The rise and fall of Black Swan, America’s first Black-owned record label

Mildred Europa Taylor Oct 4, 2020 at 09:00am

October 04, 2020 at 09:00 am | Entertainment, History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

October 04, 2020 at 09:00 am | Entertainment, History

Black Swan Records signed blues legend Ethel Waters (Public Domain Photo)

In 1921 when Black Swan Records of Harry Pace was founded, race records — sound recordings made exclusively by and for African Americans — were the order of the day. Much of these songs, however, served only to perpetuate stereotypes of Black people.

So when music publisher Pace brought on Black Swan, he sought to change the narrative by introducing high-quality music that will not only entertain but uplift Black people while showing the world their immense talents. However, this agenda would later spell doom for the label, and after only three years, it was sold off. Here’s its story.

The first Black-owned recording company, Black Swan Records was based in Harlem, New York, and was founded as the record division of Pace Phonographic Corporation by Pace. The former professor of Greek and Latin had already been in the music business before founding Black Swan, having written and published scores of songs with blues composer W.C. Handy.

With $30,000 in borrowed capital, Pace set Black Swan rolling in 1921, naming it after African-American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1976), who was known as “The Black Swan.” In fact, it was WEB DuBois who suggested that the label should be named after the singer. Pace had met DuBois while doing business, and the civil rights leader would become a major supporter of the label, becoming one of its Board of Directors alongside big shots like Dr. Godfrey Nurse, Dr. Matthew V. Boutte, Dr. W.H. Willis, and Truman K. Gibson.

Bandleader Fletcher Henderson worked as the label’s recording director and composer, and William Grant Still arranged and directed the music.
Specializing in jazz and blues recordings as well as classical compositions, Pace’s motto was “The only genuine colored record. Others are only passing for colored.”

Announcing the label’s mandate, he said: “There are twelve million colored people in the U.S., and in that number there is hid a wonderful amount of musical ability. We propose to spare no expense in the search for and developing of the best singers and musicians among the twelve million.”

And the label did work with some of the best African-American artistes including Ethel Waters who became the first major Black artiste on the label when she signed a recording contract in the summer of 1921. Her records and tours turned Black Swan’s fortunes around as her songs such as “Down Home Blues” became successes. Waters herself became the highest-paid Black recording artist in the country, according to reports.

Black Swan Records also worked with pianist James P. Johnson who recorded some of his first solos for the label while The Black Swan Troubadours, which included Henderson and Waters, toured the South to promote the label’s recordings. Then there were Garvin Bushell, Joe Smith, Don Redman, Gus and Bud Aikens, and Ralph Escudero, all of whom played back-up on many of the recordings of the label. They would later earn acclaim as some of the best jazz musicians.

Black Swan, in its first 11 months, built the initial $30,000 investment into an income of over $100,000, with about seven district managers in major cities, and over 1,000 dealers and agents in areas such as the Philippines and the West Indies, according to an account.

But as Black Swan shied away from working with “the rougher, less dignified, blues performers“, it refused to record and sign Bessie Smith, with Pace describing her as too “nitty-gritty”. Smith would later become a legend as the “Queen of the Blues,” and as other record labels had no second thoughts of recording with stars like her, Black Swan started declining.

The record label, in the years 1922 and 1923, had to compete with larger White-owned record companies. That same period, it is documented that it began pressing records that used music by White ensembles while still advertising that it was exclusively recording Black singers and musicians.

Then radio came along, becoming a popular medium for listening to music and reducing demands for records overall. Thus, by December 1923, Black Swan Records, which had released over 180 records, declared bankruptcy, and Paramount bought the label’s catalog.

As Pace wrote in an emotional appeal to his board of directors, “Does it mean anything to you to know . . . that when we began business there were 24 record making concerns and today there are only seven? . . . How could we survive with a meager capital of about $40,000 and a limited market when concerns with millions . . . either died or were mortally wounded?”

Short-lived Black Swan, nevertheless, did pave the way for thousands of Black musicians to get recording contracts with companies that would hitherto never have hired them. In other words, Pace’s label did compel White-owned record companies to recognize the importance of Black performers, to advertise in Black newspapers, and to publish race music catalogs, the Chicago Defender wrote in 1924.

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