NewsArts & Culture / August 1, 2020

New Exhibit Illuminates Pioneering Indiana Recording Studio

Recreated Gennett Studio interior at the county museum in Richmond. - Randy McNutt

Recreated Gennett Studio interior at the county museum in Richmond.

Randy McNutt

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A lot of America’s most important music was recorded in a one-story studio that sat in a Richmond river gorge. In true humble Hoosier fashion, that fact is unsung.

Gennett Records was the first to capture horn titan Louis Armstrong, Delta blues giant Charley Patton and Hoagy Carmichael’s famous “Stardust.” These musical greats voluntarily sat surrounded by curtains in an unventilated 85-degree room so a wax disc would remain soft enough for a stylus to cut in sound vibrations. Nearby trains often ruined their takes.

The records from those sessions have continued to reverberate for almost a century, influencing Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Pete Seeger and countless others. But those who study Gennett have found that many still don’t know how important the Richmond studio is to the history of jazz, blues, gospel and popular music. The more people who learn the stories behind the artists’ famous recording sessions, the more jaws drop.

The Gennett studio building exists only in photos and record grooves now, but the Indiana Historical Society is drawing together these threads with “You Are There 1927: Gennett Studio.” The exhibit, which reopened Tuesday, re-creates the recording room and shows photos of musicians and documents like Carmichael’s recording contract.

During the studio’s short run, from 1921 to 1934, the Gennett family couldn’t have known how much the young talent they recorded would change the world’s musical landscape.

“Because the company folded, they weren’t there for the next generation to come along, who were much bigger artists who would cite those records as influences,” said Charlie Dahan, co-author of “Gennett Records and Starr Piano.”

“By then, Gennett was out of business (and couldn’t) appreciate someone like a Bob Dylan or Howlin’ Wolf or Miles Davis saying, ‘That record really affected me. It really influenced me.’ ”

When Fred Wiggins told his boss about King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, he didn’t know that its young cornetist would someday pioneer the jazz solo and hold the entire nation’s heart with “What a Wonderful World.”

Instead, the manager of Starr Piano’s downtown Chicago showroom knew that the ensemble was playing to myriad adoring fans. And that it had never been recorded before.

As the stories go, the engineer in April 1923 placed Armstrong farther behind his bandmates to balance his powerful sound, writes Rick Kennedy in “ Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Records and the Rise of America’s Musical Grassroots.”

King Oliver’s band visited Richmond that day because a family from Nashville, Tennessee, staked its living on America’s growing hunger for in-home entertainment. Henry Gennett and his children took over Starr Piano Co. in 1903. The company had been founded in 1872 by an Alsatian piano maker and two Richmond businessmen before merging with a St. Louis-based piano retailer, with which Gennett and his father-in-law were associated.

Starr employed a bevy of German Americans, who were well trained in crafting wood, Kennedy writes. They went to work at a complex off First Street on the east side of the Whitewater River, which came to be called Starr Valley.

As phonographs became popular, the Gennetts molded their business model and began selling the machines in 1916. Henry Gennett set up recording studios in New York and Richmond and started to press records. His son Fred Gennett — described by his grandson Mike Gennett as compassionate and “all business” — took over the record division.

Starr Piano began punching above its weight class quickly. By 1922, the company had won a landmark court case against Victor Talking Machine Co. that toppled the patent monopoly on lateral-cut discs, which could be played on a larger number of phonographs.

Columbia and Victor had already locked up mainstream popular and Euro-centric music, Dahan said.

Gennett looked “for what Victor and Columbia were ignoring or didn’t yet develop, which (was) music essentially made by Americans, the sort of underclass,” he said. “They had disposable income now, they had record players and they wanted to hear music that they recognized from their neighborhood, from their region.”

From the point of view of musicians like King Oliver, Gennett’s focus on local and regional music gave them the opportunity to expand their art form. The label joined the ranks of others — including OKeh Records, Paramount Records and Columbia Records — in finding scores of Black listeners for what were then called “race records.”

“That was the first time that Black people were able to have some kind of voice in the jazz world that could be heard around the country, around the globe,” said saxophonist Jared Thompson, who performs in Indianapolis’ Premium Blend and Clint Breeze and the Groove.

“They may not have gotten credit for it in the way they should have, but it (gave) accessibility to the music and with accessibility there allows ... evolution in a music.”

Record companies were more willing to record early white jazz ensembles until the former realized the size of the African American market, historian Ted Gioia writes in The History of Jazz. While most artists in the race records catalog were Black, a few were white and sold to Black consumers as Black musicians.

The Richmond studio also hosted interracial recording sessions that were among the first of their kind, including pianist Jelly Roll Morton performing with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Taylor’s Kentucky Boys with fiddler Jim Booker.

Black women found a market, too. St. Louis-based singer Lizzie Washington arrived in Richmond in 1927, backed up by Lonnie Johnson, who’s now in the Blues Hall of Fame because of his virtuoso guitar skills.

“You wanted to be able to be known, not just in your local state but in other areas,” said Donnice Robinson, an actor-interpreter at the Indiana Historical Society who spoke as Washington. “It put me on the map.”

Black musicians wouldn’t have been able to secure hotel accommodations, so Kennedy said they often stayed in Goose Town, where the Black and Italian communities lived. The densely populated area with shotgun wooden buildings was just north of the train station.

The same room that heard the history-making sounds of King Oliver also heard the strains of the Ku Klux Klan, which had a heavy presence in Indiana in the 1920s. Like other businesses, it rented out the studio and paid Gennett to press the records, said Dahan, who is a professor in the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University. But they didn’t bear the company’s label, and Gennett didn’t sell them, he said.

Klan members changed the lyrics of hymns — like making “The Old Rugged Cross” into “The Bright Fiery Cross” — and sold them through their magazine, membership and meetings, Kennedy said.

Many of Starr’s employees were KKK members, but the Italian Gennett family was not. They became upset at those who circulated the white supremacist group’s test pressings around the factory, Kennedy said.

“The only reason they did those records there was my grandfather looked at return on investment,” said Mike Gennett of Fred Gennett. “1925, 24, when they were recording those, the world was a very different place. I’m not saying it was right what they did — it was not right.”

Hoagy Carmichael wasn’t yet a movie star when the songwriter arrived to record “Stardust” at 3 a.m. on Halloween of 1927. Instead, he was an Indiana University law alum whose band had to fit the session in between gigs at the Apollo Theatre in Indianapolis. Carmichael wanted to quickly capture the tune that was famously inspired by a girl, the improvisational prowess of his cornetist friend Bix Beiderbecke or maybe both.

What became an iconic song — and famously performed by Cole, Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson — did nothing for the label at the time except irritate the recording engineer who was pulled out of bed, wrote Kennedy, who is a former reporter for the Richmond Palladium-Item.

“The problem with Hoagy was, his records never sold at all for Gennett,” the author said.

Poor sales is the reason why Wiggins destroyed a 1928 recording with the only lyrics Carmichael himself wrote. Kennedy said the songwriter might have owned a test pressing of it, but it hasn’t been found.

Thanks to the first “Stardust” recording, however, sheet music followed and so did Mitchell Parish’s famous lyrics. Together, they pushed the song to be picked up by musicians like Armstrong in 1931 and made famous.

Carmichael’s later version of the song wasn’t the only take to go by the wayside. Problems grew as radio claimed more listeners and the Great Depression moved in.

“These record companies would just basically clear out the shelves of anything that had a valuable metal material to it,” Kennedy said. “So the Gennetts basically took all their metal masters ... of all the different takes, of all these different people, and they just loaded them up and sold them for scrap just for the value of the nickel-plate material.”

Gene Autry brought his yodeling expertise, along with ballads and cowboy songs, to Richmond and New York around 1930. The studio recorded “Blue Yodel No. 8″ and more old-time songs in the years before the performer starred in “Indian Territory” and “Gene Autry and the Mounties.”

His later inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame — along with Gennett recording artists Vernon Dalhart, Ernest Stoneman and Uncle Dave Macon — are one reason the company can claim a large share of country music history.

“Richmond really was Nashville before Nashville,” Dahan said.

As Gennett wound down from its early 1920s peak, it built a reputation as a label for “hillbilly” and “old-time” music, which were the origins for what’s dubbed “country” today. More consumers turned to radio, and jazz musicians left for higher-paying labels, so Gennett started making budget records and forged a deal to sell them through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order catalogs. That allowed Appalachian and string-band music, among other genres, to reach homes where stores were sparse.

Even as the label struggled financially, Gennett continued to make history. Guitarist Patton — who set the tone for the genre before Robert Johnson — recorded his first-ever session there in 1929. Blind Lemon Jefferson played his last recorded songs there. In both cases, Paramount contracted Gennett to do the takes.

“As time is marching on — because of people like Bob Dylan and George Harrison and all these giants of rock ‘n’ roll, Keith Richards — (Gennett’s blues legacy) may be the legacy that 20 years from now is bigger than the jazz legacy,” Kennedy said.

Mike Gennett didn’t hear much about his family’s record company when he was growing up in Richmond. His grandfather didn’t discuss it.

“It had to be hard to take after all the years they did so well, then it completely fell apart,” Mike Gennett said. “It wasn’t like, ‘You can’t bring this up’ or ‘You can’t talk about it,’ but no one really wanted to talk about it. You really didn’t ask too many questions because you didn’t know any questions to ask.”

The label tumbled financially in the Great Depression and stopped officially recording in 1934. Harry Gennett Jr. continued on for a time by making sound effects that were used in movies and on the radio. Starr Piano ceased operating in its complex in 1952, and its buildings fell into disrepair. A real estate investor who bought the property in 1976 tore down most of them.

But one remains, bearing a faded logo of a parrot popping out of the top of a polished Gennett record. The space is an event facility in what’s now Whitewater Valley Gorge Park. Nearby is the Walk of Fame with ceramic and bronze medallions that honor the musicians.

Thompson, the Indianapolis saxophonist, found out about Gennett about 13 years ago, when he played a Richmond gig and drove around town with a drummer who lived there.

“Those that study the music and the history of the music know about it, but it’s not like it’s one of those things that’s mentioned in casual conversation. I believe maybe some of the older guard of the music know about it,” he said.

Mike Gennett began to thread together more pieces from his family’s past in the 1990s, when the California branch of his family began to investigate its backstory and when preservationists, educators, and area leaders formed the Starr-Gennett Foundation.

Those who study the label continue to see its legacy broaden as they uncover more. The Indiana Historical Society’s exhibit will help nudge it from a topic among collectors and historians to a point of Hoosier pride.

“This is kind of like a buried treasure,” Mike Gennett said. “Suddenly later in life you find out about it, and it’s very exciting when you realize what they had and what they did. There was really no reason not to talk about it.”

IF YOU GO:

What: “You Are There 1927: Gennett Studio”

When: Through Jan. 29, 2022, at the Indiana Historical Society, 450 W. Ohio St.

Cost: Advanced tickets and masks required. $13 adults, $12 seniors, $5 ages 5-17, free for kids under 5.

More information: indianahistory.org/welcome-back-what-to-expect-when-we-reopen

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