Aug
3

H.C. Speir – The Legend

Someone Had to Find The Talent in 1920-30 Mississippi.  It Was This Guy.

The following information on H.C. Speir was sent to me by a loyal reader.  Enjoy!  Make sure to check out all the sources and materials listed at the bottom….

Henry C. Speir

Mississippi has long been recognized as home to some of the greatest Blues musicians of all time. Barely remembered today is white talent scout H. C. Speir of Jackson who was responsible for finding and recording many of these Blues artists in the 1920s and 1930s.

H. C. Speir had a talent for finding Blues artists that could make records that the public wanted to hear. He was directly responsible for finding such Blues artists as Charlie Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks, William Harris, Blind Joe Reynolds, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Washboard Walter, Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas, Isaiah Nettles, and Robert Wilkins. Speir also had a hand in helping to start the careers of Son House, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson.

Henry Columbus Speir was born on October 6, 1895, and was a native of Newton County, Mississippi. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he moved to New Orleans and went to work for the Victor Talking Machine Company making Victrolas. Working for Victor gave Speir the idea to open his own music shop, and so he moved back to Mississippi, borrowed the money to start his business, and set up his store in Jackson.

Speir opened his store at 225 North Farish Street in 1925, and the location he chose was in the heart of the Black business district of Jackson. He did this on purpose, intending to sell music that appealed to local Blacks. 90% of his customers were Black, and 10% were white.

About 1926 Speir began a sideline as what he called a “talent broker,” looking for Blues musicians that were good enough to make a record and taking them to the record companies. Speir began his work as a talent broker as a way to promote his music store, and he found Blues artists for major record companies such as Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and OKeh, and for smaller record companies such as Paramount, Vocalion, and Gennett.

In 1926 Speir installed a recording machine upstairs over his store so that he could cut demo disks for new artists. He then sent these demo disks to the record companies to try and interest them in recording the musicians he found. Speir also made his recorder available to the general public, and anyone with $5.00 could cut his or her own disk.

The first known Blues artist that Speir found and was able to interest a record company in recording was William Harris, a singer that he discovered outside of Jackson in 1927. He also found Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey in 1927, followed by Charlie Patton in 1929 and Skip James in 1931.
Speir did not take royalties from the record companies for the artists he found, preferring to work for a flat fee plus expenses. He often attended recording sessions at his own expense, and sometimes supervised the recording process as well.

Speir did not sit around his store in Jackson waiting for Blues musicians to walk through the door. He traveled extensively looking for new talent, going to Birmingham, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, and all over the Mississippi Delta looking for artists to record. It was on a trip through the Delta that Speir found Charlie Patton, who was living at Dockery’s Plantation near Ruleville in Sunflower County, Mississippi.

Speir Listing – Click to Enlarge

From 1929 – 1932 Paramount Records was the primary company that Speir was sending his musical talent to. The company had such faith in his ability to find good musicians that could sell records that they did not require him to submit a demo disk for the artists he recommended.

Speir sent most his musicians to out-of-state recording studios to make their records, and sometimes he went along as well to supervise the sessions. Speir did however cut some records in Mississippi. He did a session for OKeh in Jackson in 1930, one for the American Recording Corporation in Jackson in 1935, and one in Hattiesburg for the same company in 1936.

The 1930 recording session in Jackson was done at the King Edward Hotel. OKeh Records had established a studio in the building that same year, and they asked Speir to supervise a recording session in December. It was a large session involving multiple artists, and nearly 100 master disks were cut. Some of the musicians recorded during this session were the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Charlie McCoy, Slim Duckett and Pig Norwood, Elder Curry, the Campbell College Quartet, Elder Charles Beck, and Mississippi Coleman Bracey and his wife.

In the 1936 Hattiesburg session, Speir was recording the Mississippi Jook Band, made up of Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother Uaroy Graves. They were joined by pianist Cooney Vaughn. This session was memorable for two of the tunes that the group recorded: Barbecue Bust and Dangerous Woman. According to the book The Illustrated history of Rock and Roll, published by Rolling Stone magazine, these two songs are identified as some of the earliest Rock and roll tunes.

In 1936 Speir also recorded a demo disk for Robert Johnson at his store in Jackson. The talent broker would have personally arranged to have Johnson cut a record, but he had just completed over 200 master records for the American Record Corporation, and never got paid for his efforts. To avoid having this happen again, Speir contacted Emie Oertle, the American Record salesman for Mississippi and Louisiana, and tipped him as to Johnson’s potential. Oertle took Johnson to San Antonio where he cut his first record.

Speir is remembered today for the Blues artists he found, but he was also responsible for locating and recording many of Mississippi’s best string bands. Some of the groups he recorded are the Leake County Revelers, Freeny’s Barn Dance Orchestra, the Newton County Hillbillies, and Uncle Dave Macon.

Speir Listing – Click to Enlarge

Speir had an amazing ability to find musicians that were popular with the record buying public, but he did pass on one country music star – Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers auditioned for Speir when he was approximately 30 years old, but the talent scout told him to go back to Meridian and write some good songs then come back. The next Speir heard of Rodgers, he had hit it big on the RCA – VICTOR label with the song Blue Yodel.

Between his work as a talent scout and his music shop in Jackson, Speir was making a very comfortable living. In the 1930 census he listed the value of his home at $4500; it was located at 126 South O’Farrell Street. Speir once told an interviewer that on a good day in the spring and summer in the 1920s, he sold between 300 and 600 records. He kept a stock of over 3,000 records, and 90% of them were what then called “Race Records” or Blues music by Black artists. The records that Speir purchased cost 45 cents each, and he sold them for 75 cents each. Speir had a talent for buying records his customers wanted to hear, which was very important, because he could not return records that did not sell to the record companies.

In 1929 the Great Depression began, and by the early 1930s the record companies were in serious trouble as few people had money to spend on records. In 1927, 104 million records were sold in the United States; in 1932, only 6 million records were sold, a drop of about 95%.

In 1930 Paramount Records offered to sell the company to Speir for $25,000, which included shipping all of the recording equipment from Wisconsin to Mississippi. Speir wanted to buy Paramount, but he did not have the money. Four months earlier he had invested $30,000 in an oilrig in Rankin County and the project had used up all his cash reserves. Speir tried to raise the money through the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, but he was unsuccessful.

By 1932 Speir had moved his music store to 111 North Farish Street, and by 1935 he had expanded his business to include used furniture, probably to make up for the lost revenue from record sales. In the 1935 Jackson City Directory he had changed the name of his business to Speir’s Music Dealer and Second Hand Furniture.

By 1937 Speir had moved his store to West Capitol Street in Jackson, and made another name change in the business: in the 1937 Jackson City Directory it was listed as Speir’s Furniture and Music Dealer. In the 1942 Jackson City Directory, Speir no longer advertised that he sold music, and his store was simply known as Speir’s Furniture, located at 206 West Capitol Street.

In 1942 a fire destroyed part of his music store, and it was about this time that Speir gave up the music business entirely, convinced that the recording industry had no future. He quickly faded from memory and his role as a pioneer music talent scout was all but forgotten.

Speir would probably be unknown today if not for the efforts of Blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow. While attending Belhaven College in Jackson, Wardlow found out about Speir’s role as a talent scout from musician Ishmon Bracey, and set out to find him. Wardlow found Speir living in Rankin County in 1964, making his living selling Real Estate. Over the next several years Wardlow interviewed Speir repeatedly, and most of what is known about Speir’s role as a talent scout comes from these interviews.

Speir had a very important impact on Mississippi Blues music, recording many acclaimed artists that otherwise might be unknown today. When asked about the impact that Speir had on Blues music, Gayle Wardlow stated, “Speir was the godfather of Delta Blues. H. C. Speir was to the Twenties and Thirties country blues what Sam Phillips was to Fifties rock & roll – a musical visionary. If it hadn’t been for Speir, Mississippi’s greatest natural resource might have gone untapped.” – “Godfather of Delta Blues: H. C. Speir,” by Pat Howse and Jimmy Phillips.

Henry C. Speir died at his home in Pearl, Mississippi, on April 22, 1972, and was buried at Lakewood Memorial Park in Clinton, Mississippi. In 2005 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee.

Sources

All Shook Up: Mississippi Roots of American Popular Music. Jackson, MS: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1996.

Blues Hall of Fame biography of H. C. Speir. Available on the Blues Foundation website, accessed December 6, 2006. Available at: http://www.blues.org/halloffame/inductees.php4?ArtistId=287.

H. C. Speir, Sr., Dies After Heart Attack.” Rankin County News, April 27, 1972.

Howse, Pat, and Jimmy Phillips. “Godfather of Delta Blues: H. C. Speir. Originally published in Peavey Monitor Magazine, (1995). Available online at: http://www.bluesworld.com/SpierIntro.html.

Jackson, Mississippi, City Directories for the years 1927-28, 1929-30, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1940, and 1942. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

United States Bureau of the Census.  Hinds County, Mississippi Census Records for the Year 1930 [Microfilm]. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

Wardlow, Gayle Dean, and Edward M. Komara. Chasin’ That Devil Music.  San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 1998.

Manuscript and Audio Resources

Gayle Dean Wardlow Audio Tape Interviews – Located at the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, catalog # TTA-0182A/UU. The collection consists of 47 audio tapes of interviews by Gayle Dean Wardlow of blues musicians in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina between 1967 and 1969. Included among the interviews are the ones that Wardlow did with H. C. Speir in the late 1960s. This collection also includes an interview with musician Ishmon Bracey, who was discovered by H. C. Speir. A description of the Wardlow Collection is available at: http://popmusic.mtsu.edu/archives/inventory/wardlow.htm.

Gayle Dean Wardlow Collection – Located in the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, J. D. Williams Library, catalog # MUM00445. The online listing of the collection does not specify what it contains, but given Wardlow’s close association with Speir, it is probably worth checking out.

Screamin’ & Hollerin’ The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton – This compilation CD of Charlie Patton’s music contains portions of the Wardlow interviews with H. C. Speir, and even includes test recordings made of Speir reading newspaper headlines in 1930.

14 Comments to “H.C. Speir – The Legend”

  • [...] Go here to read the rest: H.C. Speir – The Legend « TheDeltaBlues [...]

  • Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  • Some of the earliest and most definitive information about Speir, Paramount, Grafton WI (where the Paramount ‘studios’ were located), and many other aspects of this tantalizing, incomplete story, can be found in five or six issues of “78 Quarterly,” which is not only about 78 rpm records, and is not a quarterly. The first issue was published over 40 years ago, and the issue count is right now somewhere around 15. All are still available from Pete Whelan in Key West, at 305-294-3250. Last I talked with him, he no longer had the original issue numbers 1 and 2, although he did have them in a later, married form. A recent site I haven’t looked into yet says,
    “I’ve decided to start posting issues of 78 Quarterly magazine, the world’s greatest publication when it comes to prewar blues, jazz, and hillbilly music. Published by Pete Whelan, founder of the legendary Origin Jazz Library label, it was not a true quarterly periodical as it did not come out four times a year. 78 Occasional might have been a more appropriate title.” See
    http://record-fiend.blogspot.com/2009/05/78-quarterly-no-1-2-silver-anniversary.html
    for detailed info.

    You can spend days on the Paramounts Home site, and many more days looking into the resources mentioned.

    Also, check with http://www.paramountshome.org, which is the site that commemorates Grafton WI and the output of Paramount during their heyday. Abundant reference material is alluded to, and in some cases included, on the site.

    Another Paramount luminary worthy of additional reporting is Mayo Williams, probably the first black recording executive in the US. He’s not in Speir’s class, but he’s not too far behind.

    To steal again from the Record Fiend website,
    http://record-fiend.blogspot.com/2010/03/78-quarterly-volume-1-no-4-1989.html,
    he says, “78 Quarterly makes more popular genre periodicals such as Living Blues look like People magazine.” I’m not sure if I’d take it quite that far, but there is some truth to what he says.

    Keep up the good work!
    Lou

  • Nice overview, and I appreciate the tribute to Gayle Dean Wardlow. It’s amazing what we wouldn’t know about early Delta blues without his amazing contributions over the years. As always, great stuff.

    Rick

  • Rick,

    I am glad you like it! Actually, my next story I am posting is actually about Gayle Dean Wardlow and his research. It looks to be a good one… Stay tuned. he is certainly the man.

    Lou,

    Thanks for posting! I am glad you like the site, and i appreciate all of the added information. Mayo WIlliams is certainly worth looking into, and i am currently trying to do more work and research with 78 Quarterly.

    Thanks guys!

    ~ Jason

  • H.C. Speir is my friends uncle. Great story.

  • Actually, just spoke with him. It was his grandfather.

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  • Do you know Gayle Dean Wardlow? He lives in Milton, FLA, right near Pensacola. I know he’d be happy to talk with you regarding these wonderfully arcane issues.

  • David,

    Thanks for posting!

    Well, I do not know Gayle Dean personally, but he has posted on this site to several articles, and has given me his email address. I have not spoken with him personally, but he obviously knows of this site, and has provided some feedback. Of course, I hold Gayle Dean in the highest regards, as most of his research is backed by documents and trustworthy. He also has my phone number.

    Thanks again!

  • Wow what a great article! Just posted on my Facebook page for Killer Blues asking to know where Mr. Speir is buried and I find your article. Does he have a headstone.

  • My great Uncle Henry (H. C.) Speir does have a typical headstone along with his wife in Lakewood Cemetery on Clinton Blvd. in Jackson . The headstone does not recognize him for his accomplishment in the recording industry.

  • Marsha: do you have any family mementoes (or unpublished biographical info) of your great-uncle? I’m researching him for an article and would be interested in anything available on him. Thanks!

  • H. C. Speir is my great-grandfather, but passed away before I was born.

    However, as a little boy I loved going into the attic of my grandfathers (H.C. Speir junior, or just “Hank” to avoid confusion) house. So I can answer Pete’s question.

    Up in that attic, he actually had alot of the little items left over when his fathers phonograph shop was closed. Such things as phonograph needles…and lots of them! Apparently, they had to be replaced way more frequently than needles on the turntables I DJ with (that’s right, mixing is in the blood!)

    Also, Marsha…it seems we’re related! I’m the son of David, son of Hank, son of H.C. Speir, if any of those names (other than the last) ring a bell!

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