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When I'd go see him he says 'Whenever I get up, if I live to get up, me and you gonna put out nothin' but gospel music... I done joined the church and don't wanna play no more blues.' I told him 'Okay' but I wasn't lookin' for him to get up - Sam Chatmon, on Lonnie's conversion

Author Topic: The Blues Hit Parade  (Read 3264 times)

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Offline dj

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The Blues Hit Parade
« on: January 16, 2007, 03:22:25 PM »
I'll often read, in a book, magazine, or liner notes, that song X by singer Y was a "massive hit", a "substantial hit", "sold tens of thousands of copies", etc.  For the post World War II era, I'm familiar with the charts and industry publications that would substantiate such a claim.  But for the pre-war period, I'm at a loss.  I've seldom seen such claims annotated, and when they are, they seem to refer to a record company's actual sales accounts, though I've never seen a listing of any such accounts published.  So the question arises:  when we say that "Black Gal" by Joe Pullum or "Diggin My Potatoes" by Washboard Sam was a hit, how do we know it was a hit, and how big a hit was it?  Was anyone posting charts of "race" record sales in the 1920s or 1930s?  Are actual sales figures available anywhere?


     

Offline Richard

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2007, 12:52:51 PM »
Good question, I have wondered this off and on as well :-\
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #2 on: January 17, 2007, 02:43:03 PM »
Hi all,
It seems like this information would be somewhere if the company ledgers had not been destroyed.  I reckon they probably were.  I think an informal way the early collectors determined how well individual records sold was how often they came upon them while canvasing.  Some artists really sold quite a lot, particularly considering the relative size of the population back then and how little disposable income a lot of people had.  I think Lemon and Leroy Carr sold scads of records.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #3 on: January 17, 2007, 03:08:51 PM »
I can't recall whether Elijah Wald goes into detail in Escaping the Delta, but didn't he base a certain amount of his discussion in the book on record sales (prewar) vs. present-day reputations? Perhaps there is something in there, but damned if I can remember. Will poke through it later.

Offline dj

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #4 on: January 17, 2007, 03:53:20 PM »
Quote
Lemon and Leroy Carr sold scads of records

Of course you're right, John.  But my point is really "How much is a scad?" and "How does a Leroy Carr scad compare to a Lemon Jefferson scad?"  I have a vague recollection of an article in 78 Quarterly which printed some of the results of someone's research into the Victor ledgers.  And I know that 78 Quarterly ran a series on the rarest blues and jazz records.  Goodrich and Dixon give sales figures for a few titles in Recording The Blues.  I guess I just wondered if, absent any trade publication from the era under discussion that printed sales or popularity charts, anyone had ever published a collection of research into the surviving ledgers of record companies active in the pre-war period, or if anyone had ever tried to make a listing of how many copies survive of the most commonly found records. 

uncle bud, you make a good point.  I'll have to search the notes and bibliography of Escaping The Delta and see if anything is mentioned there.

Offline banjochris

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #5 on: January 17, 2007, 04:35:49 PM »
I think Columbia and Victor kept lots of their sales records. I know in reading material on old-time artists like Charlie Poole, Darby and Tarlton and others like the Leake County Revelers, I've seen precise sales figures for many of their titles. Darby and Tarlton's biggest record, "Birmingham Jail/Columbus Stockade Blues" sold around a quarter of a million, IIRC; I think Poole's "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" sold somewhat more than that. Some of the Gennett sales figures survived, at least partially, because artists who were rediscovered kept copies of their royalty statements -- I believe I've seen reproductions of some of Fiddlin' Doc Roberts' statements in liner notes.

My guess would be for Bluebird and other '30s labels that were part of organizations that still exist in some form or other that some records still exist. Whether these figures are what authors are basing their claims on is, of course, a different issue.
Chris

Offline waxwing

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #6 on: January 17, 2007, 05:26:53 PM »
IIRC most of the actual data that Elijah W. presented were playlists from juke boxes. Iremember that Walter Davis' Come Back Baby was on every juke box list he showed. I once chided him, on the Woodshed, for never mentioning the RJ lineage thru Robert Lockwood, who played on the King Biscuit Flour Hour for years, influencing many of the Chicago players. Hmm, may have to mention that to him inperson at PT.-G-

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #7 on: January 21, 2007, 04:09:32 AM »
Dixon & Godrich's 85 page booklet Recording The Blues (1970) essentially covered this by examining the number of blues and gospel records manufactured and their sales. The information having been originally gleaned in the 40s/50s from the files of companies such as Columbia/Okeh or Victor/Bluebird by folk like Dan Mahoney, Brian Rust, Walter C Allen or Derek Coller.

To take one example cited in the booklet, Rev J C Burnett's 1926 release Downfall Of Nebuchadnezzar on Columbia sold 80.000 copies which was four times as many as a Bessie Smith Columbia 78 release that year. I guess one would call Burnett's 78 "a hit". :)
« Last Edit: January 21, 2007, 04:11:34 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Rivers

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #8 on: January 21, 2007, 12:17:50 PM »
Snippet from Cecil Brown's "Stagolee Shot Billy": Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues "reached a high water mark in 1926 with $128 million in sales". That's mind-boggling in today's money.

Another stat from the book: "During the decade close to 15,000 race records were released, of which approximately 10,000 were blues titles, before the industry died in the 1930s"

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #9 on: January 21, 2007, 12:48:16 PM »
Snippet from Cecil Brown's "Stagolee Shot Billy": Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues "reached a high water mark in 1926 with $128 million in sales". That's mind-boggling in today's money.
And by those of yesteryear too. As Perry Bradford pointed out the cost of 78 in 1920 was $1 which was a fortune that the majority of black folk had to save for over a period of time, just to acquire one record.

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #10 on: January 21, 2007, 03:38:45 PM »
I wouldn't call that 128 million figure gospel. I doubt it sold 1 million. Perry bradford was where the figure came from and there are no records from Okeh from that time.

Offline Rivers

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #11 on: January 21, 2007, 04:41:20 PM »
Cecil Brown's footnote attributes the source as William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture", 1989, p. 130, 133. I don't have this. Barlow presumably was probably quoting Bradford. $128 million does seem unlikely. I mean, for the sake of bizarre comparison, Britney Spears first record only sold a paltry 9 million copies worldwide according to wikipedia. And I promise that is the last time I will mention BS on this site.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #12 on: January 21, 2007, 08:10:52 PM »
Cecil Brown's footnote attributes the source as William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture", 1989, p. 130, 133. I don't have this. Barlow presumably was probably quoting Bradford. $128 million does seem unlikely. I mean, for the sake of bizarre comparison, Britney Spears first record only sold a paltry 9 million copies worldwide according to wikipedia. And I promise that is the last time I will mention BS on this site.

At p. 130, Barlow states, "The record business reached a highwater mark in sales in 1926--$128 million.  The industry would not surpass that mark again until after World War II.  The sales of race records were also on the rise during the twenties.  On the basis of data from only three of the top race record labels, Howard Odum and Guy Johnson estimated that in 1925 African Americans were buying 5 or 6 million blues disks a year.  [fn 25]  Blues scholar Jeff Titon has estimated that 10 million race records were purchased by African Americans in 1927, one for every black person living in the United States at that time.  The number of race record releases peaked in 1928, when the yearly total of individual titles reached five hundred.  Even latecomers like the front-running Victor label were now devoting a hefty portion of their catalogue, 21.7 percent in 1928, to race records.  [fn 26]"  (Emphasis supplied.)  Footnote 25 cites to Odum and Johnson's Negro Workaday Songs, p.34.  Footnote 26 cites to Titon's Early Downhome Blues, p. 205, and Paula Dranov's Inside the Music Publishing Industry, p.101.

At page 133, Barlow discusses depressing statistics for "Recording in the Depression Era" (e.g., sales falling from $100 million in 1927 to $6 million in 1933, with average sales for race records falling from 20,000 copies in the mid-1920s to 2,000 copies in 1930 and 400 copies in 1932).  The authorities he cites are Dranov at p. 101 and Dixon & Godrich, Recording the Blues at pp. 64, 73 and 94. I will spare everyone further detail except to note that: 1. At page 64, D&G refer to "pressings," rather than "sales," in 1930.  2. At p. 73, D&G mention that sales kept falling, but didn't enumerate any sales or pressings figures.  3.  At p. 94, D&G state that "blues and gospel releases in 1938 averaged less than eight a week, one a week down on '37...Blues and gospel releases were down to six a week by 1940."

Offline Rivers

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #13 on: January 22, 2007, 04:23:59 PM »
I misread the Cecil Brown quote. What he actually says is this:

Blues recording started in February 1921, with Okeh Records' success with Mammie (sic) Smith singing "Crazy Blues". It reached a high-water mark in 1926, with $128 million in sales.

I read "it" as referring to Crazy Blues, when he was actually talking about "blues recording". Sorry about that. In my defense it's a bit of an ambiguous sentence.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Blues Hit Parade
« Reply #14 on: January 22, 2007, 07:17:39 PM »
In my defense it's a bit of an ambiguous sentence.
  I couldn't agree with you more, but please take another look at the quote from Barlow.  I think that he may have been referring to the "record business" and the "industry" generally and not to sales of race records alone.

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