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The mythology of the early music industry in this country is filled with enterprising A&R men — that stands for “artists & repertoire”– men who scoped out new talent all over the country, sign contracts and make a little money. Some made piles of it.
Ralph Peer, whose career started with wax recording cylinders and ended with vinyl LPs, was one of them. Peer was a major force behind popularizing what was then known as roots music: country, gospel, blues, and later, jazz. Those staples of American music weren’t really a part of the popular music scene in the early 20th century.
The literature on Peer is thin, though, according to Barry Mazor, limited mostly to brief mentions in the biographies of country greats he helped discover. When Peer’s family approached Mazor, he got access for the first time to royalty statements, Peer’s papers and letters. His ensuing book is Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music.
When he got into the music industry, the focus was on sheet music and songs fresh off Broadway. Genres like blues and gospel got little-to-no attention outside of churches and local dives. Then in 1920, Peer recorded Mamie Smith singing “Crazy Blues.”
“It was the first recording of blues sung by an African-American ever,” Mazor said. “It hadn’t been done.”
And the record went on to sell 1 million copies. It bears repeating: this is 1920.
“He saw something early on,” Mazor said. “The reason he would bring Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter family… they were strong personalities with songs. The personality would sell the song, and then the song would sell again.”
In other words, every new recording of the song, by new artists, benefitted everyone who worked on the originals. They made money off the royalties. Peer set the standard for that game. The blurbs for Mazor’s book include everyone from Chuck D to Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and Donovan.
“Their business wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t been there first,” Mazor said.
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