[make money on the side from home]Radio Diaries: Harry Pace And The Rise And Fall Of Black Swan Records

  Decades before Motown, Black Swan Records was the world’s first major Black-owned record label. Radio Diaries brings us the story of Harry Pace and the mystery that kept him out of the history books.

  Transcript

  ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

  A hundred years ago this month, a new voice was heard on phonograph players around the country.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OH, DADDY”)

  ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Look what you’re doing. Look what you’re doing. Oh, daddy.

  SHAPIRO: Ethel Waters was a young singer making a name for herself on the cabaret circuit, but she’d yet to really break into the recording industry. White-owned labels like Columbia, Victor and Edison recorded very few Black artists. And when they did, they were often limited to novelty songs or minstrel music. That’s when a young man named Harry Pace arrived in Harlem and launched the first major Black-owned record label in the United States. His mission was to uplift the race through music. In a two-part story airing today and tomorrow, Radio Diaries brings us the story of Harry Pace and the rise and fall of Black Swan Records.

  PETER PACE: Test – one, two. OK. My name is Peter Pace. I’m the grandson of Harry Herbert Pace.

  (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

  PACE: Harry Pace was a man of confidence. I mean, he had a shrewd business sense and entrepreneurial instincts. He was very politically active. He was the first president of the Atlanta NAACP. But he also had an artistic, side, collaborated with W.C. Handy, self-professed father of the blues. And shortly thereafter, in 1921, Harry Pace started Black Swan Records.

  (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

  EMMETT G PRICE III: So Harry Herbert Pace not only had style, but a sophistication. He was an extremely dapper dresser.

  My name is Emmett G. Price III, executive editor of the “Encyclopedia Of African American Music.” Pace had an interesting knack for identifying talent.

  RHIANNON GIDDENS: The Harlem Renaissance is happening, and artists of color are making incredible music at this point. It’s just the avenues that they have to sell that music, it’s very limited.

  My name is Rhiannon Giddens, and I’m a musician and a history nerd.

  WILLIE RUFF: My name is Willie Ruff. I am a musician and professor emeritus at Yale University. Harry Pace saw that there was profit to be made by Black people producing and distributing music for Black people.

  GIDDENS: He said, if they’re not going to record us, then we need to record us. So let’s do it.

  PRICE: He already has a phenomenal team, but he needs a superstar.

  (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

  PRICE: So we’re in 1921. Harry walks into a bar in Harlem called Edmond’s Cellar. This place is small. Folks are jammed in elbow to elbow, smoke all over the place. And he sees on the stage this beautiful Black woman – Ethel Waters.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SWEET MAN BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) The other night, he left at nine…

  RUFF: She was known as Sweet Mama String Bean. She was tall, elegant. She could dance. She could sing. She was unlike the usual blues singers. She was not a shouter.

  PRICE: Her voice, her sophistication – when Ethel Waters sings, she is the oxygen in the room.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SWEET MAN BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) ‘Cause I got those sweet man blues.

  (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

  WATERS: Hi. This is Ethel Waters.

  RUFF: And she, in her own words, told me about recording for Black Swan Records.

  (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

  WATERS: And they had this little office on 139th Street down in the basement. So Mr. Pace – very nice, friendly man and very dignified – he said, would you come and make a test recording? So I said, well, it won’t do no harm (laughter).

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) I never felt so lonesome before.

  (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

  WATERS: This number that they had was the “Down Home Blues.” So when they put it out, it was an instant sensation. And it got Black Swan Records off the hip.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) Woke up this morning. The day was dawning, and I was feeling all sad and blue. Lord…

  RUFF: What you hear in all of those old records is primitive. This was before the invention of the microphone – wasn’t anything electric in the whole building. They had to do that in the recording studio with a megaphone. Everything was wind-up.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) I got the down home blues.

  GIDDENS: This is from an article in The Chicago Defender, May 7 in 1921.

  (Reading) News of the completion of the first list of Black Swan records will be received with great interest and enthusiasm by our people all over the United States. A great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resent the idea of having a race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.

  DAVID SUISMAN: My name is David Suisman, and I wrote a book called “Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution In American Music.” For almost all of the Black Swan artists, this is their first time in a recording studio.

  GIDDENS: Black Swan Records had almost an embarrassment of talent on their rosters.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BRING BACK THE JOYS”)

  ALBERTA HUNTER: (Singing) Why did we ever part?

  GIDDENS: They had Alberta Hunter, who was a great songwriter and singer of jazz, early jazz.

  PRICE: Then you have Fletcher Henderson. The jazz big band was his creation. He was the architect of that sound.

  (SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER HENDERSON’S “MY ORIENTAL ROSE”)

  GIDDENS: They’ve got a lot of talent. (Laughter). They’ve got it all.

  (SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER HENDERSON’S “MY ORIENTAL ROSE”)

  GIDDENS: But then we have class divisions within Black culture, which is something that people (laughter) like to forget.

  PRICE: So there’s an old story (laughter) of Harry Pace and this phenomenal vocalist Bessie Smith.

  PACE: Bessie Smith came in to audition for Harry Pace and Black Swan Records.

  PRICE: She was in the middle of singing and spit onto the floor in the middle of her performance and kept on going as if nothing had happened. And Harry Pace took a pass on her.

  SUISMAN: The implication was she didn’t belong on the Black Swan label with its higher cultural ambitions.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “AIN’T IT A SHAME”)

  FOUR HARMONY KINGS: (Singing) You’ve got to stop that fighting on Sunday. Ain’t it a shame? Ain’t it a shame?

  GIDDENS: This was not just about making money. This is also about two generations out of slavery, that we are taking up our rightful mantle and uplifting the race.

  PRICE: Harry Pace studied with W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University. And there Du Bois taught about his Talented Tenth concept, where the community invests in the most gifted or talented and there’ll be a trickle down economically, socially, politically and culturally. And so, in many ways, Harry Pace – that was what drove him. As he begins Black Swan Records, he sees his mentor, W.E.B. Du Bois, and invites him to serve on the board of directors.

  (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

  SUISMAN: Harry Pace wants a company that will record all kinds of music – not just blues and jazz, but also opera records and classical music.

  PRICE: I mean, you had William Grant Still, known to this day as the dean of Afro American composers. And then you have Revella Hughes, one of the first recordings of a Black, classically trained soprano.

  (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

  REVELLA HUGHES: (Singing).

  SUISMAN: Black Swan also recorded spirituals and the sacred songs. Having a full range of styles on the label was part of the label’s DNA.

  PRICE: One of the most visionary things that Harry Pace did was to record “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” the Negro national anthem – the first recording of this historic song.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING”)

  MANHATTAN HARMONY FOUR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring – ring with the harmonies of liberty.

  PACE: That first year, they sold over $100,000 in records and established a network throughout the whole country. They were definitely on the map.

  RUFF: It was a great moment. It provided opportunity for Black audiences to hear the music of their people, and it provided an opportunity for the artists to be heard. I’m proud every time I hear something like that, with that kind of originality. It says something about who we are as a people.

  (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DOWN HOME BLUES”)

  WATERS: (Singing) But there’s no use in grievin’ because I’m leavin’. I’m broken-hearted and Dixie-bound. I been mistreated. Ain’t got no time to lose.

  SHAPIRO: Tune in tomorrow to hear Chapter 2 in the story of Black Swan Records and the mystery behind the man who created it. This story was produced by Nellie Gillis and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries in partnership with Radiolab. The editors are Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. You can find this story and more on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

  Tags:

  Ethel Waters

  Harry Pace

  Black Swan Records

  Black History

  Series: Radio Diaries