Early Blues Recording Labels: A Music Industry Legacy

By Jim O’Neal, Co-Founder of Living Blues Magazine, and Education Director, the Mississippi Blues Trail
A summary of the pre-concert lecture for the Big Head Blues Club given by Jim on Nov. 11, 2016, at Strathmore

A big turning point in the history of the blues came when record companies saw the potential in recording African American blues, spirituals and jazz. At the time, they were known as “race records” and a movement to make these recordings was spurred by the success of OKeh label's "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith in 1920. OKeh and other companies—including Columbia, Victor, Vocalion, and Paramount—recorded hundreds of blues singers hoping for hits in the '20s and '30s. Later, during a new recording boom after World War II, independent labels such as Chess, Atlantic, Specialty, and Modern homed in on the emerging electric blues and rhythm & blues styles.

These labels and many others left us with a great musical legacy and helped make legends of artists like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. But that legacy was one that often came at great cost to the artists themselves. Many of the early blues recording stars had little formal education and even less knowledge of royalty and copyright laws and so they sometimes did not recognize when they were offered a bad deal. Stories abound of artists who received little or nothing in the way royalties or lost the rights to their historic compositions. Even some of the big names in blues often had to work other jobs when their musical income couldn't support them and their families. Many died in poverty leaving not even enough money for headstones on their graves.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that every record company was geared toward cheating its artists or that no blues singers enjoyed profitable recording careers. The black press proudly reported on the returns reaped by Mamie Smith and her African American producer and writer, Perry Bradford, from "Crazy Blues." Astute blues songwriters like Willie Dixon learned how to protect and market their works. Other musicians found ways to try to beat, or at least cope with, a system that at times seemed incomprehensible if not downright incorrigible. The industry today has evolved in its technology but is no less complex—even treacherous—for musicians to navigate. The first relationships between artists and record labels set the stage for what remains a tangled legal and financial system.

Learn More
Recording the Blues by Robert M.W. Dixon & John Godrich

Paramount's Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company and Its Recording Activities by Alex van der Tuuk

Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers by John Broven

Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records by Nadine Cohodas

I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story by Willie Dixon with Don Snowden

And for a wide-ranging overview of blues history:
Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians edited by Lawrence Cohn

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