Parlophone’s 78rpm ‘Race Series’ – A Survey

Written by Frank Phillips 1

That Parlophone became renowned for its jazz record output should have come as no surprise, since the company had direct access to Okeh’s vast reserves of excellent masters from the very inception of Lindstrom’s British label in 1923. By then Okeh had been producing records for the American ‘Race’ market for around three years, so it was inevitable that some items from their ‘Race Catalog’ would appear on Parlophone’s lists.

When the first Parlophone catalogue was produced in October 1923, it contained a listing of seventy-nine records, numbered ⦾E5000 to ⦾E5078. Of these, the first twenty-two were pressed from former Beka matrices, while the next thirty were dance band recordings derived from Okeh matrices. It was not until June 1924, when catalogue supplement no.7 was issued, that the first item from Okeh’s ‘Race’ list appeared on Parlophone (⦾E5187). This record presented Margaret Johnson, described as a ‘contralto’, singing ‘If I Let You get Away With It’ and ‘E-Flat Blues’, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, which included Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone.

Margaret Johnson’s ‘E-Flat Blues’ became a best seller which remained in the Parlophone catalogue from the time it was issued, in June 1926, until September 1931. A remarkable fact considering that this was an acoustically recorded blues track. Contemporary publicity for the record read:

“sung by Margaret Johnson, a coloured Artiste, with true meaning of the Blues. Somewhat quaint when first heard—played again, you get them— played once more, they have you”.

In October 1924, Parlophone catalogue supplement no.11 offered two more black vocalists from the Okeh ‘Race’ lists: Rosetta Crawford, singing ‘Down On The Levee Blues’ and ‘Lonesome Mama Blues’, accompanied by The King Bechet Trio, on ⦾E5234; and Sarah Martin singing ‘Graveyard Dream Blues’ and ‘A Green Gal Can’t Catch On Blues’, with Clarence Williams’ Harmonizing Four, which again included Sidney Bechet, on ⦾E5235.

Parlophone catalogue supplement no.12, issued in November 1924, presented two further black female vocalists from Okeh’s ’Race’ list.

These were Ada Brown, accompanied by Benny Moton’s Kansas City Orchestra, on E5260, and Eva Taylor on ⦾E5261, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Trio (with Sidney Bechet). Ada Brown sings ‘Evil Mama Blues’ and ‘Break O’ Day Blues’, while Eva Taylor offers ‘Irresistible Blues’ and ‘Jazzin’ Babies Blues’.

Margaret Johnson also appeared in catalogue supplement no.14, of January 1925, on ⦾E5300, singing ‘Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Momin’’ and ‘Absent Minded Blues’, with Clarence Williams’ Harmonizers.
In his introduction to an article on Parlophone’s ’Race Series’ (Talking Machine Review No.89), Arthur Badrock noted that:

“Certain of the earlier purple Parlophones in the R3000 series were listed in the catalogues as ’Race’ records, although they were not designated as such on the record labels”.

It was probably these which gave rise to collectors unofficially referring to Parlophone’s ’Race Series’ of 1936/37 as the ’Second Race Series’. But it could be argued that six records from the E5000 series described above, plus perhaps ⦾E5670, have some claim to be recognized as Parlophone’s first batch of ‘Race’ records, accepting the fact that they were not actually issued as a series. But there again, neither were the R3000 series ‘Race’ records. (The record, ⦾E5670, has two sides by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, with vocals by Eva Taylor, singing Mandy ‘Make Up Your Mind’ and ‘I’m A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird’).

It could be asked why Parlophone should consider the need for another ‘Race’ record series in 1936, having regularly released material by black artistes over the previous decade or more.

Perhaps the key to answering this question lay in the attempt by the American record industry to resurrect itself from the debris of the Depression years, as part of the recovery programme of American industry as a whole. The surviving record companies were looking to invest in areas which would boost their sagging record sales, and one such area recognized was the African-American record market.

Victor launched its Bluebird label in 1933, on which its ‘Race Records’ were issued. English Decca, which was weathering the Depression very well, invested in the American market in 1934, financing its own American Decca ‘Race ‘ series. The EMI companies, all of whom had strong connections with North America, needed to respond firmly in order to maintain their European markets, and to take advantage of the fresh material which was then becoming available.

Parlophone’s response was merely to continue issuing old Okeh and Columbia recordings, for which it was severely criticised, while the company was actively searching for sources of suitable, more recently recorded material to feed its various jazz series.

Parlophone’s ‘Race Series’ was a concoction of thirty-four of these Okeh and Columbia tracks, issued on seventeen records, all recorded during the period between 1925 and 1933.
The ‘Race Series’ was issued at the rate of one record per month from January 1936 until the end of the year, with the remaining five records being presented between February and October 1937.

In general the material selected did cover fairly well the black musical spectrum of the late 1920’s, with the exception of spirituals and country blues. But the series also included some rather doubtful ’Race’ items: there were three sides by the white minstrelsy comedian and vocalist, Emmett Miller (did Parlophone equate blackface with black man?); and the final two sides in the series were by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, but the vocals were sung by Ethel Waters. Apart from the first four records in the series, the labels bore the sub-title “The Negro and His Music”. [See list of artists who recorded for this series on page 10 of this issue].

The Parlophone company never regarded its ‘Race’ series as part of the ‘Rhythm-Style’ series. It was always listed separately, and was never issued on the blue ‘Rhythm-Style’ label. Sales figures for the series were not excessive, even when combined with overseas sales, which led to many titles being deleted from the catalogue as early as 1942.

During the period covered by the issuing of the ’Race Series’, Parlophone presented as many as seven other jazz series, several running concurrently: 1936 Super ’Rhythm-Style’ Series, Second New ’RhythmStyle’ Series, British Artists ’Rhythm-Style’ Series, 1937 Super ’Rhythm-Style’ Series, New Swing Series, the single record Black And White Series, and Studies In Swing (Tuition Records).

Most of the individual records in these series were reviewed in the contemporary musical press – mainly The Gramophone, Rhythm and/or Melody Maker- often with unfavourable comment, it might be said.

The appearance of so many different series being offered in such a short space of time may suggest that Parlophone were making great efforts to maintain their standing in the jazz record market in Britain. However, the lack of advertising space devoted to their jazz record output in general, and to the ’Race Series’ in particular, could infer that the company had perhaps lost some of its zest for jazz.

Sixteen of the seventeen records comprising the ‘Race Series’ were reviewed in The Gramophone (the missing one was ⦿R2305), but only two of the twenty-two (full-page) Parlophone advertisements in the same magazine featured ’Race Series’ records; ⦿R2147 in the January 1936 issue, and ⦿R2225 in the July 1936 edition. None appeared during 1937.

The launch of the British Artists ’Rhythm-Style’ Series in January of 1936, so excited the reviewer (Edgar Jackson) that the ‘Race Series’ was completely overshadowed. This is perhaps not surprising since Edgar Jackson claimed implication in the planning of this series, and which he made the subject of his editorial column in the January 1936 issue of The Gramophone Magazine.

This absence of publicity for the ‘Race Series’ may go at least some way in explaining such poor sales figures for the series. From the table matrix (found on pages 24-31 of this issue) it can be seen that the two Bessie Smith records easily outsold the rest, with the next best sales being achieved by Victoria Spivey, two names which were recognizable as ‘Race’ artists. The Duke Ellington record was third best – another known name. At the bottom of the sales scale came the Black Devils (who?), Ethel Waters (with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra – what is he doing in a ‘Race’ series?), then Wilton Crawley / Emmett Miller (wasn’t he a white man?). Does this not suggest that familiar names sell better than the more obscure? Would more vigorous publicity not have improved the sales returns?

1. PLEASE NOTE: All work included in any Discographer Magazine issue or online, written or compiled by Frank Phillips is copyrighted. Reproduction by any means without consent from the publisher (78rpm Community) or the estate of Frank Phillips is strictly prohibited.

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