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EVOLUTIONARY BLUES

A Cheryl Fabio Film

 

Showing At:

African-American Museum & Library

November 10, 2017

 

Revised Remarks by Eugene Stovall

 

 

I am delighted to be here tonight. I have known my co-panelist, Jim Moore, for over thirty years. Working with great female vocalists including Sugar Pie DeSanto and ‘Big Mama’ Mae Thornton, Jim traveled all over the United States and Europe. After his travels, Jim would tell me that European audiences were wildly supportive. “Why can’t we get that kind of support for blues music, here?” Jim would ask.

 

Charles Sullivan had been a major promoter of black music all over the United States. Sullivan held the master lease on the Fillmore Auditorium where Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, Godfather of Soul, James Brown and many, many other Blacks performed. In Cheryl Fabio’s film, we learned that Charles Sullivan’s mutilated body was found lying by San Francisco railroad tracks in 1966. When Bill Graham took over Sullivan’s master lease, the Fillmore Auditorium became an international capital for white Rock N Roll ___ showcasing bands like Three Dog Nite, Big Brother and the Holding Company and, of course, The Grateful Dead.  Sullivan’s murder ended black people’s control over the last national venue for black music.

 

In the 1917, Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton was the hottest piano player in the United States.  Jelly Roll Morton and his band performed to packed houses and clubs in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. But Jelly Roll Morton wanted to make money. He came to San Francisco and opened the Jupiter Club. But less than two months after Jelly Roll opened the Jupiter Club he got a visit from San Francisco’s chief of police. The white-owned Purcell Club, another dance club catering to a black and white clientele, began to experience a dramatic drop in business. The Chief of Police told Jelly Roll Morton, “Either you get your black ass out of San Francisco or they’ll find you lying on the road with a bullet in your head.” Jelly Roll Morton had no choice but to leave San Francisco.

Lttle has changed, today. Geoffrey Peete, the owner of The Inner Circle night club, discusses in Cheryl Fabio’s film how the Oakland police attempted to put him out of business. His customers were racially profiled and harassed and he lost a parking  lease based upon the commission of a fictitious crime. According to Peete, black owned clubs are being harassed while the white owned clubs are left undisturbed.

No matter the time or the place, in America, white folks want total control over economic opportunities ___ including music.  And over the years, the music market has been developed for white folks to exert maximum control.

In the 1880s, New Orleans black social clubs like the Buzzards, the Mysterious Babies and the Fourth District Carnival Club needed money for Mardi Gras costumes and floats. These clubs rented the Perseverance and Tip-Top halls, hired black orchestras and gave dances. During the evening the orchestras played ragtime dance music, but at midnight, wheb the high class Negroes returned to their homes, the band would start playing the dirty, low down blues and the as the remaining partygoers would begin bumping and grinding right on the dance floor. One of the all-time favorite after hours party tunes was Buddy Bolden’s Careless Love Blues.

The erotic effect of after hour’s blues music was not lost on the white spectators who regularly attended these black dances ___ free of charge. Many of these white folks were associated with New Orleans’ notorious Storyville red light district and where out scouting musical talent for their establishments.

 

Storyville indulged every vice and sordid pastime imaginable. Storyville was home to gambling tables, barrelhouses, opium dins, cocaine parlors and, of course, houses of prostitution. Storyville boasted elegant mansions that catered to elite, wealthy gentlemen. These mansions hired piano players to play sophisticated and soft jazz musico. But Storyville’s  “honky tonks” hired black musicians to play blues music ____ the music that got their customers in the “mood.” Other establishments in the New Orleans ‘tenderloin’ district had black women standing in open doorways ____ singing erotic blues songs to entice young men inside. Storyville published a Blue Book that listed the various pleasure houses, prostitutes as well as individual musicians. Ann Cooke, one of the very first blues singers, worked for Countess Willie Piazza whose ladies were all octoroons. Lulu White, known as the Diamond Queen, hired pianists Al Carrel, Richard Jones and Clarence Williams. ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton got his start at a honky tonk known as The Annex and got plenty of customers in the mood with his erotic Pee Hole Blues. Billy Phillips operated the 101 Club, a low down dive and a hangout for gamblers and cutthroats. Some of New Orleans hottest musicians played at the 101 Club, including ‘King’ Joe Oliver, Kid Ory and Louis ‘Sachmo’ Armstrong.

 

Upper class Negroes did not patronize these musicians nor their music. White newspapers labeled blues music as “vulgar, filthy and suggestive.” The Negro elite through their spokesman, W.E.B. Dubois, who was sensitive to what white people thought, accepted the white folks condemnatio. Dubois told the Negro ‘talented tenth’ that overt displays of ‘African’ music, though unavoidable for lower class black people, hindered the advancement of upper class colored people.

When the Fletcher Henderson orchestra made its first visit to Chicago, without Louis Armstrong, the Negro press hailed the colored band leader as ‘the greatest.’ The Chicago Defender said that Fletcher Henderson’s music was not at all like the music of the average Negro orchestra. “It is in a class with the good white orchestras,” the Defender said, “like Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis.” The Chicago Defender went on to say that Fletcher Henderson’s music was soft, sweet and perfect, not sloppy like that New Orleans hokum that they call blues music.

 

Yet white bands routinely recorded the compositions of black innovators like ‘King’ Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. The whites copyrighted the music as their own and the blacks received nothing for their compositions. W.C. Handy did the same thing. Handy is called the father of the blues mainly because Handy converted blues music, which he plagiarized, to sheet music. Handy owned Black Swan Records and hired Fletcher Henderson to remove the African influence from Black Swan recordings. Guy Williams, a blues guitarist, composed a tune he called Jago Blues in 1906, but in 1913, Handy published Jago Blues as the world famous, St. Louis Blues, giving Williams neither credit nor royalties. Handy hired Ethel Waters for her smooth non-ethnic style ___ the style known today as “smooth jazz.” Ethel Waters’ smooth jazz made her a star on Broadway, earned her a successful film career and landed her the title role of Beulah in the hit 1950s TV series. In 1924, Handy sold Black Swan to the Paramount Recording Company.

 

When, in 1920, Maggie Smith sold 10,000 copies of Crazy Blues, the music industry realized that money could be made in black artists performing black music. In June 1923, ‘King’ Joe Oliver cut a record, the Gennett Chimes Blues, featuring Louis Armstrong. The Chicago Defender announced that King Oliver’s recording was a major breakthrough for the race. From then on, whites music executives decided to call blues music, race music. This allowed them them to keep jazz music acceptably colorblind.

 

Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and later the incomparable Billy Holiday made blues music a sort of a risqué treat for white people, but common black folks began buying blues records in increasing numbers. Blues music either in the wailing voice of Ma Rainey or in the gut busting songs and guitar licks of Mississippi delta legend, Robert Johnson, spoke to the emotions of the unassimilated blacks frequenting local juke joints, honky tonks, bars and supper clubs. The erotic appeal of blues music spawned a number of black-owned record companies.. Wynonie Harris recorded ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight and All She Wants To Do Is Rock for King Records. John Lee Hooker’s Crawlin Kingsnake and Paul Williams’ The Hucklebuck were recorded by Savoy Records. And Aladdin Records had a hit with Amos Milburn’s Chickenshack Boogie. In the 20s and 30s, many of these black record labels, coming out of Los Angeles, had a great following among black people. But New York recording company executives recoiled at losing the black music market. So the white folks turned to radio to control the black music market and drive the emerging black record labels out of business.

 

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, black music on radio was broadcasted live. You heard Duke Ellington from the Cotton Club, Chick Webb from Harlem’s Savoy, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines from Chicago’s Grand Terrace and Gerald Wilson from LA’s Cotton Club. These broadcasts were not aimed at black audiences. In the 20s, the RCA Victor Corporation decided to sponsor a broad range of radio broadcasts generally listed under the category of “Lets Dance” programming. Swing bands like Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Bing Crosby were the rage of the air waves. Due to the increased demand for live dance music radio programs, the networks began broadcasting black orchestras. But soon New York radio executives quickly discovered that Ellington, Webb, Wilson and other black orchestras began developing a large following of black listeners. And the radio and record company executives decided to exploit these black listening audiences for their own economic purposes.  

 

Louis Jourdan recorded the first black radio hit, Jumpin Blues. Jumpin Blues was not a classic blues tune; it was not based upon the black experience nor did it have African rhythms. White New York producers crafted Jumpin Blues to appeal to a crossover radio audience. Jumpin Blues sold 5 million records in 1938 to a market composed of both blacks and whites. From then on, white record producers and radio executives used the crossover listening market to control the music industry.

 

The white folks soon discovered that radio could sell pork chops, chit’lins, second hand furniture and everything else black people wanted to buy. This capability gave radio executives a new, lucrative revenue stream from radio commercials. In 1941, blues singer and harmonica player, Sonny Boy Williamson, teamed up with guitarist, Robert Lockwood, to promote King Biscuit Flour over a Helena, Mississippi radio station. In 1945, Riley B. King, a sometimes blues guitarist was hired by the owner of WDIA-Memphis to advertise Pepticon, an all-purpose tonic. Before long Riley B. King became known around Memphis as the Pepticon “Boy.” Riley change his name to “Blues Boy” King and later shortened it to B. B. King. Once the commercial viability of the black listening audience was established, radio stations that specifically broadcasted directly to black audiences sprung up all over the country ____ playing the crossover music that New York music executives now dubbed ‘rhythm and blues.’ Though these stations would set time aside for gospel, jazz as well as the classic blues, R&B was their principle broadcasting format. Though these Negro stations with sole exception of Atlanta’s WERD were white-owned, they all boasted about their black audiences. “Selling and serving 328,000 Negroes since 1947 in St. Louis,” proclaimed WXLW. “The nation’s highest Hooper-rated Negro station, the only way to the 107,000 Negroes of Jackson, Mississippi,” boasted WOKJ. WDIA-Memphis said it reached 1,237,686 Negroes.  

 

With the emergence of radio stations targeting black audiences came disc jockeys with the power to both impact audience listening tastes and influence record buying habits. Even though Negro radio stations made a lot of money from commercials targeting the Negro consumer, the stations paid DJs such low salaries that payola ___ pay for play ____ became a common practice. In 1947, there were 3000 DJs. Only 16 DJs were Negro and most of them did not sound like Negroes. But Chicago’s Al Benson, aka The Midnight Gambler didn’t pretend to be white. An ordained minister, Al Benson had a distinctive black voice and a vocabulary to match. But anyone wanting to use the radio to sell to black people in Chicago had to go through Al Benson. The Midnight Gambler hosted five radio shows with twenty hours of programming each week on Chicago stations WGES and WJJD for which Benson earned a whopping $100,000 a year ___ not counting his ‘payola.’ With Al Benson’s success, white station owners began hiring more black DJs and by 1955, the number of black DJs rose to 300 and a great number of them even sounded like they were black. 

 

In conclusion, we know that like everything else, black music is under the control of white corporate interests. The average listener is at the mercy of the radio programmer who, in turn, is directed by the radio station’s corporate offices. The corporate offices make millions in “payola” by playing the music that record industry producers direct them to play ___ the music that winds up at the top of the charts. The recording industry and radio corporations are controlled in New York City.  New York is where bands are booked, where songs are plugged, where recording contracts are signed ____ and where the money is made. Blues music and blues musicians are inconsequential to New York City’s music and radio network executives. And this is why black people do not buy or support blues music in the United States.