Simon Napier Bell: the Dodgy Business of Popular Music: The Birth of Black (Pop) Music
Simon Napier-Bell (who previously managed Wham, Marc Bolan, Japan and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (during his Yardbirds phase) is back in Skrufff, delivering a short series of excerpts from his must-read new history of the music business book ‘TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY- the Dodgy Business of Popular Music’. (Click here to download/ buy )
“In 1910, three out of every four black Americans lived on farms, and nine out of ten lived in the South. By 1920, one and a half million blacks had moved north looking for work.
Chicago’s black population grew by 150 per cent, Cleveland’s by 300 per cent, Detroit’s by 600 per cent.
In New York, Harlem had become the capital of black America. It attracted black intellectuals and artists from across the country. “The world’s most glamorous atmosphere,” said young Duke Ellington when he first visited. James Weldon Johnson called it “the recognized Negro capital . . . the Mecca for the sightseer, the pleasure seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the world”.
Even so, the best place for a black music publisher to set up business was where the whites did it – on Broadway.
Perry Bradford had his office in the Gaiety Theatre building in Times Square, which made George M. Cohan his landlord. Having “walked out two pairs of shoes” trying to persuade record companies to record black artists, Perry Bradford ended up at Okeh Records, a label that specialised in imported recordings from Europe, mostly marching bands and light classics. There he met the boss, Fred Hager and gave him a lecture on the growing black population in Northern cities and how it was producing new consumers for recorded music.
Bradford persuaded Hager to record ‘Crazy Blues’, something he’d written for Mamie Smith, a singer he had under contract. He promised it would be bought by twelve million black people.
Fred Hager had already received threatening letters saying Okeh would be boycotted if the company had “any truck with coloured girls in the recording field”. But after consulting with his marketing manager, Ralph Peer, he decided to go along with Perry Bradford’s idea and aim Mamie Smith at the black market, something never tried before.
Okeh’s advertisement for her record included the words, “those who desire to help in any advance of the Race should be sure to buy this record as encouragement to the manufacturers for their liberal policy”.
In the event, Perry Bradford’s estimate of twelve million sales was optimistic; it only sold a million. But that made it the largest selling record ever by a black artist.”
TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY- the Dodgy Business of Popular Music: “click here to download/ buy: