H.C. Speir---Man of Vision---
By Robert Jackson
Photos are from the Gayle Dean Wardlow book "Chasin' That Devil Music" copyright 1998 by Miller Freeman publications.
When H.C. Speir of Jackson, MS. opened his furniture store at 225 north Farrish St. in 1925, he had no idea that he would make such an impact on music history. His interest in music had begun in the Victrola assembly plant in New Orleans after being discharged from the Navy. He later returned there to take a course in Victrola repair, in order to have the ability to "service what he sold" this gave him the distinction of being the only Victrola repairman in the county. Victrolas had gotten their name from the manufacture name. Originally called the "Victor Talking Machine Company", it was later changed to the "Victor Phonograph machine Company " until 1929, when RCA purchased the company and changed the name to RCA Victor. He sold several styles of victrolas and (Columbia) graphonolas in his store. Even though the electric models were offered, many of the poorer black customers he catered to bought the crank model, as electricity was still an unaffordable or unavailable luxury. The crank models were priced between $9.95 and $14.95.
It was easy to tell that Speir loved music by the other musical items he stocked in his furniture store. His musical instrument inventory would be considered "classics" today, and were the standard for blues players across the south. Speir also sold "Stella" guitars in addition to the violins and banjo ukes. They just worked better for blues music and were affordable, compared to the more "expensive" Martins and Gibson's of the day. Price played a key role for Bluesmen who earned far less than any of their counterparts in the thirties. The "blues" tones produced by the Stella's were a bonus. He also sold the metal bodied brass jumbo guitars, which had the trademark blues tone, but few could afford them at $32.50 each. The sales of victrolas were naturally followed by Mr. Speir stocking records to play on the machines. Most of his record customers were black women, who needed some entertainment that was suited to their tastes. No other means of black entertainment existed at the time, except for a few "juke joints" that were considered unseemly and dangerous. Working as cooks, maids, and Nannies, the women's income was steady, as the Men had to depend on seasonal income from farm harvests, with little or no disposable income left over. H.C. had four "listening booths" for previewing the 78 RPM records he sold. He would stay open from 8:30 AM to 10:00 PM in order to sell to the working public who didn't have the luxury of only working 9 to 5. He would usually rise early and arrive before 8 A.M. to prepare for opening with his niece, then let a relative,(usually Mable Pace) take over for him about 10 or 10:30. This would free him to either take care of other business, to scout locally, or just visit with his friend Mori, who ran the luggage shop across the street. When record sales were good during the summer days of the 20's, he could sell up to 600 records in a single day. H.C. stocked around 3000 records, almost all of them Blues albums. Blues records were easy to spot - Almost all of them had "blues" in the title.
It was through these records that H.C. began to wonder why some of the great local talent in his Delta homeland was not being recorded. By 1926, he had installed an acetate cylinder recording machine upstairs in the back of his furniture store to make audition recordings. He also offered this service to the public, at $5 per recording. This was known as a "vanity recording" Starting in 1926; he approached some of the record companies of the day about recording Black Blues. Even though they were considered "race records" by whites, H.C. loved the blues. Most white people in the 20's and 30's distrusted anything or anyone of black origin, and perceived bluesmen as drunks, hobos, and layabouts. This is why Mr. Speir kept his enthusiasm about scouting Blues artists to himself, with the exception of his niece and his friend, Art Laibly. H.C. also forbade any access to the recording area to anyone except those involved with the recordings.
It would be another year before he found William Harris in April of 1927, and took him to Birmingham, Al. To record on the Gennitt Label. This success inspired H.C. to head up the delta on Thursday afternoons, exploring primitive roads in search of new blues talent. He also traveled outside his Mississippi backwaters to find talent. Speir and his friend Art Laibly would take rides to Birmingham, Mobile, New Orleans, and Memphis to find new acts. They even traveled as far as St. Louis and Mexico to scout talent. As soon as these street players were deemed good enough, they would be asked to play a few more songs to make sure they had enough original songs to make a record. Cover songs were not acceptable. Soon he was established as a "talent broker". Often using his acetates as "demos", he also used his recording machine to make actual session masters for three record companies. One of the master recordings was for the O'keh label in 1930, and two masters were for the American Recording Co. in 1935 and 1936. A master was actually cut into a hardened bees wax cylinder with a diamond needle. The cylinders were kept in an icebox until needed, and then returned to a refrigerator or icebox as soon as it was recorded in order to keep the summer heat from deteriorating the recording. It was also a standard practice to get at least two takes of every song in case the heat or handling damaged one. Some tried to get around this by recording on wire machines, but these were invented for the spoken word, and quality was not acceptable for music. Thus, all of the record companies of the day used the wax cylinders. These cylinders became the mold for the "pressing mothers", that were the steel forms that the actual records were pressed from.
In December of 1927, Speir found Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey. Bracey had been playing for people on Farrish Street, and H.C. decided to stroll down there to see if Ishmon might want to make a recording. Mr. Speir usually wore a suit to work, and was initially mistaken for a detective but fear soon turned to joy as Bracey realized that someone cared enough to give him a chance in the music business. Speir also made a test acetate of Tommy Johnson, and sent both of them to Ralph Peer at Victor Records. But there was always a catch, Since Victor records didn't know Speir yet, Peer would need a test record on every artist scouted. Also, four songs were needed to be considered by the record companies, and since Tommy only had two songs to record, Speir encouraged him to quickly make up two more, so that his talent would not be passed over. When no response from the "demos" came, Speir had just about given up hope, when he received a telegram. Suddenly he was sending them to Memphis to record! His magic cylinders were finally going to show the country what Mississippi had to offer.
Tommy recorded "Big Road Blues", "Cool Drink of Water Blues", and "Maggie Campbell Blues" in February of 1928. He and Ishmon were then invited back to Memphis to record again in August, 1928. Bracy's first record was "Saturday Blues" and it sold very well for the time. Tommy's big hit, "Canned Heat Blues", was also recorded on that hot August afternoon. Released in 1929, his "Canned Heat Blues" referred to his affection for Sterno. Tommy would boil out the paraffin from the "canned heat", and drink the residual alcohol. This was usually when all other forms of alcohol had already been consumed. Mr. Speir tried to get Tommy to stop this, but the only way was to try to switch him to mouthwash. (At least his breath would smell good!) Paramount Records trusted Speir. He set up Paramount sessions with early greats like Charlie Patton, Bracey, Tommy Johnson, and Skip James. Speir had found some these players by word of mouth, (Bo Carter had told him about Charlie Patton) but the main method was to get out and go "prospecting". This was not always so easy, as bluesmen moved around constantly, and the roads of southern Mississippi were quite primitive in the 20's and 30's. H.C. did have some hard luck to go along with his exciting musical discoveries. Some time in 1929, he had invested $30,000 in an oil drilling venture with four other investors. Instead of striking oil, they struck natural gas, which was a worthless commodity in 1929. It devastated their finances, and Speir was back to square one. Of course, this gas field is now Mississippi's largest, and is called the Mississippi Valley Gas Co. Once again, Mr. Speir was too far ahead of his time. So when Otto Moesher offered to sell him Paramount, (who had been making "race records" since 1922) for $25,000 in April of 1930, H.C. was unable to comply. He even tried to convince the Jackson, MS. Chamber of Commerce to put up the money, but again, convincing white people of the value of "race music" was futile. Had he succeeded, Paramount records would have relocated in Jackson.
1929 proved to be a good year for Charlie Patton. His records were selling well enough to him invited back to record at Paramount's new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. They teamed him up with Henry "Son" Sims, a fiddle player from Clarksdale, Ms. He was not a singer, but backed Charlie on these tracks, and the resulting record sold well. Speir often paid the traveling expenses for players to go record. He would buy the train tickets, and give them spending money to keep them going. He was usually reimbursed by the record companies, but not always the full amount. The company would add a $150. "Finders fee" if the artist proved profitable. Another great talent discovered by Speir was Blind Joe Reynolds. Blind Joe was born in Lake Providence, LA, grew up in Tallulah, and had returned to Lake Providence where Speir found him. He was soon recording for Paramount records, recording four songs, with only two of them surviving to the present day-"Nehi Mama", and "Outside Woman Blues"- a song made famous worldwide when Eric Clapton and Cream covered the tune in 1967. Speir also found another rather unlikely talent in Providence. This artist was a hot tamale vendor named Moses Mason, who used his guitar to sell his tamales. Mason was recorded in 1927, but never had the fame that Blind Joe Reynolds enjoyed. . Isaiah Nettles actually recorded his sessions for ARC Records upstairs on Farrish Street in October of 1935. The company came to Jackson and spent ten days recording Nettles. These were not the only actual recordings made in Jackson because of Speir. In 1930, Okeh set up a recording machine in the King Edward Hotel and recorded Gospel groups, Blues artists, and "Jug Band Music"- Also lasting about ten days.
H.C. had originally set up his store at 225 N. Farrish Street. He later relocated to 111 Farrish Street, where most of the recording took place. In 1937, he moved his store again, this time to West Capitol Street, where he stayed until 1944. This building looked much smaller, but was actually larger inside. His last move was out to N. Jackson, along U.S. 49 N., where he opened a furniture store and trading post, finally turning his back on the record business. Yet he was still to be involved in recording in a more indirect way.
The Last store in N. Jackson
The Trumpet label, started by Lillian McMurray, was one of the first independent labels to make significant discoveries. These Trumpet legends include Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and Big Joe Williams-All discovered because H.C. advised Miss Lillian to "go for it", and start her own label. H.C. had also inspired many blues legends to "go for it" in the 1930's. Charlie Patton was one of these artists. Mr. Speir found Charlie Patton at a place called Dockery Plantation, where he set up an audition. Charlie, son of a store owner, and who was mostly of Native American descent, was tired of only doing what was expected of him by his father and others. He was ready to break out and do something meaningful with his life. H.C. sent him to the Star Piano Company to make a master recording. He was paid $40. Per side - a lot of money in those days - Charlie eventually recorded a total of 16 sides. He had been playing the Dockery Plantation since 1910. This soon brought him to Lula, Mississippi, where he met up with Willie Brown and Son House. He knew Willie, and told them about his recordings. When Paramount asked Patton back to record a third time in May of 1930, Speir was not able to carry them personally, so he sent his friend, Art Laibly. Patton had talked the record company into letting him bring Son House, Willie Brown, and his piano player (Louise Johnson) with him. Son had been a preacher until he was lured into the Blues world via wine, whiskey, and women. He and Willie Brown were soon partners, and became the "kings of the Delta Blues" during that era. Much later, in 1934, when H.C. sent Son House's demo in, O'Keh records came calling to get Son's address. They sent R. Callaway to Speir's store to get contact information for Son, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown. Finding Charlie in jail, they bailed him out and took them straight to New York to record, after collecting Patton and Patton's wife, Bertha Lee. The resulting nine sides Son House recorded was to be the only commercial recordings he ever made. Some of the 9 songs recorded included "Dry Spell Blues","Preaching the Blues", and "My Black Mama". His song "Clarksdale Moan", a haunting blues tune, has never been found. Willie also recorded his famous "Future Blues" at these sessions.
There was also a Willie Brown record that was forever lost, after being released in late 1931. This was due primarily to poor sales, (with the exception of Virginia, where tobacco money was paying well) because most Blacks were too poor to afford records during the Depression. Keeping food on the table was the priority during those dark days. Charlie Patton would go on to record over 50 songs, mostly on the Vocalion label. In addition to his "gritty" blues, he also sang folk ballads, spirituals, and dance tunes. He also sang about the big 1927 flooding in "High Water Everywhere". Charlie would employ anything at his disposal to get a different sound, such as a knife applied to strings, resulting in a "whining slide" sound. He would bend chords, slap strings, and slur notes, giving his records a sound that set him apart from other artists of that time. Charlie was also approached by Frank Lembo to record for Columbia Records. Lembo also owned a furniture/ Victrola store in Ittabenna, Ms., and wanted to record Patton's talent. But Patton distrusted Lembo, and decided he would stay with Speir. H.C. considered Patton one of his best selling discoveries-mainly because of the large volume of songs he wrote and recorded.
Speir knew that bluesmen were going to drink. It was inevitable. He also knew they needed to get a little "buzzed" before they could get to the emotional state required to get a soulful recording. This obviously led to a lot of wild happenings, and some ruined recordings. Art Laibly was about to run Tommy Johnson off from a Paramount session in Grafton, Wisconsin, after he and Ishmon Bracey found a barrel of Old Charter whiskey. This was nectar of the Gods to a man (Johnson) who was used to drinking Canned Heat. Tommy was so drunk that Laibly had to put Bracey on guitar in order to get a usable take. Speir had also put up bond money for Tommy once, after he had a drunken run in with the law. This occurred at the height of the Depression, and cost H.C. the huge sum of $150. So when Tommy jumped bail, he thrust H.C. into the role of bounty hunter. Speir trailed Tommy all the way to Angie, LA, where he finally caught up with him. After slapping on the cuffs, Tommy begged for a break, but even though Speir felt sorry for him, he needed that money back. H.C. tried to help Tommy whenever he could, as Tommy was afflicted with a speech impediment that included stuttering and a hiss, in addition to his severe drinking problem. This did not affect his singing.
Tommy Johnson was the first to claim he had sold his soul to the devil - a claim that scared people of all races during that era. Robert Johnson, (who was auditioned and passed on by Speir), had the same rumor started about him by Son House. This was after Robert had embarrassed himself and Son at one of Son's juke joint gigs by commandeering Son's guitar and playing miserably. After only about six months, Robert showed dramatic improvement on guitar, (sparking the rumor), but Speir just didn't like his high- pitched voice. In fact, Robert had been studying Charlie Patton's style of playing with fervor, playing his records over and over, after his embarrassing first attempt at performing. He then focused on Skip James, who was another of Speir's prodigies. Skip's "Devil got my Woman" became the now famous "Hellhound on my Trail", and James' "22-20 Blues" became Johnson's "32-20 Blues". Tommy had also learned to play guitar by watching Charlie Patton. His wailing style gave a voice to the misery that was the Black plight of the Depression-era delta. Robert Johnson eventually showed up at Speir's store in 1936 to make a demo and possibly a record deal, but by then H.C. was completely disillusioned by the record company's business practices. He sent Robert to Ernie Oertie, a talent scout for American Records. Robert was sent to San Antonio to record for Vocalion, where his now famous "Terraplane Blues" was born. Then in June of 1937, he recorded "Crossroad Blues" and "Hellhound on my Trail" that were also huge hits. The other big talent H.C. passed on was Jimmie Rodgers. After Rodger's audition, Speir told him he "wasn't ready to record right now", in an attempt to spare his feelings. Rodgers was told to "go home and write 5 or 6 more songs, bring them back, and I'll listen to them". Instead, Rodgers went to RCA Victor, where his "Blue Yodel" became a big hit.
Speir did record and help some white and Native American artists with their careers as well. He would take them to cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis to record. H.C. would go out and find a musical preacher or a fiddle band, and ask them if they wanted to make a record. One of these fiddle bands were the Choctaw Indian Fiddle Band from Oklahoma, headed by Big Chief Henry. H.C. got them signed to Victor Records after finding them at the Philadelphia Choctaw Festival. Speir also had some artists sent to him by the record companies, making his little back room studio into a "mini" Nashville. The record companies had made up standard response letters telling artists they could "audition" for Mr. Speir. As a result, artists came from all over, and were usually told to "Go home and work some more", or "Come back when you have more songs". Most people only played songs they had heard and copied, and Speir knew the record companies only wanted original material. These "original" compositions were why Son House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown did so well, writing more than enough material to keep record sales high. Speir was done with the record companies by the early forties. After the Petrillo ban and resulting strike out of any new records produced in 1942, he perceived the record business as "dead". H.C. also disliked the way black artists were denied royalties on almost every deal. This did not diminish his influence, as his expertise and connections had become legend.
After Speir left the furniture, talent agent, and music business behind, he turned his attention to selling real estate and working in his beloved organic garden. He loved to show off his garden to any one he could get to come over and see it. He passed away at the age of 76 at the Hinds General Hospital. H.C. Speir was a great humanitarian in addition to being a musical visionary. He looked past the shortcomings of his clients to make a difference in the Black community, and wound up contributing to musical history in a way that can't be measured. He endured family pressures, going on to help people that were not accepted by society in any way. A self-proclaimed "talent broker", he launched the careers of the Mississippi Sheiks, Ishmon Bracey, Washboard Walter, Blind Joe Reynolds, Bo Carter, Roosevelt Graves, Skip James, William Harris, Geeshie Wiley, Robert Wilkins, Elvie Thomas, and Isiah Nettles, just to name a few. He also influenced and inspired such greats as Willie Brown and Son House. He supplied Paramount, O'Keh, and Victor with an unlimited amount of talent, some which would surely have been lost if not for Speir. These records in turn inspired other great artists, both in Britain and the U.S. As a result of helping his fellow man, H.C. Speir has forever made a place in music history. The place where it all began...225 N. Farrish St.....February 15,1925
Footnote: Gayle Dean Wardlow was the first person to find Speir in 1964 and has written extensively about him. Gayle is an American historian of the blues. He is particularly associated with research into the lives of musicians Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson and the historical development of the Delta blues, on which he is a leading world authority.
By 1963 Wardlow had begun researching a book on Delta blues musicians, mainly by making enquiries in black neighbourhoods, recording oral histories, anecdotes, songs, and remembrances. He interviewed Ishman Bracey, Charlie Patton's widow, and blues talent broker H. C. Speir, and a few years later uncovered Robert Johnson's death certificate. In the process of his research he became a leading authority on country blues. He also amassed the world’s largest and most valuable collection of pre-war blues records, many of which are now unique.
Wardlow has published many articles on blues history, and the book Chasin' That Devil Music - Searching for the Blues, which was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2006 as a classic of blues literature.