by Jitu K. Weusi
In the first quarter of the 20th century (19001925), the great migration of the African-American people took shape. They left their rural, country, backwoods habitats of the southern states of the U. S. and relocated in the northern cities of an emerging industrialized America. They brought with them their taste for music which was a staple of their spiritual and earthy lifestyle.
This musical impact combined with the technical growth of capitalist America to produce an urban industry; the entertainment industry. Names like Scott Joplin (Ragtime), W. C. Handy (Blues), Eubie Blake (Popular) and Louis Armstrong (Jazz) produced a lucrative and thriving music entertainment industry that exists and is viable up until this present time. The technology of this industry was almost totally in the hands of white Americans. Recording, the making of records in its beginning years 19001920, was a discriminatory process. White producers took the musical ideas of Blacks, but were reluctant to allow Blacks to make records. By 1920 the only Black voice to be recorded by the major companies was Bert Williams on Columbia and Mamie Smith on OKeh Records. One man, Harry Herbert Pace, was aware of this fact. He decided to act.
Harry Herbert Pace was born on January 6th, 1884 in Covington, Georgia. His father, Charles Pace, was a blacksmith who died while Harry was an infant leaving him to be raised by his mother, Nancy Francis Pace. Light skinned and extremely bright, Pace finished elementary school at age twelve and seven years later graduated valedictorian of his class in Atlanta University. A disciple of his college teacher, W. E. B. DuBois and his concept of the talented tenth, upon graduation, Pace worked in printing, banking and insurance industries first in Atlanta and later in Memphis. In various junior executive positions, he demonstrated a strong understanding of business tactics and had a reputation for rebuilding failing enterprises.
During his sojourn in the South, two significant things happened that would impact his figure. In 1912 in Memphis, he met and collaborated with W. C. Handy, generally recognized as the father of the Blues. Handy took a liking to Pace, they wrote songs together. Later they would develop the Pace and Handy Music Company, that would bring Harry Pace to New York City. Secondly, he met and married his wife, Ethlynde Bibb, who would be a great inspiration in his life. (African-American Business Leaders, Ingraham and Feldman.)
In 1920, Pace resigned his position in Atlanta, moved to New York, purchased a fine home on "Striver Row" in Harlem and settled in to manage the Pace and Handy Sheet Music business. The business using Pace's business knowledge and Handy's creative genius was very successful. While the company was profitable and artistically effective, Pace was frustrated. He observed as white recording companies bought the music and lyrics from Pace and Handy and then recorded them using white artists. When they did employ Blacks, they refused to let them sing and play in their own authentic style. Pace resolved to start his own record firm. Many scholars for years believed Handy was part of Pace company. Handy stated:
To add to my woes, my partner withdrew from the business. He disagreed with some of my business methods, but no harsh words were involved. He simply chose this time to sever connection with our firm in order that he might organized Pace Phonograph Company, issuing Black Swan Records and making a serious bid for the Negro market. ... With Pace went a large number of our employees. ... Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact that people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan Record Company."
In the 1920's New York, Harlem was ushering in a Negro renaissance of art and culture. Marcus Garvey (of whom Pace was a severe critic) was leading the largest Black mass movement for pride and economic redemption in twentieth century America. Even the Negro middle class, of which Pace was an undeniable member, was feeling the call to control the destiny of their lives, set up companies, manufacture products, employ and sell products to their own people. Pace was impacted by the wave of Black Nationalism sweeping the U. S. in the early 1920's post World War I period.
In March of 1921 under the laws of the state of Delaware and using about $30,000 in borrowed capital, Pace organized the Pace Phonograph Corporation, Inc. with a Board of Directors that included Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, Mr. John E. Nail, Dr. Matthew V. Bouttle and Ms. Viola Bibb. The company's first office was his home at 257 West 138th Street New York, N. Y. The African-American newspaper, New York Age reported:
Pace did not have an easy time entering the record business. White record companies threw up obstacles to keep him out. When he attempted to use a local pressing company, a large white company purchased the plant to keep him out. He was able to get a local studio to record, but had to send the master to a pressing plant located in Port Washington, Wisconsin to be pressed. Finally in about six weeks with all the preliminary work completed and all the necessary ingredients in place, from recording laboratories to wrapping paper and corrugated board. Pace was ready to manufacture Black Swan Records.
Pace used the name Black Swan to honor the accomplishments of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809–1976), a remarkably talented Negro singer known as "The Black Swan." Pace had designed a logo, a handsome black and gold label with a swan in gold against the black, floating above the banner (Jazz: A History of the New York Scene). In his advertising in African-American newspapers Pace stressed the race issue, saying, "The only genuine colored records; others are only passing for colored." Among the earliest employees for Pace was Fletcher Henderson, the pianist and band leader who became the recording manager and William Grant Still, the classical composer and orchestra leader who was the musical director of the new firm.
The first 3 records, probably recorded in April of 1921 and released in May of 1921, featured C. Carroll Clarke, a Denver-born baritone known to sing a fine ballad with a generally good reputation among high class Negro patrons, Katie Crippen, a vaudevillian who sang Blues and Revella Hughes, a soprano and vocal teacher who was very popular among the highbrow New York area patrons at that time. The Chicago Defender of May 7th, 1921 carried a press release of three paragraphs listing Black Swan 2001, 2002 and 2003 as May releases.
Fletcher Henderson was the pianist of record on all Black Swan releases from the start until the Fall of 1921. Other regularly used musicians for Black Swan during that period included: Joe Smith, Cornet; George Brashear, Trombone; Edgar Campbell, Clarinet; Cordy Williams, Charlie Dixon, Banjo; "Chink" Johnson, Trombone/Tubas. William Grant Still also doubled as manager and played several instruments (Oboe, Violin, Cello, Clarinet, Saxophone, Banjo and others) and was available for recordings.
Black Swan Records would have had a short and non-significant existence if it relied on the sale of its earliest records. Even Fletcher Henderson stated that these early releases were "straight songs or novelty numbers in the raggy style which was that heritage of the Europe-Brymn-Dabney School ... the one blues had not been done in blues style. "The music was not being produced to appeal to the taste of masses of the African-American people. This changed suddenly in the Summer of 1921.
It was in the Summer of 1921 that Ethel Waters came to the rescue of Black Swan Records. Three different accounts of this occurrence are depicted. Whichever version we select the outcome was the same. Fletcher Henderson stated:
Other recollections of this date are a bit different. Harry Pace himself was written:
Ethel Waters added her own recollections. She had recorded earlier for the Cardinal company, having been contracted by a free-lanced talent scout, who later suggested she go to Black Swan for an audition:
Riding the crest of this first successful Black Swan Recording, Pace and his small army hit upon the concept that would catapult Black Swan into the annals of recording history; the Black Swan tours.
High Times For Black Swan
It was ironic that at the time of its earliest success Black Swan had the opportunity to record and sign Bessie Smith, who would later become legendary as the "Queen of the Blues." Harry Pace upon hearing her sing one night decided that she was too "nitty gritty" for his taste. (African-American Business Leaders, Ingraham and Feldman) Two years later she would break all sales as a Columbia recording artist.
The company was doing better by the fall of 1921. Pace decided to send a group of Black Swan artists out on a Vaudeville tour.
In the October 22, 1921 issue of the Chicago Defender there appeared the following advertisement:
An orchestra, the Black Swan Jazz Masters was organized to accompany Ethel Waters on this national tour. A man named Simpson was named road manager and a series of dates were lined up. But before the Tour could begin two matters had to be dealt with that reveal the social tone of the time, particularly in the world of African-American entertainment.
Fletcher Henderson, the well-mannered, quiet, studious pianist and leader of the Black Swan Jazz Masters, was being advertised on a National Tour with a noted Blues singer. From a distinguished Southern colored Georgia family, this Atlanta University chemistry graduate had to entertain his parents in New York City to counsel him before departing on the tour. After meeting Ms. Ethel Waters, the beloved Black Queen of stage, screen , T. V. and music had to suffer further indignities so she could enrich the legacy of Black Swan Records. She was requested and agreed to sign a one year contract with Harry Pace.
The Chicago DEFENDER of Dec. 24,1921 broke the news:
The tour began at the Pennsylvania Standard Theater in Philadelphia on Nov. 23,1921 and the Black Swan Troubadours remained on tour until July of 1922. They visited 21 states (See Appendix) and performed in over 53 cities playing one or two night stands and up to 2 weeks on one engagement. (New Orleans)
The turnouts and enthusiasm of the audiences were fantastic. After the first month engagement, Pace hired Lester Walton, noted newspaper columnist (the first Black) for the New York World (a major daily newspaper) as the road manager and advance man for the Tour. Walton got the African-American Newspaper Network (New York Age, Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-American) involved in pumping out constant media on the Tour and the people's response to Ethel Waters and her Black Swan Jazzmen.
Early in January 1922, the Chicago DEFENDER noted that Lester Walton "manager in advance for the tour of Ethel Waters & Co." had arrived in Chicago on Jan. 3, while the troupe itself was "breaking all records" in St. Louis. Undoubtedly he was lining up their next major playing date, for on Jan. 14, 1922, a prominent advertisement in the DEFENDER announced:
The Tour was an overwhelming success with ramifications far and wide. Black Swan was established as an national record label with respect and increasing record sales. The new Blues and Jazz music had national recognition and a meaningful following. In New Orleans, Ethel Waters became the first Black performer to entertain on the new mass media, radio. Musicians like Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and Joe Smith in Cincinnati came out to support and perform with the Black Swan Jazz Masters. Anew camaraderie and standard was adopted within the National Jazz community.
By the time the participants in the Black Swan Troubadours returned to New York in July of 1922, the Pace Phonograph Co. had exploded in success. From its beginning in the basement of the owner, the company now owned a building as 2289 Seventh Avenue and 135th Street. It employed 15–30 people in its offices and shipping room, an 8-man orchestra, seven district managers in the largest cities in the country and over 1,000 dealers and agents in locations as far away as the Philippines and the West Indies.
In January of 1922, Harry H. Pace had issued a public financial statement on the first year of existence of Black Swan Records (New York Age, Jan. 24th, 1922). This strategy brought to the attention of everyone the financial success of Black Swan Records. A company started with $30,000 investment had yielded an income of $104,628.74 during its first eleven months of existence. That was almost four times the economic investment. Pace boasted that the success of Black Swan had colored people rewarded in the economic success of their labors:
In April of 1922, Pace completed his final major deal when he bought part-interest in a pressing plant to produce Black Swan Records. He formed a partnership with John Fletcher, a white man, to purchase the bankrupt Remington Phonograph Corp. and their recording and pressing plant in Long Island City. With this increased capacity, Pace expanded the production of Black Swan Records to more than 6,000 records daily. Black Swan issued two new series of recorded music with its 10000 and 14000 series. With William Grant Still replacing the touring Fletcher Henderson, the company introduced music in every genre including opera, choral groups and symphony orchestras.
Things were going so well for Harry Pace that in an interview with writers for the New York Age in August of 1922, he talked about manufacturing a "Swanola" phonograph. He stated that this part of the business had not yet been fully developed. But the Pace Company was looking forward to employing colored mechanics as soon as they could be properly trained for work. This was Harry Pace's final dream for Black Swan Records.
The Decline of Black Swan
If the success that Pace Phonograph Corp. Inc. experienced during its first year provided anything, it alerted the competition to the lucrativeness of the market. More than ever by succeeding years 1922 and 1923 obtaining Black artists became increasingly harder as the major white companies began to bid competitively for their services. After the tour concluded in July of 1922, artists like Fletcher Henderson and Ethel Waters no longer recorded exclusively for Black Swan Records.
The success of race records led to costly competition and price cutting by white-owned labels such as Okeh, Paramount and Columbia.
Many African-Americans, especially from the entertainment community, resented Pace for breaking his promise of an all-Black recording company. Though he continued to advertise that the enterprise was run only by Blacks and that they released recordings only by Black musicians, it was proven that the company was pressing records by white ensembles such as the Original Memphis Five. Pace began to lose the respect and confidence of the musician community and it became more difficult to continue to produce a quality product.
In March of 1923, the Pace Phonograph Company was renamed the Black Swan Phonograph Co., a sure signal that trouble was coming. By the summer on 1923, no new recordings of Black Swan were announced. Pace summed up his troubles in a letter sent to Roi Ottley:
In December of 1923, Black Swan Records declared bankruptcy and in May of 1924 Paramount announced a deal to lease the Black Swam catalog. Black Swan Records was history.
Pace Moves On
The long term impact of Black Swan Records are too numerous to elaborate upon fully in this paper. Some of them are:
It opened up the entertainment/recording industry to Blacks and opened up advertisement in Black newspapers from major record and entertainment companies. Today, the many musical, recording and entertainment stars who earn enormous salaries and have world-wide recognition owe a debt of gratitude to the symbol of self-pride and self-determination to The Black Swan Recording Company.
(Spring 1996 term paper for the "Black Music in New York City 19001935" graduate course in music at Brooklyn College.)
Jitu K. Weusi is a 34 year veteran educator of the social sciences. He is active in the New York political scene, and an activist for the community control of schools. Jitu K. Weusi is a charter member of the National Black United Front (NBUF).
Reference Material Used