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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A recent trip to New Orleans provided me the opportunity to bask in several facets of jazz. When possible, I took video footage to preserve a few choice moments.

My first night in the Big Easy, I stopped in at the legendary Preservation Hall. With its intentionally rough-hewn interior, stepping inside was like visiting a living history farm. The Hall has been a tourist destination for half a century, but don’t let that keep you away. Sure, this may be the only live jazz most people will hear for the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing. The setlist stuck to pre-war standards, but they were delivered with plenty of fun and energy. The venue’s name is apt. The arrangements aren’t groundbreaking, but the Preservation Hall band is keeping a sound alive that may otherwise have been forgotten. Unfortunately, no audio or video is allowed.

Located on Bourbon Street a few blocks from Preservation Hall (and near Skully’s, a great record store), Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub draws on the same era, but from a different perspective. If Preservation Hall celebrates the Sidney Bechet of New Orleans, Fritzel’s commemorates the European Bechet. In fact, thanks to an audience request, the band leader treated the crowd to a great version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” The 1959 hit isn’t the easiest song to master, but the clarinet player blew effortlessly. I was able to take a little video to capture the atmosphere in Fritzel’s.

After two days in the French Quarter, I had had enough. The tourist trap may be fine for less-seasoned travelers, but I quickly discovered Frenchmen Street was where the locals partied, The corridor featured many fine clubs within the space of a few blocks, including Snug Harbor, the Apple Barrel and my destination for the next two nights, the Blue Nile and d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins has enough of a following that he can play nearly every night of the week. Locals now have to share Ruffins with tourists (like me) thanks to his appearances on “Treme.” The two-hour set was filled with standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which Ruffins managed to freshen up without offending purists. An entertainer and trumpet player from the Satchmo school, Ruffins was determined to make everyone in room smile and get on their feet. The best moment arrived after an intermission, when the house PA’s version of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya” faded into a live version, with Ruffin’s delivering a blistering post-Katrina rhyme. Here is some footage I shot of Ruffin infusing the Black Eyed Peas with some much-needed zydeco.

On my final night in NOLA, I returned to Frenchmen Street to witness Rebirth Brass Band at d.b.a. There are a myriad of great brass bands in the Crescent City, but Rebirth may be the only one that can boast a parental advisory rating in its catalog. The eight-piece unit mixes funk and hip hop into the traditional brass band sound. The stifling heat in the small room couldn’t keep the crowd from dancing, and the band seemed to be having the most fun. Here’s a bit of Rebirth’s tribute to another native son, Fats Domino.

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(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

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Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

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(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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(Above: Don’t read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting author Elijah Wald to bash the Fab Four.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Elijah Wald’s provocatively titled book slipped into the marketplace about the same time the much-ballyhooed Beatles remasters slammed retail shelves. But Wald isn’t trying to turn fans against their beloved Fab Four. He’s trying to reinforce their importance by approaching their arrival with a magical mystery tour that examines music from a populist perspective.

For the most part, Wald’s narrative manages to ignore critics and historians and answer the greater question of “Why did people like this?” Starting 100 years ago with ragtime, Wald walks through the growth, progression and trends that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.

Wald focuses on the Beatles because they were able to make artistically respectable music while staying true to their genre. Their foil is Paul Whiteman, who despite accomplishing the same feat, has been forgotten.

Whiteman was a Caucasian big band leader who crowned himself “King of Jazz.” Despite earning the endorsements from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and selling millions of records, Whiteman’s career has been largely dismissed by jazz historians because his arrangements were so genteel. Indeed, part of Whiteman’s mission was to sand the rough edges off of jazz and respectable, if unchallenging, middle-brow dance music.

By eschewing the conventional narrative based on critical favorites, Wald shows how mainstream performers and tastes shaped the progression of music. Traditional viewpoints and assumptions are confounded again and again as Wald shows how the popular persuades the acclaimed. For example, Wald tells how Guy Lombardo’s arrangements influenced Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven records.

He also builds interesting parallels between celebrated trendsetters and those who are slighted for their foresight. In one instance, romantic crooner Vaughn Monroe was savaged in the press when his stage shows were little more than reconstructions of his singles. Yet only a few years later, as recorded music replaced live interpretations on the radio, it became what audiences expected.

Wald covers a lot of territory in a hurry, but it rarely feels like any corners are cut. Although the history is told in a linear fashion, Wald is a master of connecting previously unseen dots. The lines he draws between the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Elvis Presley, or Parlimanent-Funkadelic and Benny Goodman are both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. While not all of Wald’s parallels or arguments work, they are worth pondering.

In a way, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” is the natural outgrowth of Wald’s previous book, “Escaping the Delta.” That volume examined the curious arrival of Robert Johnson as the figurehead of “authentic” pre-war blues. In looking at Johnson’s forgotten peers like Peetey Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim, Wald not only places Johnson’s music in context, but draws attention to arguably more deserving performers.

Admittedly, Wald may be giving himself the upper hand by focusing on unheard and unheralded performers. But while Wald’s arguments are contrarian, they are also well-researched and measured. In fact, the only argument Wald fails to back up is his title. Not only does Wald leave the Fab Four’s legacy intact, he doesn’t address them directly until the final two chapters. Fans of the British Invasion and Boomers looking to relieve their adolescence are bound to be disappointed.

Armchair historians and musicologists are bound to be the most pleased with this text. Wald is not encouraging the reader to explore Whiteman’s catalog or discard his or her favorite performers, only look at them through a longer lens.

Keep reading:

A Conversation with Elijah Wald

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Key King Artists

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(Above: A rare Gennett Records 78 featuring Edna Hicks singing “Satisfied Blues.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From the highway, Richmond, Ind. looks like any other blip on the highway between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. It’s not quite blink-and-you’ll-miss it – the town does have five exits from I-70 – but there’s nothing enticing about it, either.

The music made in this unassuming locale eighty years ago, however, is still captivating. Thanks to the efforts of Henry Gennett and his label, Gennett Records, this blip on the Indiana-Ohio border is known as the “cradle of recorded jazz.”

Like most label heads, Gennett was not a music man. The Nashville businessman bought the highly successful Starr Piano Company from a trio of Richmond entrepreneurs who started the business 20 years ago.

By 1915, Starr Pianos were one of the most prestigious brands in the country and Gennett was selling 15,000 instruments a year. The winds of change were blowing, however, and Gennett sensed the piano paradigm was about to be usurped by the phonograph.

Charlie Patton was one of many then-unknown musicians to record for Gennett.

By the end of the decade, Gennett was not only manufacturing his own brand of phonograph, but cutting original material for prospective customers to play on their new appliance. Since Victor and Columbia had snatched up the biggest names in music to exclusive contracts, Gennett grabbed lesser-known musicians passing through town on their way to gigs.

The artists Gennett recorded in the ‘20s were unfamiliar at the time, but read like a jazz hall of fame today: Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, the King Oliver band – which included a bottle green Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Hoagy Carmichael. Gennett also recorded bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and future country legend Gene Autry and other hillbilly pioneers Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts, Vernon Dalhart and Bradley Kincaid.

Ironically, at the same time Gennett was recording many of the biggest names in African-American music, Richmond was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. At one point, 45 percent of the white men in Wayne County, which includes Richmond, were Klan members. This market was too lucrative for Gennett to ignore, who secretly recorded these bigots in the Gennett Records studios and released them on private labels.

Gennett paid his artists a flat fee of $15 to $50 per session and sold the records for $1. The label’s slogan, “The Difference is in the Tone,” was something of a joke. Heavy drapes hung on the walls could not hide the sounds of passing trains, and purists noted Gennett platters did not sound as good as singles cut on the coasts. For a while, though, the Gennett parrot was ubiquitous. In 1920, the label sold three million records.

Just when it looked like Henry Gennett had successfully stayed ahead of the technology curve, radio came along. Suddenly, fans didn’t have to own every song they wanted to hear. The coupling of radio and the Great Depression buckled Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company. In 1935, the label was sold to Decca; in 1952 the largely inactive Starr Piano Company was sold at auction and the Richmond factory was shut down.

The Gennett studio is partially intact today. Although the building was once five stories tall, all that remains is part of

Ths tower is all that remains of the Gennett building today.

the façade – still proudly sporting the Gennett Records logo – and the gutted first floor. The Starr Piano Company’s 60-foot smokestack stands defiantly several yards away from the remains of the studio.

Across the street lies the Gennett Walk of Fame. It was snowy on the day we visited, but someone had taken the time to clear off the markers of several celebrated musicians. The round plaques are meant to resemble a 78 record, and sport a tile mosaic of the artist. A bronze plaque below the 78 contains a brief biography.

It seems most of the Richmond’s current 40,000 residents have forgotten about Gennett Records. The first person we asked for directions had never heard of it, and the only nod to the label outside of the old building and walk of fame was mural on the side of a the 4th Floor Blues Club on the way out of town.

It’s easy to miss the sign for the Gennett memorial. The narrow road is hidden behind a railroad bridge and tucked next to row of businesses. But if you’ve ventured far enough off the beaten path to stumble into Richmond, go a little further and rediscover some great music.

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A Gennett Records photo gallery

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