Godfather Of Delta Blues


An Interview with Gayle Dean Wardlow

by Pat Howse and Jimmy Phillips

Reprinted with permission from the Peavey Monitor, 1995

How did you establish the connection between Speir and these bluesmen?

I found Ishmon Bracey first, who recorded for Victor and Paramount, and I was inquisitive. I said, "How did you get on records, Ishmon!" He said, "Mr. Speir got me on records." I said, 'What do you mean?" He said, "He owned a music store, and he sent me to Victor and he sent me to Paramount." I said, "Is he still alive?' He said, "Yeah, last time I heard, he was living over in Rankin County somewhere and he was advertising real estate in the paper." So I looked in the phonebook, called him up and said,"I'm in college and I'm interested in these old singers. Can I come out and see you!" So I went out to see him, started talking to him, and then I tried to pick his brains over a period of time. He was about sixty-five to seventy at that time, and he was into religion and the church. He didn't want to talk that much about his old days in the record business. He said, "I was never dishonest with anybody-I didn't cheat them. But those days are gone." He really did not realize the importance of what he'd done. You've got to remember, in the 1960s this was still "race music," and good white people just did not associate themselves with that kind of music. And so Speir did not treat blacks bad, but he also did not associate with them socially. He didn't go to places to hear them play that much. He told me, though, on some Thursday afternoons he would drive up in the Delta and go where Charlie Patton was and listen to Charlie and Willie Brown on Thursday nights. He said he'd spend the night and come back down to Jackson or come back that same night.

Speir started working about 1926 as a talent broker-he called himself a "talent broker"-picking up talent and carrying it to the record companies. And he did three sessions in Mississippi for companies: 1930, Jackson for OKeh; 1935, Jackson for ARC [American Recording Corporation]; and 1936 in Hattiesburg for ARC.

Was he already in the talent-broker business, or did be start this after a couple of these bluesmen came to him?

No, I think what happened is, he was buying records from the companies and he got the idea himself. He said he'd known for years that they ought to be recording southern talent, you know, black blues-and the record companies weren't. So about 1926, he tried to interest the companies in recording black blues. And it's really about April 1927 before he really gets somebody on record. He got a singer called William Harris that he found outside of Jackson, and he sent him to Birmingham to record for Gennett. That's the first blues guitar player that I know that Speir found. Now he may have found some before that-I don't know who they are. He found Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey in 1927. He found Charlie Patton in 1929 and Skip James in 1931.

In December of 1927, he found Bracey on the streets ofJackson, up on Farish Street, took him to his store, had him play for him. Bracey thought he was a detective because he came up in a suit and a tie, and Bracey followed him back to Speir's Music Store at 111 North Farish. His first store was at 225 North Farish, and he stayed about two or three years, then he moved to 111. And 111 is where this picture is made, in January of 1929. But he found Bracey about December of '27, and he took him and made a test upstairs on his recording equipment. And he made a test of Tommy Johnson-he got Tommy Johnson to come in. He made those tests and sent them to Ralph Peer at Victor. Peer is the same guy who recorded the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. He sent it to Victor. He said he'd never heard anything back from Ralph Peer. He said he thought they weren't interested, and suddenly he got a telegram from Ralph Peer saying, "Have these guys in Memphis on such and such date to record." So he sent them to Memphis.

None of these demos that he recorded were finished?

No. Well, not where you could tell they were done on an acetate.

But they were never issued as a finished product.

Oh no. They were totally tests, so the companies could hear how the voice sounded and the guitar sounded. And you gave them a chance to pass or reject the singer.

And they were doing it on acetate disc?

Yeah, doing it on metal disc. It's kind of like a metal base or an aluminum base. And you record with a diamond needle into the grooves, and it's called an acetate-that's what we call it today. But it was on metal in those days.

Do you know if any of them still exist anywhere?

I don't know of any. Mr. Speir's son had some, and he sent them to someone in Jackson and they kept them. Speir is the only person I've ever known who had a recording machine in the 1920s. He did what was called vanity recording. He would charge five dollars and he'd take somebody upstairs and let them make their own record.

Was this an electrical process or a mechanical process?

Electrical-by 1926 they had electrical machines.

So it went right from a microphone through an amplifier stylus and just etched it right into the plate.

It cut a groove into the metal. What, in effect, it was doing was cutting a record. But it was doing it in a metal-based surface. The companies cut on about 1 to 1 1/2 inches of beeswax, hard beeswax; they cut with their diamond needle into the beeswax. That was the master, then they made a pressing mother from the master.

That's where the expression "cutting a record" came from.

Right. You actually cut a record into beeswax in the 1920s and '30s. And they kept this wax under ice, and in the summer time, as soon as they recorded something they'd put it into a refrigerator so it would not be affected by the intense heat in the South. They had a lot of trouble recording in the South, because the heat ruined the masters. And this is also why they made a least two takes of every song. Every song you did, you did at least two takes, three minutes long. Now the difference is, you might do fifty right now in the studio with tape, but in those days they didn't have tape. They had a wire recorder in the Thirties. You could record on wire, but none of the companies ever recorded on wire, they recorded on hardened beeswax.

Victor didn't trust Speir's own judgment on Bracey and Tommy Johnson, so Ralph Peer wanted a test to pass on. It was called the Victor Talking Machine Company at first, then the Victor Phonograph Machine Company. Then RCA [Radio Corporation of America] bought out Victor about 1929, and it became RCA / Victor. But Paramount would accept any artist Speir recommended. All he had to to do was send them a telegram: "I'm sending so and so up, meet him in Milwaukee at such and such time." Charlie Patton, Skip James, Bracey, Johnson, all the people from Mississippi-Paramount took his word for it. They would take anything he sent them.

Was Paramount the label that Patton, Willie Brown and Son House recorded for when they went to Wisconsin? And was that through a Speir connection, too?

Yeah. Here's the story. First, Speir found Charlie Patton at Dockery's plantation.

So he scouted, as well? He didn't wait for them to come into the store.?

No, he scouted. He got out and looked for talent. Oh yeah, he scouted all the time. He heard about Charlie Patton probably through Bo Carter, heard he was real good. So he went to Dockery's plantation to find Charlie and get Charlie to audition for him up there. Then he brought him back to Jackson, put him on a train, went to Chicago, from Chicago to Richmond, Indiana. At that time the Gennett Company of Richmond, Indiana, the Star Piano Company, was making masters for Paramount because of Paramount's poor quality. They were paying, I believe, $40 a side for masters in those days, and the masters were shipped to Wisconsin, then they made the records from them. So Charlie went first to Richmond, Indiana, and recorded about sixteen sides. Then about December of 1929, his records were selling really well, so Paramount wired Speir again to have him sent back. This time he went to Grafton, Wisconsin, where they had just opened a new studio. Paramount was actually located in Port Washington, but they recorded about three miles away in Grafton.

So at Grafton, Patton made another session with a fiddler named Henry "Son" Sims from Clarksdale. He backed him up on a number of sides, and Sims recorded four sides himself. Sims was not a singer, but Paramount was willing to record anything by him, and it sold. His two records did sell a few copies. That was December of 1929.

In April of 1930, the owner of Paramount, Otto Moeser, got Art Laibly, who was the Paramount sales manager and recording director, to wire Speir and then to call him on the phone and ask him to come to Grafton-they wanted to sell the company to him. He drove all the way to Grafton in April of 1930, he talked to Otto Moeser, and they offered him the Paramount Company lock, stock, and barrel for $25,000. That's how much it would take to move it from Wisconsin to Jackson, all the pressing equipment and all the facilities. He didn't have the $25,000. He came back to Jackson and tried to raise the money through the Chamber of Commerce, and nobody would back him. So Paramount could have ended up in Mississippi, where all the great singers were.

Now here's what happened: Speir would have had the money to buy it if he had known about four months earlier. He put $30,000 that he had made off his record store-five of them went into business and raised $150,000 to go over in Rankin County and drill for oil in 1929. They drilled, but they struck natural gas. And natural gas wasn't worth anything at that time. That particular natural gas field is now the maior gas field for the state of Mississippi. Mississippi Valley Gas still pumps out of that station. So he lost his money. If he'd have known he was going to be offered Paramount, he'd have had $30,000. But he said, "I'd have been a rich man if the oil had come in." So Moeser offered him the Paramount Company, which had been in the race record business since 1922.

Speir's store was in the black neighborhood on Farish Street. He set it up specifically to sell to black customers in 1925, when he went into business. Ninety percent of his trade was black, ten percent was white. He stayed in the black district on Farish Street from about 1926 to about 1937. Then he moved up on West Capitol, and he stayed there until 1944. Then he moved out in north Jackson and opened a furniture store and got out of the record business. In 1942-I told you about the Petrillo ban-the union boss called a strike against all the maior record companies until they agreed to give union musicians more wages. And so the record companies just shut down for about eighteen months, didn't produce any new records. All they could do was reissue what they already had in their catalogs. So when this happened, Speir got out of the record business-he thought the record business was dead.

Now what's interesting to note is, sometime after World War II, the McMurrys went in the used furniture business on Farish Street. And Speir said Lillian McMurry either called him or came by to see him and asked him about starting a record label, would it go. And he said, 'Well, it could, if you got the right backing." And he told her she had plenty of good talent. And they started the Trumpet label. She had Elmore James on the label, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, all the Mississippi artists-Willie Love from Greenville and a lot of white hillbilly artists, also. Trumpet lasted from about 1950 to about 1960, about ten years.

So would Speir be considered the one who discovered Son House and Willie Brown and those guys?

In May of 1930, Charlie Patton had moved from Dockery to Lula, Mississippi, and he ran into Son House and Willie Brown. He had played with Willie Brown many years earlier, but he met Son House. So what happened is, Laibly wired Speir. Paramount wanted to get Patton back for a third session in May of 1930, after Speir had been up there in April. He didn't want to go up himself and carry them, so he went to Patton and gave Patton the information. Laibly got the name and the address where Patton was, Laibly came down to see them, gave them expense money, and they drove up to Grafton. Had it not been for Speir, Laibly would never have found Patton, House, and Willie Brown. So Patton actually arranged for Willie Brown, Son House, and the piano player Louise Johnson to go with him to record the third time. But Speir was indirectly responsible.

That was Son House's first recording?

That was Son House's only recording commercially. He recorded in 1941 or '42 for the Library of Congress, but the only commercial records he made was 1930 in Grafton, and he recorded nine sides.

All of them were issued?

All were issued. One record has never been found. One record called "Clarksdale Moan" has never been found. There's one copy of "Preaching The Blues"; there are about three or four copies of "My Black Mama" and "Dry Spell Blues." One of the Willie Brown Paramounts has never been found. They issued four sides by Willie Brown, and one of the records has never been found. They never showed up-no one's got a copy anywhere. Nobody knows how they sound. It was late 1931 or early 1932 when these Son House and Willie Brown records came out, and they didn't sell at all. Seventy-five cents was a tremendous amount of money for a poor black person in the South. They may have sold a few copies in the cities. The only place the late Paramounts show up is in, like, Virginia, where there was apple money and tobacco money. But where there was cotton money, there was no money anymore-the cotton field was the chief income of the black people.

So Speir got in it about 1926, he began to hunt talent. He used to go looking for talent. He would go out with Art Laibly. He said he went to Birmingham, Mobile, New Orleans with Laibly. He said he found a lot of talent in Memphis and New Orleans-he said they were the best two towns for talent. He'd find people singing on the streets, he'd walk up to them and listen to them, and if he thought they were interesting enough to make a commercial record, he'd ask them to play some more of their songs to see if they had four songs. You had to have at least four songs to be able to make a record. Tommy Johnson only had two songs when Speir first heard him, so he got him to make up other songs and have at least four.

What was that, "Big Road Blues"?

The first time, he cut "Big Road Blues," "Maggie Campbell Blues," "Cool Drink Of Water Blues," and one more. But Bracey and Johnson both sold well enough. They recorded in February of '28 in Memphis, and Victor brought them back to Memphis to record in August of '28. So both of them sold. Now Bracey told me that his record of "Saturday Blues," his first record out, he said Victor told him it sold 6000 copies. That doesn't sound like a lot today, but you broke even when you sold 500 copies. So 6000 made Victor some money, enough so that they'd bring Bracey back to record. Now Johnson had a big hit with "Canned Heat Blues," recorded that August. "Canned Heat Blues" came out in 1929- that was a big hit. And of course, that spawned the name of the band, Canned Heat, in the Sixties; that's where they got their name.

Speir told me he went over into Mexico looking for talent to bring to San Antonio to record for the record companies. When he'd go up to St. Louis to place orders with the St. Louis Music Company, which was a major distributor, he would go out on the streets and hunt talent. He said one time he was up there, he picked up about five or six acts and sent them to the St. Louis Music Company. And he said the St. Louis Music Company arranged for them to be recorded, probably with Gennett. So he was traveling. He told me when he went to Louisville, Kentucky, to buy carpet, he hunted talent on the streets there. Now he was also responsible for most all the string bands out of Mississippi: the Leake County Revelers from near Carthage; Freeny's Barn Dance Orchestra from the little community of Freeny; the Newton County Hillbillies, from right in there between Newton County and Leake County where Carthage is-he recorded them for OKeh. He recorded the great Grand Ole Opry star, Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave Macon wrote him a letter from Murfreesboro [Tennessee], where he was living at that time when he was playing on the Grand Ole Opry, and said he wanted to record. Speir wrote him back, or wired him a telegram, and said, "Be in Jackson on such and such date." And that's some of the rarest of the Uncle Dave Macon recordings; he made six sides for OKeh in December 1930, in Jackson.

So he picked up string bands. As a matter of fact, when I found him in the Sixties, he had orchestra and string-band records-he still had some fiddle bands. He didn't have any blues. He didn't have any Skip James, any Tommy Johnson, or any Charlie Patton.