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.
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 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.
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.