Legend Obscured: The Story of Henry Speir's Blues Scouting

By Gayle Dean Wardlow - 1966
Hayes McMullan (Photo: GDW)
No other legend stands out across the grooves of recorded music in memoirs of Mississippi blues and sanctified music than the name of Henry C. Speir.

Speir, a Jackson, Miss. music store owner for nearly a quarter of a century searched the entire Southern area from Virginia to New Mexico for talent to send to the various recording companies for recording purposes. He was also an active Artist and Repetoire director and did two sessions entirely by himself; one in Jackson in 1930 for Okeh, which is erroneously listed in the Okeh files for Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in Jackson in 1935 for A.R.C.

He helped record various artists in Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham,. Chicago, Grafton and Dallas. Speir once said, "I've recorded in almost every major city in the nation over a period of 23 years. I've found so many singers I can't remember many of their names, and I've forgotten about many others".

Speir, who was reported by Skip James and Son House as having perished in a 1942 fire which did end his music ventures, lost an by David Evans. address book as big as a novel in the tire with names and addresses of the artists he had recorded and their home addresses. (This is a disaster in itself, for Speir does not remember many of the artists he recorded, only towns where he found singers. Because of personal beliefs he has steadily re-fused to listen to my collection of blues and sanctified recordings, but he has mentioned towns where he found artists or verified towns for me after I had located these areas with my personal research).

H. C. Speir
When I asked Speir in one of our long interviews who he considered of all the singers he located in the blues field, he replied, "Ole Charley (Patton) was the best I ever seen. But, you know, James, Skippy James, he was real tough: Catch Skippy on the right day -mind you now - the right day and he was as good as Patton, but over-all Patton was the best. His little friend Willie Brown was the best guitar player I ever heard in 23 years of talent hunting. He could really make it talk, great guitar player"

Of course it becomes obvious very quickly that this man was a giant among talent scouts. He not only knew the artists, he knew what the record companies wanted and he gave it to them. He was almost solely responsible for the Columbia 14000s country and urban series, which has been described as awkward and misdirected by one blues historian in a published book on blues. Speir commented on this by saying - "I sent artists everywhere, and tried to woc}c with all the companies but I probably did send the best artists to Grafton, Wisconsin - the Paramount Record Company. We worked real close, me and Art Laibly!" Speir further commented, "I worked with Laibly and also with Ralph Peer of Victor, and P.T. Brockman of Okeh. That place in Richmond, Indiana (Gennett) got lots of my artists in my early years."

When one looks at the Paramount roster of recorded artists it be-comes obvious that Speir not only found almost all of its talent; he even helped record it in Chicago and Grafton and helped Laibly remodel the Grafton studios to get a better sound on the later Para-mount recording.

In December 1930, Okeh Records asked Speir to direct a session in Jackson, Miss. to record various Okeh artists living in the Jack-son area. Speir directed nearly 100 masters in the King Edward Hotel, recording such groups as the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Charlie McCoy, Slim Duckett and Pig Norwood, Elder Curry, the Campbell College Quartet, Elder Charles Beck and a forgotten blues singer from Louisiana, Mississippi Coleman Bracey and his wife.

As recording activities declined in the early 30's with the change of policies of certain companies, Speir began a closer association with the expanding American Recording Corporation of New York City and its two field directors, W.R. Callaway and Art Satherly. In 1930s, Speir made tests of Charley Patton, his wife Bertha Lee, Son House and Willie Brown, on recording equipment that he kept on the second floor of his business for testing purposes. These tests were forwarded to Callaway, and early in 1934 Calla-way made the trip to carry Patton to New York for his last session.

Speir began work with Decca and its subsidiary label Champion in 1934 and was responsible for Kokoma Arnold being waxed. In the fall of 1935, Speir set up a session in Jackson on the second floor of an old dance hall on Farish Street, one block above his music store and recorded nearly 120 masters. Speir brought Robert (Tim) Wilkins from Memphis along with Will Shade, Minnie Wallace and Little Son Joe, and went into eastern Arkansas for Kid Stormy Weather.

Young Isiah Nettles came to the Studios one Sunday to record four songs in the old country style -probably some of the last with the exception of Booker White's 1940 session in Chicago.

In 1936, Speir directed a third session as artist and repertoire director - one I failed previously to mention - in Hattiesburg, Miss. and recorded such artists as Blind Roosevelt Graves, Cooney Vaughn, Zeke Bingham, the Laurel Fireman's Quartet and other sacred and secular items. This was the session that produced the now famous Mississippi Jook Band records.

Because of A.R.C. administrative policies, he discontinued working relations with the corporation shortly after the session, but he vaguely remembers Callaway coming through Johnson in the fall of the year on a trip into the Mississippi Delta searching for talent to carry to Texas for a session that was beginning in a couple of weeks. From all circumstantial evidence available, Callaway evidently discovered the most controversial Mississippi blues singer of all generations, Robert Jackson, in one of the small Delta towns near Memphis that Speir and Callaway had previously searched for talent on previous trips.

Speir remembers, "that 1938 was the worst year of all for new talent, the record companies just didn't want any new talent for records". This fact is borne out more by the sale of A.R.C. to Col-umbia BrOadcastink System in 1938, in which the A.R.C. equipment became the property of Columbia Records.

After the 1942 fire chat destroyed part of his music store, Speir discontinued his musical interests. Undoubtedly the record ban of 1942 added to this situation. The search for talent was an exciting one for often Speir would drive hundreds of miles to listen to a group or individuals that he heard of in rumours from other musicians. With blues singers, he usually used an approach similar to the following: "I hear you're a good singer, how about singing some of your songs for me?" After the singer finished, he would tell him, "You sound pretty good. You know, I make records; if you will keep practising and get your songs together real good and come to Jackson in a couple of days, I see that you get on records". If the singer balked at Speir's legality as a record scout, he would then tell the singer a long line of musicians he was responsible for recording, such as Charley Patton, Sam Collins, Tommy Johnson, William Harris, etc...

When the singer showed up in Jackson, he reimbursed him for his travel expenses and gave a couple of extra dollars for spending money while going to a session. (See also the earlier B.U. account of Skip James' trip to Grafton, Wisconsin)

When travelling to a session in Texas or an alternative site such as New Orleans or Memphis or Atlanta, the alternative of driving the artist in his car or a rented vehicle was used. He also remembers that each year for many years, he ran a special train or cars on a train from Forth Worth to New York picking up talent in various cities from his own research or from scouts whom he closely worked with. Although many artists were paid little for their services Speir's artists were probably the best paid of the artists recorded for various scouts. The average fee was $50 a side or either 10 percent of the royalties of the sell of issued titles. (Ed's note - this is considerably more than many artists were paid. per side 10 years later).

Race artists that stand out in his memory most are - Patton, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, James Harris, Kokomo Arnold, the red-headed woman (probably Lucille Bogan) and many others as their names are brought to his attention.

In addition to the vastness of his blues and jazz and sacred re-cording, he was responsible for many hillbilly and country artists being recorded. One of the many he remembers was Uncle Dave Macon, whom he recorded in Memphis - after Macon wrote him from Nashville about the possibilities of doing such. Later, Speir traveled a number of times with Macon into the Appalachian Mountains on talent hunts. "That was the most dangerous place I ever went in my life -once they knew you, the people were as friendly as could be; but until they found out you weren't a revenue agent, your life was in real danger."

Added to all his other accomplishments is the fact that Speir recorded many of the finer jazz groups. 'I found five or six bands in New Orleans." He also tried to get Louis Armstrong to record, after he spent an evening - the only white man - on board a pleasure ship on the Mississippi River at New Orleans listening to an Armstrong group. However, Armstrong told Speir that he was already recording in Chicago and had been for about a year. Speir told him he would be a great artist and this has certainly proved correct.

Another item of importance is that he was the first person to locate Jim Jackson, whose rights he sold to another talent scout in Memphis, named Watson. Jackson, of course, made a remarkable hit of his 'Kansas City Blues', which he was singing when Speir found him in Hernando, Mississippi.

On the question of why the Mississippi blues singers seemed to be the more productive artists in quality, he said "the Negroes in Mississippi played more music and were friendlier to each other than in other areas. There were more of them living closer together, and they swapped a lot of ideas among themselves".

At the age of 70, Speir divides his time between his gardens and a part-time real-estate business.

As a true legend, almost forgotten by the historians of modern written jazz and blues, this man indeed was a gentleman of great in-sight and ability.


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