It is commonly agreed that the pre-war country blues would not have been what it turned out if it hadn’t been for the efforts and energetic enthusiasm spent by one man: Henry Columbus Speir. Of course, his efforts have to be put in its proper historical context which is the one I wrote about in my previous post on the role of the white record industry in the promotion of the black, country blues singer.
However, it is undeniable that this white businessman, Henry Speir played a role that can hardly be underestimated. In more than one respect, he was ahead of his time, exceptionally combining a personal interest in music, a sense for commercial innovation, risk taking and humanitarian feelings for black compatriots.
After his discharge as soldier from World War I, he started working in the New Orleans’ division of the Victor Talking Machine Corporation. The record industry was a lucrative business, not facing yet at that time the fierce competition from the radio (only started from 1920 onwards). Record making was still purely a mechanical operation and had yet to experience the introduction of electronics (see my post here). This job gave him the idea to start his own business in the music industry, which he did in 1926 in Jackson, halfway between Memphis and New Orleans. He started selling Victrolas and guitars, and of course what goes along with it: records. He deliberately opened his store in a black neighborhood; he must already have had the feeling that money was to be made there. Having a Victrola was for the black population a symbol of status, and black women (the majority of his clients), having a steady income as household help on plantations, afforded themselves the records (very often containing music with a sexual undertone) which they could play at home, rather than going to the juke joints which were dangerous places.
Nine out of ten records of his total stock were meant for the black market.
Since he had this black clientele he also sensed very quickly the kind of music that this clientele was ready to buy, and rather than only selling what the record companies issued and sent him, he started to hunt for talent himself. He began dwelling the streets searching for black talent, and driving hundreds of miles to find this talent was no obstacle to him. When he felt that a black artist had talent and could be sold on record he would invite him to his store where he kept a recording machine on the first floor of his store. He was probably the only one as a private person to have such a machine in the twenties.
But, the artist did not only need to be good; he also had to have at least four songs to record (i.e. material for 4 sides = 2 78-records) and, most importantly, the material had to be new. He did not accept any copying as he knew this would not sell.
The word spread around and soon musicians came knocking on his door to get an audition because they knew that he had his contacts and was able to get them on record. They could pop in whenever they wanted.
What Speir would do is hear them sing, and if he found it was good for his ears, he would record a demo, which was graved in bee-wax which he then sent out to different record companies with the advice and request to have them recorded. The bee-wax recording was, waiting for expedition, stored in ice-boxes to prevent from melting. It wasn’t all mp3 then !
It was a fact that the white executives of the record companies for which he started to work as a talent scout (call it : a talent broker) didn’t have the slightest knowledge of black music, so they relied on his ears and taste since he was in direct contact with a market which could trigger money. Paramount even followed Speir’s advice without hearing a demo. Other companies such as Victor, Okeh, Columbia and Decca listened to the demo and then invited Speir over to their northern studios, accompanied by this discovered talent.
Or, a local studio was set up in a hotel in or near Jackson where in one rush some 100 records were recorded, all supervised by Speir himself.
Though music was clearly a business for him, he seriously loved the music and its musicians: his store had long opening hours to allow people to come in after working hours and he allowed his clients to listen to the records in listening rooms before buying them. When one or another of “his” talents had landed up in jail after a fight after heavy drinking, he would arrange for them to come free (earlier).
The list of artists that started their career thanks to the efforts of Speir is very long and contains some of the greatest ever: a.o. Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Bo Carter, Willie Brown, the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Joe Reynolds, Blind Roosevelt Graves and Geeshie Wiley.
Even if his biggest attention went to blues music, it was not the only type of music he scouted for. Some white string bands and artists also got their career launched thanks to him. At the same time however, when a certain Jimmy Rodgers auditioned in his store, he told him to go back home and come back later when he had practiced a bit more. Jimmy Rodgers became the first American country star….Speir must have felt the same way Sam Phillips did in 1955 when he sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA….
The music business was notwithstanding this miscalculation a very profitable one for Speir. At a certain moment, he held more than 3.000 records in his store, next to the guitars and record players and had acquired an important personal capital. The Great Depression however turned his luck. The record industry faced a dramatic drop in sales (more than 90 % !) and Paramount went out of business. Moreover, when the record industry recovered slightly from the smash of the depression after 1934, it was clear that it was no longer interested in experiments and wanted to bet only on talent that guaranteed to make the cash register sound aloud. This made Speir more or less redundant.
Misfortune struck also on his other financial activities. He had invested, together with some other men, a huge amount of money in the drill for oil, but they struck only on natural gas. Back then, in 1929, natural gas was worthless….Today, the field is the biggest supplier of gas in Mississippi…. This financial misfortune left him also without the means to accept the offer that Paramount made him to take over its recording business!
Just try to imagine how blues would have evolved if Speir would have been able to take over Paramount !
Henry Speir turned his back on the music business as a whole, and when he was traced back in the sixties by the great delta blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, to whom we owe the detailed knowledge about his music business (Speir’s notes disappeared as a result of a fire in his store), he had turned to advertising for real estate (before that he sold second hand furniture) He spended most of his time to his passion : organic gardening, which he proudly presented to whomever wanted to see it ! He wasn’t even aware that he had played such a crucial role in the development of the country blues.
Whatever it was that drove him, Speir has been of a huge instrumental value for the legacy of the country blues. Without him, the music of icons as Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson (to name only these few) would have been unknown to us. Speir went from blues, to oil, furniture and organic gardening. Luckily he left us also with some of the greatest music ever put on record!