This very musical biography is the classical blueprint for a music biopic or future TV series, although this has not yet been realized by the film industry. Mazor’s extensive research project on music marketer and Okeh Records producer Ralph Peer is the exciting story of a young clerk working both in shipping and in his father’s hardware and phonograph store in Missouri, who almost single-handedly put a label on what was to become blues recordings, country music and folk in later years.
While Ralph Peer (1892-1960) was no musician nor had any personal taste for the genres he was about to coin, he, nevertheless, had a very good sense for marketing ideas and products. In his case, while working for Okeh Records in 1923, the product was popular music. Continuously trying to improve sales and experiment, he turned to the music that was available, untapped and hardly noted, besides other than by those people who produced it and lived in its close vicinity.
He started to promote traditional regional musics as “new” products to those that were too far removed from its sources. Following that thought, the particular styles actually were “new” and “novel” everywhere else. He was equipped with a good sense for the fresh things in music that in a way used common styles or came from a familiar melodic environment, but had a certain musical novelty that would attract listeners.
Hard to believe today, but Peer fostered and promoted many musical styles that back then were only known to people on a regional basis, so bluegrass, country, southern gospel, folk and Mexican and Latin-American tunes were virtually unknown some hundred miles from the place they were performed.
So what today is called “roots music,” in the 1920s and 1930s was nothing but strange, local music, sung in remote places in the US, often entertained at the fringes of speech and cultural barriers.
Author Mazor, a longtime music and media journalist, takes the reader back to Peer’s adolescence where he witnessed a new generation of machinery, and artists emerge with hardware available now, such as the phonograph and the “talking machines” in his father’s store. What followed is Peer’s career in marketing, sales, promotion, and new recoding technology, and in 1920 he supervised and produced “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith, the first blues record ever, starting Okeh’s “Race records” catalog.
Peer is also accountable for the very first vocal country music recording in 1923, featuring Fiddlin’ John Carson. The expression “hillbilly music” is his invention too, for in 1924, he praised latest recordings that had set a new craze for “Hill Country Music…” To everybody’s surprise the novel genre sold very good, so Peer gave it a special production line, and it was initially marketed as “Old Familiar Tunes,” until he came up with a band name for the musical accompaniment of singer Al Hopkins, who was just set up for a recording session. Spontaneously, Peer named the band the “Hill Billies.” Soon, the entire musical output of that style was called hillbilly in the press and trade magazines (to be renamed country music in the 1940s).
Peer also recorded the first female country sides with Roba Stanley and Rosa Le Carson. Maybe his greatest achievement is producing the now legendary 1927 “Bristol sessions” in Tennessee for the Victor Talking Machine Co. Without these, there probably never would have been Jimmie Rodgers, nor would the world have ever heard of the Carter Family. The biograhy follows Peer’s workings when later he also recorded abroad in Latin America until his death in 1960.
This is a highly recommendable book for anybody interested in the story of American music, particularly folk and country music. As we see here, it is not just talent and virtuosity, but also clever marketing, promotion and logistics that shapes stars or trends in the music business.
Mazor’s work is as entertaining as Peer’s life in the music industry and his grave influence on the new styles that emerged simultaneously, in part because of his marketing efforts and his presence in the right place at the right time.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2016
Barry Mazor. Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. Chicago Review Press, 2014, 316 p.