Friday, July 28, 2017

An Interview with Old Time Record Producer H.C. Speir

by David Evans

[In the 1920s and 1930s, the key link between the various local folk musics and their eventual capture on commercial disc was provided by the A & R (Artist and Repertoire) Man — a combination talent scout, producer, manager, etc. The great early A & R men have been likened to folksong collectors on field trips. In only a few cases have the career's and roles of these men been treated in more than a few passing sentences (see, for example, "I'm a Record Man — Uncle Art Satherley Reminisces, " JEMFQ #25, p. 18; or Mike Seeger's essay on Frank Walker in The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book, pp. 26-29). On the following pages, blues collector and authority David Evans offers some comments on a lesser known A & R figure. Evans has contributed many book reviews to the JEMFQ.]

The news of the death earlier this year of Henry C. Speir, former talent scout and agent for several record companies and discoverer of many great blues, gospel, jazz, and hillbilly artists, prompted me to take a look at the notes of an interview I had done with him. Although it was by no means comprehensive, it did elicit some information which may shed some light on the aspect of the recording industry in which Speir played a part. Outside of the mention of him as their original discoverer by blues "rediscoveries" Son House and Skip James, the first news of Speir's career came from Mississippi blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, who located him and published an article on his career called "Legends of the Lost" in several installments of Blues Unlimited in 1966. This has been reprinted in Back Woods Blues, edited by Simon A. Napier (Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex: Blues Unlimited Publications, 1968; pp. 25-28).

The article is a general outline of his career in the music business, though some of the information in it has subsequently proved inaccurate. The only other published information on Speir comes from my interview and appears in my book Tommy Johnson (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971; pp. 45-68, 80). This information dealt only with Tommy Johnson, however.

My interview was conducted at Speir's home in Pearl City, across the Pearl River from Jackson, Mississippi, on the evening of 1 September 1966. Others present were Speir's wife, Gayle Wardlow, and Marina Bokelman, who took notes on paper. Speir did not want his conversation tape recorded, as he distrusted his memory on many matters so far back in the past. In view of this, I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of the information presented here, although I can say that it was written down as Speir told it. I was mostly interested in information on Tommy Johnson and Speir's methods of dealing with blues artists, and my time was limited. Consequently, I did not question him extensively about his own life or the many other artists he discovered and recorded. These topics are dealt with, however, at some length in Wardlow 's article.

 I must at this point regretfully mention that Speir expressed a number of stereotyped views of Negroes and of musicians in particular. These views were not always negative, however, and in many cases it was difficult to tell whether they were based on commonly held beliefs from his own cultural background or his particular experiences with musicians. I will only discuss here his views which pertained to music. It is perhaps ironic that a man like Speir could hold stereotyped views about Negroes yet also have a deep appreciation for and a considerable understanding of black music. Yet such was the case. His personal and business relationships with black musicians were apparently very honest and open, and I have never heard a bluesman who had dealings with him say anything but good about Henry C. Speir.

Speir was born in Mississippi in 1895. He grew up hearing and liking black music. In around 1919 he went to New Orleans and got a job assembling phonographs. The cabinets would be made in the North and shipped to New Orleans where the motor, handle, tone arm, and other parts were added. At this time he got the idea that black music should be recorded, and he kept trying to convince others of the feasibility of the idea. It was, of course, in 1920 that Mamie Smith did record the first blues, so that it may have been that with Speir and others urging such a policy the time was ripe for a change in industry attitudes.

Speir was unable to become involved in the recording of music at this time because the climate of New Orleans was too damp for the spring-operated stylus arms of the recording machines. This was remedied in 1923 when the industry switched to cable and weight arms. In about 1926 he opened a furniture and music store in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, and began searching for local musical talent for the record companies. The last session he is known to have organized, according to Gayle Wardlow, was in Hattiesburg for A. R. C. in 1936, He had earlier tried to persuade the Jackson City Council to help him purchase the bankrupt Paramount Record Company and move it to Jackson, but they were reluctant because of the deepening Depression, and the idea was dropped. In 1942 Speir' s store went up in flames, and he quit the record business completely for real estate. When I interviewed him, his main interest was organic gardening, to which he devoted much of his time.

In addition to the 1936 session, Speir supervised two others in Jackson, one in 1930 for Okeh and one in 1935 for Decca. He was always a freelance operator, as his main business was his store which stocked all the major labels. His connection with most of his artists was as a talent scout and agent. He scouted all over Mississippi and in New Orleans, though most of the music in that city was jazz, and he was more interested in blues and spirituals. By the late 1930' s the companies discontinued making recordings of black music in Mississippi, Memphis, and New Orleans, and Speir' s services were probably no longer required. It must also be admitted that although he probably unearthed and got on record more great blues talent than anyone else in the history of the recording industry, very few of his artists were commercial successes. Their music may have sounded good to Speir 's ear, but their sounds were probably too local and lacking in national appeal. Gayle Wardlow has reported that Speir was responsible for the appearance on records of Uncle Dave Macon and Kokomo Arnold, but in the case of Macon this is known to be inaccurate, and with Arnold it seems quite unlikely. Probably his most popular blues artist was Charley Patton, really only a moderate seller, and for hillbilly music the Leake County Revelers. Speir did, however, claim the honor of putting the first preachers of both races on records. 

Rev. Grayson - April 19, 1928
The white preacher was a Rev. [C.M.] Grayson, [former evangelist and then pastor of a church in Magee, MS] who recorded for Columbia in Memphis on the topic of Judas. He could not remember the black preacher's name, but he was from the Delta although living in New Orleans. The recording was done in Montgomery. I have not been able to trace either of these sessions, and in any case no race records are known to have been recorded in Montgomery before World War II.

Some of the confusion in Speir's recollections may be due to the fact that he often made test recordings of singers in Jackson or elsewhere and sent them to the companies for approval. If the response was favorable, the normal procedure was to send the artists north for recording in a studio. Sometimes Speir would go on these trips. On one to Chicago he remembers being surprised to encounter some black recording engineers, one of whom was probably Mayo Williams. He recalls meeting Ralph Peer of Victor and noted that Peer never seemed to show any outward signs of feeling for or against the music he heard. He would simply listen calmly and then either accept or reject the selection or artist. Speir also recalls that Victor records did not sell as well as Paramounts, Columbias, and Okehs, a fact which he attributes to Victor's lack of advertising for its race series.

Speir stated that it usually took a sale of about 5,000 for a record to make money for a company. The companies would pay the artists and then give Speir a flat rate for providing singers, but often he had to buy 500 copies of the record from them "just to record some nigger." This was proof to the company that he had confidence in the record's sales potential. Then the company would send samples to all of their wholesalers. One of the company practices that particularly annoyed Speir was the sale of masters to cheap off-brand companies that would reissue the songs under pseudonyms. These records were sold at dime stores, while his own store carried only the major labels at higher prices. He also suspected that some companies would record singers while they were "practicing" a piece and then issue it under a pseudonym without the knowledge of the singer. 

Occasionally Speir would go north for sessions. He helped at some of the Paramount sessions at Grafton, Wisconsin. He would make suggestions as to whether the singer should be louder or softer. Usually blues singers were too loud and would sometimes break the diaphragm. Sometimes Speir would be able to anticipate a high note from his familiarity with the singer's music, and he would turn the recording level down for it. He recalled that black musicians never got nervous in front of a microphone, but that whites frequently did. (I have also found this generally true for black musicians in field recording situations, but I could name many exceptions.) But he believed that a Negro had to be in the right mood to sing and that most used some stimulant to produce this mood. He vividly recalls Tommy Johnson drinking "that jake leg stuff," probably Canned Heat, and remembers Jim Jackson as a dope addict. Johnson would only sing when he had a can of Canned Heat inside him.

Speir stated that it was impossible to predict who would be a "good" blues singer, i.e., a commercially successful one on record. Some would "really tear it up" in person but sound terrible on wax, and others vice versa. He had no rules for picking blues singers beyond his own personal taste. He felt that a singer should have "harmony," by which he simply meant appeal to his ear. He never took into consideration the fact that a singer might have a reputation for popularity in the black community. He also never used blues singers as scouts, though he did admit that after he began auditioning and recording singers, they would tell others to "go see Mr. Speir." Tommy Johnson came to his store in this manner, apparently having heard about him from Ishmon Bracey, of whom Speir had made test recordings that were approved by Victor. Sometimes singers would make suggestions for accompanying musicians. 

The companies wanted Speir to be sure that each singer to be recorded had at least four different songs of his own composition. Many of them could sing plenty of songs, but they were not original. In other words, they were either traditional and had already been recorded in variant form, or they were interpretations of the hit records. Sometimes Speir would suggest a title or subject to a singer that he thought was promising. To one he suggested the title "Black Snake Blues." When the record came out, Speir fixed a rubber black snake to a phonograph turntable and put it in the display window so that when it turned, the snake would jump out at the customers. Every time it would jump out, the Negroes would jump back, and he attributed good sales to this device, Speir claimed also to have helped in the writing of Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues." He stated that at that time he didn't realize that most blues had a "code." A man would sing that he "ain't had no milk since my cow been gone," but he really meant that he hadn't had an affair with a woman in a long time. Most of this code had something to do with "nature." Speir believed that if he had known the code then, he would have known better what would sell and whether the singer was "good." He felt that today, however, he would have been just as confused, because now the music is based on movement, and he was unfamiliar with the modern dances.

Speir probably got to know Tommy Johnson best of all the blues singers he worked with. Johnson made a test of his "Cool Drink of Water Blues" which Ralph Peer approved. Speir then had to find Johnson and prepare him for his recording session. He located him playing in front of a fish fry stand up the Pearl River. Speir had to make certain that Johnson knew four different original songs. He claims that at the time Johnson could only produce two, but they worked together until he reached the required number. Johnson did two sessions for Victor in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1930. Speir doesn't know why he switched companies but assumes that Victor did not have him under contract by 1930. Often companies would simply ask Speir if he had any spare talent not under contract and would accept whomever he sent them. Johnson's Victors sold well throughout the Mississippi River valley from Milwaukee to New Orleans, and Speir thinks one may have sold 200,000. This seems highly exaggerated, however, as his Victors are all hard to find today and the Paramounts extremely rare. Speir recalls that Johnson would twist his mouth, roll his eyes, grimace, and "put a lot of expression" into his singing. The Canned Heat he drank would make him perspire profusely. This report is confirmed by others who knew Johnson. On one occasion in about 1937 Johnson got drunk in Jackson, caused a disturbance, and was thrown in jail. Speir bailed him out for $500, but Johnson immediately left town for Angle, Louisiana, where he had been living with his wife Rosa. Speir tracked him down, despite losing a whole night's sleep because of the noise of a newly-wed couple in the hotel room next to his. He found Johnson working in a field outside his house. Speir put handcuffs on him and returned him to Jackson for trial, where he was put on the county road gang. After he had served his time, he and his wife moved to Jackson permanently. Johnson continued to drop by Speir's store to chat after this incident.
Hopefully someone else has interviewed Speir about other aspects of his career. The role of the free-lance Southern talent scouts in the music industry is too little known despite the fact that they provided much of the finest local talent to the companies which otherwise never would have been recorded. Polk Brockman's work with hillbilly musicians in the Atlanta area is now well known, but his equally important dealings with black musicians are still largely a mystery. J. B. Long is still living in Durham, North Carolina, and some important information on him has appeared in Bruce Bastin's Crying for the Carolines (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971), But was he also involved with hillbilly singers in the 1930's and early 1940 's? In contrast, however, the work of Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena, Mississippi, also a furniture and music store owner, is virtually unknown. He provided blues, gospel, and preaching talent for Columbia, Paramount, and Victor between 1927 and 1930, but he was never reached in time to tell his story, and his widow knew nothing of his business dealings when I spoke to her in 1967. It is known that some black musicians themselves, like Charley Jordan, Will Shade, Big Bill Broonzy, and Rev. Lonnie Mclntorsh at various times acted as talent scouts. Were there others?
DE--California State University Fullerton