There is a popular misconception that the blues arrived in Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s, when ardent young fans embraced the sound of ‘folk’ blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy, or postwar Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. But British awareness of blues music on record has a much longer history, one that stretches back to well before the Second World War. British record companies were releasing recordings of African American blues singers as early as the 1920s. Even as the blues was developing in black communities across America, it was already being heard around the world.
Why is the extent of the blues’s international circulation so often overlooked? One reason is that when we think about the discovery of blues on record in Britain, we often focus on the stories of the listeners who bought the records: the chance discovery of a record in a second hand shop, the hours spent frequenting a specialist record store to build a connection with knowledgeable staff, or the anxious wait for the arrival of a mail order purchase. These are all ways in which blues enthusiasts – particularly during the 1950s and 60s – got hold of recordings.
But we can also look at the activities of the record companies themselves. Few major record companies during the first decades of the twentieth century were solely national concerns; they were nearly all multinational companies that produced and disseminated recorded music on an global scale.
One typical example is the Carl Lindstrom Company. Founded in 1893 in Berlin, it produced records in Britain, Germany, and France under the Odeon label, and eventually became a ‘holding’ company for a number of other European and American labels, most famously Okeh in the United States and Parlophone in the United Kingdom. This transatlantic link between Okeh – one of the biggest producers of African American ‘race’ records – and Parlophone in the UK would make the latter label a market-leader in the distribution of American records in Britain.
Parlophone released its first blues record in June 1924: ‘If I Let You Get Away With It’ and ‘E flat Blues’ by Margaret Johnson, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five. This was Johnson’s first recording session. Catalogued as Parlophone E5187, the disc was a direct copy of OKeh 8107. Both sides were recorded on 19 October 1923 in New York City, and were released by OKeh in the United States in December 1923.* That a recording of a hitherto unknown blues artist should be released on the other side of the Atlantic, barely six months after its release in the United States, is quite remarkable.
In addition to showcasing Johnson’s talents, both records foreground soloists in Clarence Williams’s Blue Five, and in particular their soprano saxophonist, Sidney Bechet. ‘E Flat Blues’ is credited to Thomas Morris (clarinettist in the Blue Five) and Clarence Williams himself, while ‘If I Let You Get Away With It’ is credited to Jack Frost and Fred Rose. Rose was a vaudeville songwriter, but most of his songs are now more closely associated with country music stars like Hank Williams, Gene Autry, and Bob Wills. Jack Frost – a pseudonym for Harold Frost – was also a popular song lyricist, whose credits include songs like ‘Avalon’ and ‘Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight‘, made famous by bandleader Ray Kinney.
So what might have compelled Parlophone to begin releasing vocal blues records at this point? In late 1923, there was a brief craze for ‘blues’ dancing, prompting the release of a number of instrumental blues records by both American and British dance orchestras. Around this time, too, The Gramophone Company released Lizzie Miles’s recording of ‘You’re Always Messin Round With My Man’/‘Downhearted Blues’ (HMV B1703), perhaps testing the market for vocal blues sung by African American singers amongst the wash of instrumental records.
Another important influence on Parlophone’s interest in vocal blues may have been the arrival in mid-1923 of the broadway revue From Dover Street To Dixie, which starred renowned blues and vaudeville singers Florence Mills, Edith Wilson, and Gladys Bryant. Perhaps Parlophone were hoping to convert the success of this theatrical show into a longer term interest in vocal blues amongst British record buyers?
Unfortunately the strategy does not seem to have been particularly successful. Although Parlophone would release further vocal blues recordings between 1924 and 1925, such as those by Rosetta Crawford, Eva Taylor, and Sara Martin (as well as two further sides by Johnson) the company’s coverage of these performers pales in comparison to the breadth of their dance music releases, showcasing bands like Vincent Lopez and his Hotel Pennsylvania Dance Orchestra, or small ‘hot’ ensembles like the Original Memphis Five; these groups dominated the label’s popular catalogue by the middle of the decade.
It was not until the 1930s that British listeners became seriously interested in African American vocal blues singers – but that’s another story…
*According to discographer Tom Lord, Johnson’s first OKeh release was advertised in the Chicago Defender on 22 December 1923 (p. 9)
Tom Lord, Clarence Williams (Chigwell: Storyville, 1976).
Frank Philips, ‘Parlophone’s 78rpm “Race Series” – A Survey’, The Discographer Magazine, 20 November 2018.
Howard Rye, ‘Showgirls and Stars: Black-Cast Revues and Female Performers in Britain, 1903-1939’, Popular Music History, 1.2 (2006), pp. 167-188.