January 26, 2015

Blues and Rhythm Show 166 on 93.3 CFMU (Hamilton, Ontario)

Swear to Tell the Truth for Tuesday, January 27th, (1:00-2:30 pm)

We went through a few ideas for this week’s show in which we intended to devote space to a feature about rhythm & blues. We haven’t before concentrated on R&B from the Columbia label and its OKeh subsidiary in any particular show and we thought it might be time that we did.

Columbia was the label that recorded Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Peg Leg Howell and Blind Willie Johnson to name a few blues performers in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Columbia and its subsidiaries recorded Leroy Carr, Big Bill, Bo Carter, Robert Johnson and Blind Boy Fuller, and many others. OKeh was originally a competing  label, the label that recorded what have become known as the first African American blues recordings, by Mamie Smith. It could have been another company at another time but it was OKeh’s recording of “Crazy Blues”, by Mamie Smith, recorded in August, 1920 for OKeh that alerted the industry to the idea that African Americans were an untapped potential audience and market. OKeh was also the label that began the practice of sending recording teams into the field to make records in the south where roots performers were to be found. Through the 1920s, the OKeh label recorded blues, jazz and spiritual records until 1926 when it was taken over by Columbia after developing the electrical microphone system for recording. After 1926, many important Columbia acts were assigned to OKeh but the use of the OKeh logo was not continuous. It was not used between 1935 and 1940 or between 1946 and 1951.

Our feature covers the years 1946 to 1954. Following World War 2, the major labels, including Victor, Columbia and Decca, faced intense competition from the new independent labels in the race and hillbilly markets The response of Victor and Columbia was to scale down their activity in the blues field and pare down or not restore their pre-war rosters. Columbia retained a few blues acts and made some vocal group records, as well. At the same time, popular singers like Pearl Bailey, the Charioteers vocal group, the rhythm group, the Big Three Trio,  and jazz bands, like Cab Calloway’s, able to venture into R&B, kept Columbia in the “sepia”  charts, albeit far from the top.  In Al Pavlov’s rankings, Columbia ranked 9th in 1946, 11th, in 1947, and 18th in 1948, based upon Billboard’s charts. In 1949, Columbia decided to compete more directly in the R&B and black gospel markets and began signing R&B and spiritual acts. In 1951, Columbia revived the OKeh brand.

Some of the Columbia-OKeh acts were very successful, Chuck Willis and Big Maybelle,  in particular, but it appears that Columbia-OKeh began to lose direction after 1953, as the landscape changed with the rise of rock and roll  and as classic R&B acts fell out of favour. This was also the era in which the major labels were putting resources into opening up the LP market and R&B was not a big part of that phenomenon for a number of years. (It was Columbia who pioneered the LP.)

Our feature includes a sampling of mid forties blues, R&B on Columbia-OKeh and ends with a sampling of the gospel catalogue. Columbia had some great performers on their roster, good producers and not a few successes in the market. The label also had access to the same rich pool of musicians as Atlantic and Savoy. Whether their distribution system was ideal to sell R&B and gospel in the post-war era is another question and it’s likely that Columbia, like Victor, was often outhustled by the more agile independent labels. It used to be a truism that the big labels couldn’t identify or record talent in the post-war Blues and R&B field but the record suggests otherwise.

On the Show:

Treniers – Buster Bennett – Memphis Minnie – Charioteers – Chris Powell & His Blue Flames – Mr. Google Eyes – Annie Laurie – Titus Turner – Big John & the Buzzards – Deep South Boys – Sister Myrtle Fields – and others

Listen to the program at FM 93.3 in Hamilton or on CFMU online at cfmu.msu.mcmaster.ca. The program will be available to stream or as a podcast until February 25th

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Next week (February 3rd)

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