Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music
by Barry Mazor (2015)
320 Pages, 6 x 9 inches
Chicago Review Press
$17.99 Trade Paper; $34.99 Enhanced EPUB $34.99
The story of Ralph Peer is the story of music publishing and how it defined the American soundscape from the days of piano rolls and sheet music to the dawn of rock and roll. Peer is most often associated with his role in organizing the 1927 Bristol Sessions. An on-site recording venture that, having launched the careers of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, has come to be called the “Big Bang” of country music. But by that time Peer had already been around the music industry for 20 years and had decades ahead of him during which his Southern Music Company would transform the way songs were brought to market and songwriters received compensation both in the US and around the world. It is that “rest of the story” that Barry Mazor engagingly brings us. Lovers of music history, and record collectors especially, will devour this book like a suspense novel and return to it repeatedly for the fresh material it adds to the public record.
Peer, who was born in 1892 and died in 1960, made a career out of seeing the changes around the corner—the changes in public tastes, changes in the industry, and new opportunities to profit from both. His father sold Columbia phonographs as part of a sewing machine dealership in Independence, Missouri. By age 11 Ralph was taking the light rail into Kansas City to pick up records and replacement parts from Columbia’s regional offices. He found work there as he grew and joined them full time after graduating high school in 1909. Fittingly, for the course his career would take, that was the same year as the Copyright Act.
An able company man, by 1915 he was assistant manager of the Midwest region, based out of Chicago. In 1919, smelling opportunity, he followed W.C. Fuhri to New Jersey to work for the new General Phonograph Company on its Okeh label.
It was there he would hone his skills as an A&R man, a role he in many ways invented. General Phonograph held American rights to a large catalog of European ethnic music and was releasing it profitably to immigrant markets in the US. Peer was among the first to see that the same niche market approach could work with the African American community. After Okeh produced hits with Mamie Smith in 1920, the potential profit to be made in selling records by African Americans to African Americans became clear to everyone. Okeh launched its 8000 Series “Race” records department with Peer as its recording chief. The term “the Race” at the time was used self-referentially within the middle-class black community and was meant respectfully unlike terms that had been used on labels with white record-buyers in mind.
Peer worked with Lil Hardin, Clarence Williams, Virginia Liston, and Louis Armstrong on his Hot Five sessions and with countless other blues and jazz greats of those critical years. He also led scouting missions to the south to find new artists and new copyrightable songs for the artists already signed to Okeh. Radio was dawning at the same time and peer suggested using local radio markets to identify acts that could be sold locally, in small runs, the way ethnic music was. The earliest “mountain music” artists were discovered this way.
In the early days, artists had to travel to New York to record even if they only had regional appeal. But by 1923, the same year Peer was promoted to General Recording Manager, the technology had advanced enough that a mobile recording studio could be brought to cities in a couple of railroad cars. Peer arranged the first on-location recording session, in Atlanta, four years before Bristol, and sessions followed in cities coast to coast.
In 1925 Peer was again promoted, this time to General Sales Manager but then abruptly left the company when Okeh was bought out by Columbia. It was time to make his big move.
Peer offered to work for Victor Records as a talent scout—for free. All he wanted was to hold copyright on new songs from artists he brought to the label. (He was also bringing with him a loyal roster of talent from Okeh). At the time royalties were collected haphazardly and payments back to artists even more so. Peer’s foresight would make him a very wealthy man. A healthy share of royalties would also generate continuing income for artists he contracted with who had been getting paid only at the time of recording. Many Peer contracted artists stuck with him for decades.
It was under this contract with Victor that he held the Bristol Sessions. He also made a trip farther south that would come to shape the rest of his professional life. “On a trip to Mexico,” in 1928, he said in a memoir, “I conceived the idea of an organized chain of music publishing houses to cover the principal countries of the world.” They would discover material on location and Peer would own the international rights. Peer subsequently went on to establish that international network of publishers.
As he grew increasingly independent of what was now RCA Victor he traveled the world and built the Peer-Southern Organization. He recreated what he had done for Okeh in Australasia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and, most successfully, in Latin America. He promoted his songs and artists in movies and profited from every Latin dance craze from the ’30s on.
Stateside, his early work in the hillbilly market continued to pay dividends as pop music grew more and more influenced by the country sound he had helped pioneer. He was even involved in the creation of rock and roll. Peer-Southern had ties to both tracks on Elvis Presley’s first record and a Peer scout discovered Buddy Holly. One of Peer’s secretaries even became Buddy Holly’s wife.
Barry Mazor interviews that secretary, along with dozens of other sources with personal recollections of Peer. As a music business journalist, he is uniquely positioned to treat this great American life with the nuance it deserves. He explains the intricacies of industry developments such as the Peer-involved creation of BMI, the workings of royalty payments, and the pedigrees of famous songs, in terms that make the stakes clear for interested but un-lawyerly readers. This is first the story of a businessman, and it is best told, as it is here, with that in mind. Peer was no romantic but he understood the influence he had had. In the 1950s, Peer stated that because he focused on artists who could compose new material, his capitalism had created “thousands of new folkloric songs.” When preservationists set out to discover the origins of American music many ran into Ralph Peer, already holding the copyright.
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