Speir paid the expenses and they reimbursed him. Speir bought the train ticket and gave him some spending money, and the company reimbursed him. Now what Speir normally got, he said if they had four or six songs, "I got $150 cash." He said, "I got $150 for finding Charlie Patton." So he probably got paid $150 all three times - Patton recorded, just for finding him for the company. But normally, he got $150 if the artist he picked could sing at least four songs.
Now one he missed was Mississippi John Hurt-he didn't record John Hurt. John Hurt was found by a fiddle duo called Narmour and Smith who lived in Carrollton, Mississippi. They got John Hurt to come to Memphis with them and record for OKeh. That's the only major Mississippi artist that I know of that Speir missed.
No doubt about it-they'd have never recorded, they'd have never been heard of. They'd just have been local names, you know, somebody who played on the streets. If Speir hadn't been there, the greatest of the Delta blues singers would probably have never recorded. I mean, Patton had been performing since 1910 in the Delta. It's 1929 before Speir hears about Patton.
Now Patton had a chance to record. There was a man in Itta Bena, Mississippi, called Frank Lembo-had a record store and sold Victrolas and furniture. And he picked up two or three artists in 1927. He picked up Rube Lacey, and he picked up Washington White [Bukka White] for his first Victor session in 1930. So he got some talent. But he tried to get Patton to go and record for Columbia, and Patton wouldn't go because of Lembo's reputation-he didn't trust him. If Patton had come on down to Jackson, he could have walked into Speir's music store, and Speir would have probably sent him off a couple of years earlier. He told me Patton had the greatest talent of anybody he ever saw. He said he had six, eight, ten songs or more. He said, "I knew he'd go over well because he had so many songs, and they all belonged to him.
Tell me the Robert Jobnson, H. C. Speir story.
In 1935, Speir recorded for ARC, worked with Art Satherly and Don Law and W. R. Calaway at Farish Street for a record session. In July of 1936, he met Calaway down in Hattiesburg. They recorded about 100 masters; they released something like twenty or thirty, maybe forty at the most. Calaway never paid Speir. Speir said he never was paid, although I would've thought Art Satherly would have made sure he was paid, because Satherly was the president ofARC, and he went to Columbia later on and recorded people like Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. But Speir didn't get paid by Calaway. Johnson came into his store, went upstairs, and made an audition record.
This was Robert Johnson's first recording.
Yeah. Now Speir did not remember making a demo for him. Steve LaVere says he talked to one of the relatives of Johnson, and Johnson brought a demo, or a little acetate, to play on the wind-up Victrolas. So that would have come from Speir's store. But Speir did remember him singing and throwing his voice up on "Kindhearted Woman." And I played him "Kindhearted Woman" by Johnson and he said, "Oh, I remember that guy-he threw his voice up like Bracey did."
Oh yeah. It would have been "Kindhearted Woman" or "Terraplane Blues." Now Speir sold his records, but he remembered the song, "Kindhearted Woman." He said the guy threw his voice up in falsetto. What you've got to remember is, even though Robert Johnson's considered a great talent, Speir had heard plenty of great talent. He'd heard Chariie Patton, Skip James, and Tommy Johnson. So Robert Johnson was just an unknown blues singer trying to make a buck and get on records. But for some reason, he thought Johnson would go commercially. He took his name and address and sent it to the ARC salesman in New Orleans named Emie Oertle. Oertle called upon Speir once a month, coming out of New Orleans, bringing sample records for him to order from ARC. ARC is five labels: Melotone, Perfect, Banner, Oriole, and Romeo. But they also owned the Vocalion label at that time. Most ofJohnson's stuff came out on either Melotone or Perfect, or on Vocalion. When they did the Robert Johnson reissue, they put a Vocalion label on the front of the box. So what Speir did is, he sent Johnson's name to Ernie Oertle-wherever Johnson could be found. I don't know if it was an address in maybe Hazelhurst or an address in Jackson, where his sister was supposed to be living. That's what LaVere says, a sister or relative was living in Jackson. But Oertle went and found Johnson, whether it was in Robinsonville or whether it was in Jackson or Hazelhurst, and took him to San Antonio, Texas, to record. Now ARC, in 1935, had started recording in San Antonio and Dallas to open up the jukebox market in Texas. And what they were doing, they were recording a lot of the western-swing bands like Bob Wills at that time. And this was going on the jukeboxes throughout Texas and was making them money, because a lot of the copies could be sold and played on jukeboxes. So Johnson went to San Antonio, where they were recording at that time, in November of 1936, and made his first sides. Then he came back in May of 1937 to Dallas.
Oh, he heard about him through all the black musicians he played with. If he played in Jackson, he's bound to have known that Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey and Bo Carter and all these guys had made records, and he'd asked them, "How'd you get on record!" Robert Johnson told Elizabeth Moore Glenn when he was a teenager that he was going to make records someday, that he was going to go to New York and make records someday. She quoted me that particular statement. That was Willie Moore's wife. She was married to a man named "Hard Rock" Glenn at one time first, and then she became Moore's wife later on in her lifetime. But she said Johnson told her he was going to make records someday and that he was going to be famous, that he was going to New York to make records-that was his goal in life. And he accomplished it. But if it hadn't been for Speir, Robert Johnson probably would have never been recorded. You see, you got to look at it-Johnson was playing his style by 1931 or '32, and most of the songs in his repertoire he'd probably known for four or five years and had his number one pieces down. Why didn't he come to Jackson earlier and see Speir? He obviously didn't feel he was good enough, or either he never found out that Speir was the man to get you on records. You just have to speculate which it would be.
But all these guys did go to his store.
They auditioned at his store. If he found them on the street, he'd listen to them on the street and then bring them down to the record store. If he thought they were good enough talent to record, he'd make an acetate to listen to them himself and to send off to the company. Now Paramount didn't require an acetate at all-they took Speir's word for anything he'd send them.
Skip James brags that he came into Speir's store with another musician, Slim Duckett was his name. Slim Duckett and Pig Norwood recorded in December of '30 for OKeh. Now here was Skip James, living at Bentonia, thirty-five miles out ofJackson, and he didn't get on the OKeh sessions -Speir didn't find him, see. So Skip James, about February of 1931, about two months after the recording session at the King Edward Hotel, comes into Speir's store to audition. Now James said in all these interviews that there were twenty or twenty-five people lined up to audition, and he was the only one that passed. The truth is, Mr. Speir told me he never set aside days for musicians to line up. He said they would come into his store to talk to him, but he didn't set aside certain days as audition days-he didn't want to have that many people coming in his store at one time. So Skip James's story was a falsehood. Speir said it didn't happen that way. What he did is, James came in and played four or five songs. James said he played "Devil Got My Woman," and Speir passed on him. That may be possible. He probably had him play a couple of more songs to make sure he knew at least four songs. So then in two or three days, he bought him a train ticket to Milwaukee. They went to Chicago on the Illinois Central, then they rode the "electric train" from Chicago to Milwaukee. And Art Laibly from Paramount met James in Milwaukee, took him in the studio, and he recorded over a period of a couple of days.
Now Speir told me another interesting story. He declared that he took Skip James to Memphis to record him, and James got religion on him and wouldn't play the blues. Now this would have to be after 1931. I think it was probably the Jackson session in 1935, and he got his towns mixed up.
So was Speir saying he got religion on the trip?
He got religion in the studio. He started singing gospel songs and wouldn't sing any blues; he got religion and wouldn't record at all. He was very moody, Speir said. He and Bracey would have these religion spells, where they'd stop singing blues totally and go back in the church.
So there was complete separation between blues and church.
You were either serving the Lord or you were serving the devil. And if you played blues and lived that lifestyle, you served the devil and you were going to hell. Good church people didn't have anything to do with blues singers.
Why would a poor black pay 75 cents for a record?
You got to realize this. In the 1920s, there was no black radio, there was no television. The only medium they had was the windup Victrola and the record. So they listened to the records for relaxation, or they played them to dance by. All you could do was hear a live singer on the streets. You could come into town on a Saturday and you'd hear somebody on the streets playing for a nickel or a dime and taking up collection. And people like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey were big, they were giants to the black people. Ninety percent of Speir's customers were black. Of that 90%, probably 90% were women. Seventy-five cents was a lot of money in the 1920s. But the sharecropper didn't buy the records. The woman who worked for the white man as a cook or a maid in his home bought the records-she had money. People bought records when they got their cotton money in the fall. Or if they got their spring planting money, they'd go buy some records. But the women bought the records, not the men; the women owned the Victrolas, not the men. And if you had a Victrola, you had a lot of prestige in your community.
A lot of the song lyrics had sexual symbolism.
Oh yeah, they were sexually explicit sometimes, or double-meaning songs.
So in a way, it was like buying pomography. I mean, a black wouldn't spend 75 cents to buy a record like "Terraplane Blues" just for the music.
But it had that great dance rhythm, too. And blacks loved big cars. If you owned a big car, that was a symbol of affluence, of success. Now I don't know of any blacks who owned a Hudson Terraplane or a Cadillac.
But when Johnson was singing about his car, that was a woman he was talking about.
Yeah, he was using the symbolism of the Hudson Terraplane being like a woman. I mean, that sold. But Johnson was nowhere near as explicit as Bo Carter, who recorded "Let me squeeze your lemon" and "Your biscuits are big enough for me." And Victor kept recording him because he sold so well. He was the dirtiest man on records.
But the record companies had to know, they were exploiting this sexual thing among blacks and charging them 75 cents for a record.
They probably didn't, because most of the white executives working for the record companies didn't understand the double meaning of the black language. Speir said Art Satherly understood what they were saying the best and what they meant. But he said the rest of those guys had no idea what those lines meant. He said, "I knew, because I grew up around Negroes in the hill country, and I heard them singing. So I knew what they were talking about." And the black public knew what they meant, the person buying the records knew what they meant, because they'd heard this kind of talk all their lives on the streets.