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Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music
By Barry Mazor
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Barry Mazor and Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
Starting Out: Independence, 1892–1919
In the late 1920s, when Ralph Peer was finding, recording, and helping make global stars out of makers of country, blues, and jazz music, more than one down-home Southern performer or local music shop owner he encountered took him for a New York–raised, uppercrust, Ivy League–style sophisticate slumming in their homespun music, swooping down from somewhere far north and far above. They were wrong about the vital particulars, but the misperceptions were understandable. When they met Peer he was in his midthirties. He had already been in the music business for decades, and he was dapper, urbane, energetic, and, by his own admission, often downright cocky.
The truth was, this executive who would eventually head the world's largest independent global music publishing company had never been to college, let alone the Ivy League, and had begun life the son of a displaced farmer turned shopkeeper and a coal miner's daughter. He was not from the North at all, but from that particular place where America's Midwest, South, and West meet, Kansas City, and more specifically, from just east of that storied city, a most appropriately named town: Independence, Missouri.
Ralph Sylvester Peer was born in Independence on May 22, 1892, the first and only child of Abram Bell Peer, 28, and Ann Sylvester Peer, 20, who'd married in Detroit, Michigan, the year before, then relocated. Their goal in moving to that nexus of American regions was opportunity, as heading west was for so many from their notably working-class, rural Great Lakes area backgrounds — a chance to build a stable, more comfortable middle-class life. One sign that the newlyweds envisioned a life more modern and "up-to-date" (as Rodgers & Hammerstein described the rural view of the place in the song "Kansas City" in their show Oklahoma) was that until this move Abram had been known by his legal given name, Abraham, and Ann as Anna. The freshly tweaked names registered as more urban and more modern, and they stuck with them.
Abraham Peer was born and raised in the rural East Bloomfield–Canandaigua area of upstate New York, not far south of Rochester and Lake Ontario, a farmer's son, and a working farmhand himself into his twenties. His father, Benjamin Peer, Ralph's grandfather, was an Irish immigrant, originally from the far-southwestern shipping village of Crookhaven in County Cork, and Roman Catholic — although Peer men seemed to make a habit of marrying Episcopalian/Anglican women. (Peers had not been in Ireland very long; Benjamin's father Andrew, Ralph's great-grandfather, had moved to Crookhaven from southern England.) Young Abraham was one of eight siblings, just two of them boys. His older brother was the one destined to maintain the farm in the future, so Abraham had to explore other possibilities. The life of the new generation of "drummers," traveling salesmen, was his not-untypical choice.
There are neither lingering family legends nor concrete evidence describing how Peer's parents first met. It may well have been in Detroit; the Great Lakes area figures in both of their early stories. His mother was born Ann Sylvester, in Oil City, Pennsylvania (about two hundred miles from Canandaigua), north of Pittsburgh, east of Cleveland, Ohio, and not far from Lake Erie. The American oil boom had begun in that area just a generation before her birth. Her parents, William and Mary Sylvester, were recent British immigrants who soon settled in tiny Clinton, Pennsylvania (near today's Pittsburgh International Airport), where William worked in the bituminous coal mines. In the 1880 census, Ann's brother John, born in England, at age ten, and just two years older than she, was already listed as a working coal miner as well. That's certainly suggestive of the Sylvester family of eight's life conditions at the time.
One prerequisite for the explosion of pop culture that took place in the United States in the late 1890s — the coming of nickelodeons, dance halls, and machinery-heavy amusement parks, of records, and player pianos, and of the ragtime, jazz, blues, and country music that followed — was the ongoing migration of millions of rural Americans to towns and cities. The young Peers were examples of that mass movement themselves. In Kansas City the farmer's son and miner's daughter rented a series of apartments and modest bungalow-style houses, some in the central city, some out in the nearby town of Independence or on the Kansas City outskirts close to it. There were multiple reasons for the regular moves. It was common practice for landlords to offer a month's free rent to new tenants at the time, and for families to move every year to enjoy an annual rent-free month. Moreover, which neighborhoods in the formerly untamed, sometimes still-wide-open cowboy cattle town were actually compatible with a quiet, middle-class life was not yet fully determined. (Repeated outbreaks of Jesse James–style train robberies were still being reported in 1898.)
When baby Ralph Sylvester was born, Abram (or "A. B.," as he was often referred to in business) was listed in the area directories as a "confectioner" in "travelling sales." That was a substantial industry in the city at the time; the American Biscuit Company, maker of crackers and candies, for example, employed hundreds (they'd soon be known as Loose-Wiles, the manufacturer of Sunshine Biscuits and Hydrox cookies). By 1896, however, when Ralph was four, Abram was in a different sales field, one that would prove crucial in his son's life and future career, and for music history. He became a salesman of sewing machines, first as a traveling salesman for Singer, then as manager of a sewing machine dealership on downtown Kansas City's West Tenth Street, near the later site of the Central Library. The senior Peer had a penchant for things mechanical, as his son would; his farmhand background seems to have played a role in that. The 1900 US census describes his occupation as "machinist."
By 1902 Abram was working for Singer's key competitor, White Sewing Machines, at first from home at Fifteenth and Winchester near Kansas City's eastern limits, and then in his own retail storefronts, under the name the Peer Supply Company. In his store, which would soon be located on Lexington Avenue on the main square and shopping district of Independence, A. B. Peer added to the sewing machine line a second sort of mechanical device built on revolving wheels, cranks, and replaceable needles — talking machines, as record players were still called; specifically, those manufactured by the Columbia Phonograph Company and known as Graphophones. He also sold records for those machines, some still old-style cylinders, others the new flat 78 rpm platters, produced by the same firm.
Ralph proved to be a quiet, conscientious, studious sort of child, with stamp collecting one chosen hobby, likely suggesting, as it often does, an early fascination with the faraway places those stamps came from. His childhood preoccupations were markedly solitary. If he developed any significant childhood friendships, they've left no trace; school aside, he appears to have lived, through the multiple family relocations, in a world of adults. There is no evidence that he showed any interest in team sports typical of the time, but on Peer family visits back to the family farm in upstate New York, he showed conspicuous pleasure in the outdoor life, as photos showing him at play with the farm equipment and around the spread bear witness. Ralph Peer's first dose of personal notoriety came in 1901, as he recalled in a brief memoir he wrote near the end of his life, and it was a result of another solitary pursuit:
In Kansas City, Missouri when I was nine years old, a local newspaper offered prizes for "backyard" gardens belonging to amateurs. At that time my mother and father lived in an apartment house not far from what is now the business center of Kansas City. In back of this house was a high bluff. I laboriously carved out a spot for a small garden. ... The fact that I was only nine years old, and the unique character of the garden, earned for me a prize of $10 and created an ardent interest in gardening for the rest of my life.
This prefigured a lasting, somewhat unexpected secondary interest for the businessman of the future.
Ralph Peer would always have an introverted side that favored undisturbed, quiet, solo situations — a level of apparent shyness he was going to have to overcome in the profession he'd eventually choose. At about that same time, though, Ralph began helping out in the stockroom at Peer Supply, and by 1903 he began taking the new light electric rail line that ran right past the store into downtown Kansas City, where Columbia Phonograph's regional office and warehouse were located. There, he met still more adults — adults who would affect his future.
"I was going in and out of Kansas City, back and forth, forty-five minutes travel," he recalled. "I would go in to pick up the packages of records, for example, or some repair parts, and then this led to acquaintance with the Columbia organization in Kansas City."
Just that simply his work in the music industry had begun, at age eleven. It continued, nearly uninterrupted, for the rest of his life.
That ride on the new streetcar line was a mark of a changing town; as late as 1910 the streets of Independence still saw more horses and carriages than autos. It was in many ways an archetypal midwestern American small town of the time, for all of its proximity to Kansas City. The population reached twelve thousand in 1900. Saloons operated — apparently raucously — seven days a week, until the mayor ordered them closed on Sundays in 1898, followed by the suspension of all forms of gambling, including the previously popular slot machines.
The center of entertainment was the Music Hall, where touring minstrel shows as well as African American vocal ensembles, Tin Pan Alley song-and-dance men, and touring theater companies appeared, along with homegrown productions of operettas. The local press heralded the "good taste in theatrical matters" of the town, both in local productions and attendance of the theater in downtown Kansas City, while reporting, nonetheless, on the popular traveling circuses, repertory companies, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and even a send-up "burlesque farmers' street parade" that all came through Independence to excited response. The annual fair, the occasion for young Ralph to win that gardening prize, was a major town event. Big-screen movie clips, in the form of Thomas Edison's Projectoscope (or Projecting Kinetoscope), reached Independence in the summer of 1898, when Ralph Peer was six. Storytelling motion pictures such as The Dog and the Sausage, The House of Terror, and even Les Miserables first reached town in 1907. New telephone services were competing for customers; one firm took pride in having "120 instruments" in place.
Among prominent, publicized visitors to Independence in Peer's childhood years were five-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (who in 1900 was nominated at the Democratic convention in Kansas City), Carrie Nation, of saloon-hatcheting fame, and the aging outlaws Frank James and Cole Younger, who made public appearances at Confederate army and Quantrill's Raiders reunions (Younger was also an investor in the new streetcar lines). Independence's most famous resident-to-be, Harry S. Truman, born in 1884, entered elementary school the year Ralph Peer was born and in 1898 was working, first sweeping floors, then as a clerk, at Clinton's Drug Store, on the same town square where the Peer Supply Company would soon be located; he graduated from high school there in 1901. There is no certainty as to whether the music-loving Truman purchased phonographs or records from Peer Supply — but he could have.
By 1907 Ralph Peer was commuting into the city daily to attend Kansas City's Central High School. His developing fascination with the evolution and production of consumer technology was apparent when his lengthy prize-winning essay describing the latest production processes used in the making of incandescent electric lights appeared in the school's Centralian yearbook, though he was still only a sophomore that year. The writing is clear, very precise, and suggests that a nascent professional technical writer was at hand; it also shows no sign of actively cultivating popular favor. A sampling of the 1907 Peer prose: "Most modern manufacturers use what is known as the 'squirting' process in making filaments. Cotton or fiber paper is dissolved in chloride of zinc solution made acid with muriatic (hydrochloric) acid. ... This solution is filtered hot and placed in a vacuum ... then forced through small holes, forming threads, and run into large jars of wood alcohol. Whenever a jar is full, the thread, which is now white cellulose (paper) is taken out and washed for several hours, and then dried on drums."
It should be no surprise that the same man later showed so much relish for describing the process of recording sound at lock-steady speeds out on location, or wrote scientific papers on horticulture on the side.
That same year the local Independence weekly, the Jackson County Examiner, reported on an episode in which his father, Abram Peer, arranged a phonograph concert at the poor farm on the edge of town. There seems to have been considerable local pride in the historically racially integrated, recently modernized institution, for its centralized steam heating, clean new buildings, and reportedly abundant food — though this was still, of course, a government institution in which even the elderly indigent worked long days farming to pay for their own keep. The elder Peer no doubt understood the goodwill to be generated, since he took along the unnamed author of the article, but he nevertheless had no specific sales targets apparent in the effort, which was about introducing the power of recorded music to poor folks who had no access to it — people who had no immediate likelihood of purchasing any of the lavish, cabinet-size Graphophones he sold, or even the more compact Grafonolas. His fifteen-year-old son had to have been aware of this family precedent for interest in extending music's reach down home:
A.B. Peer of the Peer Supply Company, accompanied by a reporter for The Examiner, took a large concert gramophone to the county poor farm Friday afternoon and treated the inmates to a concert. The inmates seemed to thoroughly enjoy every minute of the music. ... Arriving at the farm, the gramophone was placed on an improvised platform between the men's building and women's building, and the concert began. Before the first piece was half finished, the old men and women began bobbing towards the "music stand" from every direction; those who were unable to leave their rooms could be seen peering curiously out of the windows. From the actions and the faces of many, it could be seen that they had never heard music "made" in this way before. Several requests were made that some of the old familiar songs be played, and when it was possible to comply it was pitiful to see the deep impression that was made.
(That "made" in quotes is a reminder that many were still astonished that music came from anything but instruments, even at that date. Young Ralph Peer would later witness the emotional responses evoked by "old familiar songs" on a much broader scale.)
The senior Peer's community outreach included Peer Supply furnishing a lavish "$50 phonograph" as a prize at the annual Independence fair, won by a Miss Ava Seckles for undetailed accomplishments. The Columbia talking machines also came up in a controversy of a variety long forgotten, in which some local motion picture exhibitors were playing records before running their silent films as free added attractions, to the displeasure of other exhibitors who weren't. The Independence city council actually passed a law adding additional annual taxes for theaters that played records before shows, then limited the time the records could be played to ten minutes — recorded music quotas. (Live organ or piano would have accompanied the silent pictures themselves in either case.)
It is natural to wonder if teenaged Ralph Peer was developing any marked musical interests at that age when individual musical tastes so often develop, but little indication of them remains, besides his ongoing early involvement in the retail side of the record business. His relation with Columbia Phonograph had only intensified. As he later recalled, "During the summertimes, they would ask me to take over [jobs]; I'd be the shipping clerk while the shipping clerk was on a summer holiday, or I'd be a stock clerk or what-not."
Excerpted from Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music by Barry Mazor. Copyright © 2015 Barry Mazor and Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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