After Okeh Records had a surprise best-seller with the 1920 release “Crazy Blues” by African-American vocalist Mamie Smith (Listen to “Crazy Blues“) record companies realized there was a national audience eager to hear African-American songs. Several enterprising labels sought out African-Ameircan jazz, blues and spiritual artists and marketed them mainly to American blacks, though the existence enabled general audiences to discover them. At the time using the term “race” to refer to recordings done by and for African-Americans wasn’t necessarily derogatory–the African-American press at the turn of the 20th century would sometimes refer to someone who showed pride in their skin color a “race man” or “race woman”–but the term fell out of favor by the end of the ’40s. After that, record labels more often referred to similar recordings as “rhythm and blues.”
[Let the website for Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series on PBS introduce you to “race” records.]
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