best things in life seem to occur by pure accident. We strive to accomplish
something worthwhile; success finally comes to us, but usually from an
In 1927, after serving as an executive of Okeh Records for a number of
years, I decided to go into business for myself as a music publisher.
At that time a business alliance was started with the Victor Talking Machine
Company which continued for many years. The arrangement was that I would
select the artists and material and supervise the hillbilly recordings
for Victor. My publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would
be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions which
I would select for recording purposes.
During the spring of 1928 I made a survey of various Southern cities and
determined to make initial recordings for Victor in Atlanta, Savannah,
Bristol, Tenn., and Memphis. A recording crew of two men was assigned
to me, and I set about the business of finding talent and repertoire.
In Bristol, the problem was not easy because of the relatively small population
in that area. The local broadcasting stations, music stores, record dealers,
etc., helped me as much as possible, but few candidates appeared. I then
appealed to the editor of a local newspaper, explaining to him the great
advantages to the community of my enterprise. He thought that I had a
good idea and ran a half column on his front page. This worked like dynamite,
and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from the
surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol
during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains,
or on foot.
Jimmie Rodgers telephoned from Asheville. He said that he was a singer
with a string band. He had read the newspaper article and was quite sure
that his group would be satisfactory. I told him to come on a certain
day, and promised a try-out.
When I was alone with Jimmie in our recording studio (a very old warehouse
which had not been in use for many years), I was elated when I heard him
perform. It seemed to me that he had his own personal and peculiar style,
and I thought that his yodel alone might spell success. Very definitely
he was worth a trial. We ran into a snag almost immediately because, in
order to earn a living in Asheville, he was singing mostly songs originated
by New York publishersthe current hits. Actually, he had only one
song of his own, "Soldier's Sweetheart," written several years
before. When I told Jimmie what I needed to put him over as a recording
artist, his perennial optimism bubbled over. If I would give him a week
he could have a dozen songs ready for recording. I let him record his
own song, and as a coupling his unique version of "Rock All Our Babies
to Sleep." This, I thought, would be a very good coupling, as "Soldier's
Sweetheart" was a straight ballad and the other side gave him a chance
to display his ability as a yodeler. In spite of the lack of original
repertoire, I considered Rodgers to be one of my best bets.
He was quite ill at the time, and decided that instead of trying to return
to Asheville he would visit a relative in Washington, D.C. The money was
enough to pay for this trip.
A few weeks later, when I heard the test recordings made in Bristol, it
was apparent that Jimmie Rodgers was tops as a yodeling singer, and I
arranged to have his record issued quickly. The dealers ordered heavily
and then reordered. It was obvious that Jimmie Rodgers was the best artist
uncovered by the Bristol expedition. I had already written Jimmie about
getting more new material ready, but had received no reply. Consequently,
I located him by telephone and was pleased to have his assurance that
he had a wealth of new songs. I arranged a recording date at the Victor
studios in Camden. Jimmie and I met for the second time when he stepped
off the train in Philadelphia.
We worked hard far into the night getting enough material in shape for
the first recording session. Actually, we did not have enough material,
and I decided to use some of his blues songs to "fill in." When
we recorded the first blues I had to supply a title, and the name "Blue
Yodel" came out. The other blue yodels made at the same time had
titles suggested by the words, but when I witnessed the tremendous demand
for the original, I decided to change these names to "Blue Yodel
No. 2," "Blue Yodel No. 3," etc.
this time until his death he was able to lead a new life because of his
income from recordings and copyright royalties. Unfortunately, he was
generous to a fault, and when he received a large check he shared it with
friends and relatives. The best doctors told him that he would not live
because his tuberculosis was incurable. As a result of his fast-selling
Victor records, Jimmie Rodgers quickly rose to the top as an entertainer.
He began to earn good money working in night spots, traveling shows, etc.,
but his bad state of health was a great handicap.
This man really had "guts." He was fired with a great ambition
to be successful, both as an artist and financially. Eventually he headed
his own traveling show. As a guitarist he was an individualist; that is,
he had his own way of selecting his chords, and was what can best be described
as a "natural" guitar player. I remember that another artist,
during the year 1931, spent a great deal of time learning one of Jimmie's
"wrong" chords. Whatever he used always sounded right, but upon
examination it was quite often not the chord which would ordinarily have
been used. This provided individuality for all records in which his guitar
playing predominated amongst the accompaniment, but quite often it was
a problem to find musicians and other artists able to fall into the spirit
of his recording style.
His recording of "Blue Yodel" skyrocketed Jimmie to fame in
the amusement business. The once-poor Mississippi brakeman became the
idol of the southern and western States. His fame developed through his
record fans. Broadcasting stations were then comparatively infrequent,
and only the radio chains had sufficient power to create nationwide propaganda.
They adhered closely to a policy of using live artists, and almost invariably
artists popular in the New York and Chicago areas. Jimmie was practically
unknown north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but within a year he became the
most important recording artist in the region where hillbilly music has
always enjoyed greatest popularity.
If his health had permitted, Jimmie would have become a top name in the
theatrical world, but routine work on the stage was bad for him. His copyright
royalties began to pile up, and eventually Victor gave him a royalty contract
on a basis similar to a grand opera star.
In an effort
to extend the Rodgers popularity to our Northern States, I booked him
on the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Circuit. He was to appear as a single act in
most of the leading vaudeville theaters. The salary, $1,000 weekly, was
considered high at the time. Jimmie became ill, however, and we had to
cancel the project.
Rodgers liked working in "tent shows." He felt at home in the
informal surroundings and greatly enjoyed his contacts with other performers.
One of the highlights of his career was a tour through north Texas and
Oklahoma as part of a charity Red Cross drive in which he was starred
alongside of Will Rogers. They became fast friends.
In the spring of 1933, Jimmie and I corresponded about the possibility
of additional recordings. Victor had about a year's supply of material
already on hand. The record business in general was not good, and they
did not think it wise to be too far ahead of the market. Jimmie Rodgers
by this time had become "standard." There were one or two masters
to be remade because of technical defects. There was also the necessity
to negotiate a new agreement between Victor and Rodgers. Working with
all of these factors, I arranged matters so that Jimmie could come to
New York for a series of recording work, and after the first two dates
it seemed best to delay further activities. He died May 26, 1933, in his
hotel bedroom. It became my painful duty to send him back home to Meridian,
Miss., for burial.
Today his distinctive style remains a goal for all new recording artists.
Many of the compositions which he wrote wholly or in part have become
perennial standards. His fame has spread to all countries of the English-speaking
world. The impetus which he gave to so-called hillbilly music, in my opinion,
set in motion the factors which resulted in making this sector of the
amusement business into a matter of world-wide importance and a source
for a high percentage of our popular hits.