Witt grad roots out truth on Gennett

Richmond, Ind., company recorded seminal blues, jazz and country artists — and the Klan

Music lovers wax poetic about the creative stew of New Orleans, Creole and Mississippi Delta cultures that produced Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In his excellent revised history of Gennett Records, Rick Kennedy explains how an equally complex mix of economic, social and cultural forces made Richmond, Ind., the place where so many of those artists cut their first records — and in the same studio that made masters for the Ku Klux Klan.

Kennedy is the son of Springfield born parents, a 1974 graduate of Catholic Central High School and a 1978 graduate of Wittenberg University, where he hung out in the music school but majored in history.

All this seems to explain why “Jelly Roll, Bix and Hoagy” ($25, Indiana University Press) helps place Gennett in perfect historical context.

“Richmond was among several small towns in Indiana and Ohio that gave rise to nationally prominent manufacturing companies … after the Civil War,” he writes. In addition to “the mass production of pianos and lawn mowers in Richmond, Ind.,” he writes, the Midwest produced “farm implements in Springfield, Ohio, the Wright brothers’ revolutionary airplanes and mechanical cash registers in Dayton, and the ornately crafted Cord and Duesenberg luxury automobiles in the small Indiana cities of Auburn and Connorsville.”

With railroads available to ship products nationwide and skilled, cheap immigrant labor at their disposal, “the families who owned these manufacturing firms made huge fortunes as evidence by their grand mansions in these towns, where they exerted considerable influence as civil leaders and cultural patrons.”

Springfielders who don’t yet see the striking parallels should know that Jeremiah Warder wasn’t the only Philadelphia Quaker who migrated to the Midwest frontier in the 1800s to set the stage for his children’s manufacturing fortunes. Kennedy tells us that Charles Starr, whose son formed the Starr Piano Co., also was “a wealthy Quaker import from Philadelphia.”

And like the farm implements made at Warder, Bushnell and Glessner, Starr’s pianos were products of their times. To Americans trying to leave rough-hewn pioneer days behind, writes Kennedy, “the piano embodied a respectability and civility to which many people aspired.”

Among the Midwest companies working hardest to profit from that was the French Piano Co. French and Starr had formed a mutually beneficial partnership, but after a fire and flood that trashed Starr’s facilities beside the Whitewater River in 1898, Henry Gennett decided to leave French and revive Starr as a free-standing operation.

He succeeded spectacularly.

“By 1915,” writes Kennedy, “Gennett’s sprawling Starr Piano Co. in the Whitewater gorge was a mass-production machine (and) … an industrial cornerstone of Richmond. Many Richmond workers “spent their entire careers amidst the sawdust in Starr Valley.”

When Thomas Edison’s talking machine led to the birth of the recording industry, Kennedy writes, Starr had “an army of skilled craftsmen … and an established chain of music stores” already in place. By 1917, the company had “a six-story phonograph manufacturing and record pressing facility in the Starr Valley.”

So it could sell discs recorded in its New York City and later Richmond studios outside of Starr outlets, the company created Gennett Records, and by 1920 was producing not only 15,000 pianos but 3,000 phonographs and 3 million records a year.

Although Starr had only a tiny slice of the business next to industry giant Victor and Columbia, its piano heft gave it the strength to wage a legal battle against Victor that would open the recording field.

In 1922 it managed to undo Victor’s patent for record-making technology, and Gennett made it possible for all small recording companies to produce records that could play on the dominant record player on the market: Victor’s Victrola.

It’s a victory Kennedy says has been under-appreciated.

But the year after the patent victory, the whole recording industry was sent reeling by the rapid rise of radio.

“After reaching a peak of about 100 million records annually in 1921,” Kennedy writes, “record revenues declined steadily over the next several years, while radio sales skyrocketed.”

“Fortunately for music history,” he says, “the Gennett family kept their record label in operation …. pursuing previously neglected market segments such as urban black and rural white customers.”

Encouraged by an aggressive Fred Gennett, one of the founder’s sons, the label tapped the urban black market — then called “race” music — with the help of the manager of Starr Piano’s Chicago store, Fred Wiggins.

“A tall thin man with large ears, a squeaky voice and a passion for Wheeling stogies,” Wiggins teamed up with Melrose Brothers music publishing to connect with the thriving Chicago black music scene created by the Great Migration of blacks to the North.

Showing his knack for detail, Kennedy said that with more than 200,000 black residents, mostly on its South side, Chicago had three times the black population of New York City. And because the music scene had yet to be commercialized there, he writes, “Chicago jazz stayed more rooted in the bluesy New Orleans tradition.”

After initial success bringing the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings to Richmond in early 1923, Gennett brought King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and recorded its black musicians. A sweltering studio and crude recording techniques made it difficult to pick up Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s coronet conversations, Kennedy writes. But because “Oliver’s greatest collection of talent broke up within a year of the Richmond debut, the Gennett disc represents some of the finest snapshots of a refined, classical jazz style that developed in New Orleans.”

Months later, “a flamboyant New Orleans Creole named Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton” arrived in Chicago, Kennedy writes, “sporting a red bandanna, a cowboy hat and a diamond in his front tooth.”

Gennett seemed the logical place for the gifted musician to record, which he did with the Rhythm Kings in one of the early mixed-race recordings.

Soon afterward, writes Kennedy, “Gennett Records … released the first substantial body of recorded piano solos by jazz music’s first great composer.”

Gennett also used its Chicago connections to latch on to Bradley Kincaid, who was establishing a mainstream audience for so-called “old-time” music on radio station WLS’s “National Barn Dance.”

Kincaid, whose name survives on a Springfield music store, cut 38 records on Gennett’s Electrobeam and Champion labels. Made in a Chicago studio, the recordings are part of “an enormous body of Appalachian vocal and string band music” the studio recorded from 1924-35.

It was, Kennedy writes, “the precursor to modern country music.”

The company supplemented its catalog of “race” records with “such seminal country blues artists as Sam Collins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and Bill Broonzy,” Kennedy writes.

A segment of the book handsomely illustrates company history in photos.

To maximize the use of its facilities, Gennett also served the regional recording market, something that helped to hoist Hoosiers Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke to national prominence and opened the studio door to the Ku Klux Klan.

Titles including “Onward Christian Clansmen” and “Daddy Swiped our Last Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan” were never put on the label’s public catalog, Kennedy writes. But in the early 1920s, the Klan wanted to make records for its Indiana membership of 250,000 (the nation’s largest), and Gennett was looking for business.

Kennedy said that in addition to making his book available on the Kindle, his revision has allowed him to add information he’s collected since the first release and catch up with how the Richmond that largely ignored its Gennett heritage when he was a reporter for the Palladium-Item in the early 1980s has now embraced it.

“The Starr Foundation’s done an amazing job,” said Kennedy from the Cincinnati office where he heads media relations for G.E. Aviation. “I couldn’t even have imagined that when I left.”

That may be the only aspect of the Starr and Gennett history Kennedy missed.

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