded black blues and gospel singers at the Richmond and New York studios and at temporary studios in Chicago and in Birmingham, Alabama. Between 1927 and 1934, Gennett's blues lineup included Cow Cow Davenport, Thomas Dorsey, Cryin' Sam Collins, William Harris, Bill Broonzy, Jelly Roll Anderson, Lottie Kimbrough (dubbed the "Kansas City Butterball"), Willie Baker, and Mae Glover. As with the "hillbilly" discs, Gennett issued the same blues performance on the Gennett, Champion, and Sears labels.
Gennett was notorious for low overhead. Blues singers were paid $5 to $15 per recording session with no royalties. As for lodging in Richmond, they relied on boarding houses in a black neighborhood known as "Goose Town," a sort of red-light, speakeasy district north of the downtown railroad tracks. If musicians missed recording dates, there was a good chance they were hanging out in Goose Town. In such cases, Gennett called on Starr employee Charlie Yeager. "Yeager knew every house in the north end that sold bootleg whiskey, mountain dew, or what," said Clayton Jackson, a Gennett staffer. "He knew where to look for them [musicians]. He could go there after these people without any trouble. If anybody else went down there, it was pretty dangerous."
During mid-1927, Gennett created a portable studio in its Starr Piano store in Birmingham to record a variety of black culture, from Baptist minister Reverend J. F. Forrest, with his rousing sermon "Hell and What It Is," to William Harris, possibly the first Mississippi Delta blues player ever recorded. Alabama blues harmonica player Jaybird Coleman recorded several sides, including the cerebral "Ah'm Sick and Tired of Tellin' You (To Wiggle That Thing)."
The Richmond studio's most important blues records were actually produced in 1929 for Paramount Records, the leading race label and a Gennett competitor. While constructing a new recording studio at its Wisconsin headquarters, Paramount paid Gennett's Richmond studio $40 per side to produce master discs of its artists. During that period, two of Paramount's most popular blues musicians, Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, recorded in Richmond.
Gennett Records was already struggling when the stock market crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression. The company had severed its record-pressing deal with Sears the year before, and the Electrobeam Gennett label barely made a ripple in the market. Harry Gennett, Starr Piano president and Fred's older brother, felt that the parent company should focus on pianos and its refrigeration supply division, so he discontinued the Electrobeam Gennett label in December 1930.
The entire record industry nearly collapsed in the early 1930s, as annual sales for records dropped from 104 million copies in 1927 to just six million copies in 1932. Still, Gennett Records issued limited quantities of blues and country discs on the Champion label, including exceedingly rare recordings by Sykes and Broonzy. Just before the Champion label was closed in late 1934, country legend Uncle Dave Macon, then 64 years old, traveled to Richmond with singer-guitarists Sam and Kirk McGee. Six marvelous sides of gospel and blues-flavored country music were issued, the last hurrah for the Richmond studio. While the Gennetts continued to use the studio up through the 1940s to produce hundreds of sound effects records for the radio industry, the studio's pioneering days were over.
To the horror of music enthusiasts, nearly all the original metal masters of Gennett recordings later disappeared over time. In the 1930s alone, Fred Wiggins had thousands of these metal discs loaded onto railroad cars and hauled away and sold for scrap. "Times were hard at Starr Piano, and the company may have needed cash to meet payroll," recalled Ryland Jones, an employee on the work detail that day. "The talk has always been that those metal parts would be worth a million bucks today, though I couldn't tell you what recordings were there. After that day, I don't think he [Fred Wiggins] ever looked back on the recording end of things again."
By 1937, the Gennett family was embroiled in bitter business disputes. Starr Piano had suffered huge losses during the Depression, which further exacerbated tensions between the five owners: Henry Gennett's widow, Alice; her sons, Harry, Clarence, and Fred; and her daughter, Rose Gennett Martin. After a family confrontation with their lawyers, Harry, Alice, and Rose took over Starr Piano. Fred and Clarence, while maintaining company assets, were removed from Starr Piano's daily operations. Tensions between the Gennett family members existed for years afterwards.
Fred Gennett and his sons created a small manufacturing company up the hill from Start Valley, which sold steel products and refrigeration supplies. Their first employee was Fred's longtime friend, Fred Wiggins, who had helped put Gennett Records on the jazz map in the early 1920s. He died in Richmond in 1948. By 1952, the failing Starr Piano was closed. Within a year, brothers Harry and Clarence Gennett passed away. Decca, and later, Mercury Records, continued to lease space in the factory, where they pressed records for several years.
Fred Gennett, unrecognized during his life for preserving some of the earliest jazz on record, died in 1964 while living in a country home outside of Richmond. In his later years, he rarely mentioned the record label and avoided record researchers who sought detailed information. Even his obituary in the local newspaper failed to mention Gennett Records. "In his last years, he was a wonderful grandfather, always dignified in a white shirt and tie," recalled a grandson, also named Fred Gennett. "But we had no idea he was involved in recording all of these famous jazz players."
Fortunately, those records live on. Gennett's NORK, King Oliver, Wolverines, and Jelly Roll Morton releases have been coveted by collectors in the United States and abroad since the 1930s. In 1935, American Decca Records reissued the Champion label, including Gene Autry's original sides on Gennett and Champion. Around the same time, England's Brunswick label reissued the 192224 Gennett jazz classics. During America's 1940s Dixieland jazz revival, Gennett's landmark jazz was reissued on various labels, such as Commodore and United Hot Clubs of America.
Since the 1950s, Gennett classics have been reissued numerous times on vinyl albums, and later on compact discs (CDs), by such companies as Riverside, Jazz Classics, Fountain, Herwin, Olympic, Smithsonian, and Milestone. Since the 1960s, David Freeman's County Records in Virginia has reissued Gennett and Champion country vocal and string music. Gennett blues classics appear on anthology labels, especially Yazoo Records. With nearly all Gennett metal masters gone, the reissues depend upon finding good copies of original Gennett and Champion 78-rpm discs.
Today, Richmond's once bustling Starr Valley is an industrial ghost town with a handful of crumbling factory buildings, including a piano assembly building with a fading "Gennett Records" sign painted on the wall. The abandoned recording studio collapsed in the 1960s and was eventually hauled away. But not all was lost in Richmond. The Wayne County Historical Museum on Main Street near downtown has created an impressive Starr Piano/Gennett Records exhibit. Henry Gennett's lavish 1902 home on Main Street, for years a declining apartment complex, has been fully restored and placed on the National Register and is used for offices. The brick mansion hearkens back to a time long ago when Starr Piano was a national industrial power, the Gennetts were prominent Richmond citizens, and unknown jazz, blues, and country musicians passed through the small Indiana town on the road to musical immortality.
Meet the Author
Rick Kennedy, a media relations manager, worked for a decade as a journalist. Kennedy plays jazz piano and is the author of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz (Indiana University Press).
Randy McNutt is a longtime reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer and the author of We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement and a book on Ohio ghost towns.
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