Jun 18, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 1

The Rise and Fall of Black Swan. 

It was Motown before Motown, FUBU before FUBU: Black Swan Records, the record company founded by Harry Pace.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records exactly 100 years ago. Pace launched the career of Ethel Waters, inadvertently invented the term rock n roll, played an important role in W.C. Handy becoming "Father of the Blues," inspired Ebony and Jet magazines, and helped desegregate the South Side of Chicago in an epic Supreme Court battle. Then, he disappeared.  The Vanishing of Harry Pace is a series about the phenomenal but forgotten man who changed the American music scene. It's a story about betrayal, family, hidden identities, and a time like no other.

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, screenwriter Cord Jefferson, and WQXR’s Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer; our fact checker is Natalie Meade. Peter Pace lent his voice for our readings. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. The series features interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

This series is also a partnership with Radio Diaries.  

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The Vanishing of Harry Pace - Episode 1

JAD ABUMRAD: Before we start today's show, just want to let you know this episode contains a few moments of content and language that might be upsetting for sensitive listeners or young kids.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey. This is RADIOLAB. I'm Jad Abumrad - really excited to bring you a project I've been working on with...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Shima Oliaee. It's me.



JAD ABUMRAD: Co-creator of "Dolly Parton's America" with me.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I jumped in too quick. I jumped in too quick.

JAD ABUMRAD: Perfect timing. No. This project runs for about a month. And...


JAD ABUMRAD: We're really excited.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Let's do it.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. Start us off.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. So every family has a secret, but some families' secrets are bigger than others.

JAD ABUMRAD: We'll start with Eric Pace, the great-grandson.

ERIC PACE: My sister had gotten me a job at this YMCA camp.


CHILDREN: (Singing) Eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is 2006.

ERIC PACE: And we got a message from my dad...


ERIC PACE: ...Saying, we have a mandatory family meeting. You guys need to leave work to come and talk to us.

JAD ABUMRAD: Did he tell you what was up?

ERIC PACE: He didn't give us any other information. He said, no, you got to come to the family meeting, and I'll tell you everything. We thought, like, OK, this has got to be divorce. We told everybody at the job, and they're like - they're just like, good luck with the meeting, you know? This sounds really heavy, really serious.


SHIMA OLIAEE: So he and sister hop in the car.

ERIC PACE: Kind of just, like, trying to hurry up and get there so we can see what this is all about.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Three hours later, they walk into their childhood home in Redding, California. And the whole family is there - like, eight of them.

ERIC PACE: My dad tells us to go sit in the living room. And we're not a very formal kind of family, and so that was strange. We're like, OK. This is getting weirder and weirder. And then he holds up a picture that had been on our wall our whole lives.

JAD ABUMRAD: It was a really old picture.

ERIC PACE: It's kind of the sepia tone.

JAD ABUMRAD: Guy in a pinstripe suit, really good-looking but kind of a weary look on his face like he's being told to smile but he doesn't really want to smile.

ERIC PACE: And he says, do you all know who this man is? And we said, yeah. That's your grandfather, Harry Pace.


JAD ABUMRAD: What did you know about Harry Pace at that point?

SUSAN PACE: I mean, not much.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Susan Pace, granddaughter.

SUSAN PACE: Well, he was a lawyer.

PETER PACE: He was a lawyer. We knew that.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Peter Pace, grandson.

PETER PACE: We knew he lived in Chicago and he lived in New York.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He's the one who called the meeting.

ERIC PACE: And I was told he was, like, Italian.

PETER PACE: And somehow, the notion was presented that Pace was an anglicization of Pace...

ERIC PACE: Pace, Pace.

PETER PACE: ...An Italian name.


ERIC PACE: They told me it means peace. And so I was like, ah, like, peace - cool.

SUSAN PACE: You know, we grew up thinking maybe we're Italian.

PETER PACE: You put together Italian and lawyer.

SUSAN PACE: So we thought, oh, well, maybe he's a lawyer for the mob (laughter).

PETER PACE: We just kind of made this stuff up.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In any case, at the meeting, Peter sits everyone down.

PETER PACE: I think I told them - I said, you know how we've never really known anything about Grandfather Harry Pace? Well, we've discovered some interesting information about it.

ERIC PACE: Then he handed us the packet.


ERIC PACE: It's about 10 pages long.


ERIC PACE: And so we started reading. And within, like, about 30 seconds, I was just like...

GAIL: Oh, my God.

SUSAN PACE: Oh, my God.

PETER PACE: It was mind-blowing.

ERIC PACE: Oh, my God. This is crazy.

SUSAN PACE: I can't believe this has been kept from us.

ERIC PACE: It was really...

SUSAN PACE: You know, it was just so shocking.


GAIL: How could it even been a consideration that I wouldn't need to know this?

JAD ABUMRAD: What they discovered is that this man Harry Pace, whose picture had been hanging on their wall their whole lives...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Well, first of all, he wasn't Italian.

PETER PACE: It turns out that he was African American.

ERIC PACE: He was Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's how he identified. That's how he was seen.

JAD ABUMRAD: And he was someone who literally changed America.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In, like, 19 different ways.







ANNOUNCER: He proceeded to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

ANNOUNCER: The decision opened 500 new properties to Black residents.

JAD ABUMRAD: He desegregated whole neighborhoods, laid the groundwork for so much music.

IMANI PERRY: Like, without him...


ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) Fell down on my knees.

PAUL SLADE: We'd have no Robert Johnson.


THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself.

PAUL SLADE: No Rolling Stones and no Eric Clapton.


JOAN JETT: (Singing) Singing, I love rock 'n' roll.

JAD ABUMRAD: He even had a hand in coining the term rock 'n' roll.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: I mean, this dude's - good God. Why don't we have, like, three movies about this dude, right? I mean, you know, hello, Ava DuVernay, right? Good God. I mean, this dude is, like - he is, like, the vocational MacGyver.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then somehow, right at the peak of his power...

EMMETT PRICE: It's like, poof.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He vanishes.

JAD ABUMRAD: So completely that none of us know his story, not even his own family.

ERIC PACE: Wow. So you're telling me we're related to this unsung hero, and you want me to just sit here and laugh about it. I got to go understand this.

JAD ABUMRAD: For the next three episodes, we're going to dig into some of these questions. Who was he? Why did he disappear?

SHIMA OLIAEE: And why did America let him? This is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB.

JAD ABUMRAD: Now, this was a tricky story to report and tell.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Where did you all get all this about him? He can be hard to research. Is there a book about him? There's ever a single book?

JAD ABUMRAD: There's not a lot out there about Harry. He's a hard guy to know. We don't have his voice. We barely have his words.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So to try to help us make sense of all this, we assembled an amazing team of collaborators.

JAMI FLOYD: I'm Jami Floyd.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: I'm Terrance McKnight.

IMANI PERRY: Imani Perry.

KIESE LAYMON: Kiese Laymon.

CORD JEFFERSON: Cord Jefferson.

SHIMA OLIAEE: You'll hear all of them along the way.

JAD ABUMRAD: And I'll just say, full disclosure, one of the things that drew us to Harry's story is that he's a guy who just didn't fit the categories that the world offered him.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He slips between the cracks.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. And in a very different way - I say this cautiously - I feel like, as Middle Eastern people, that experience - there's something about it that makes sense.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Sometimes it feels like people don't know how to see you.

JAD ABUMRAD: And I think a lot of people have this experience in all kinds of ways.

CORD JEFFERSON: My parents say...

JAD ABUMRAD: For example, Cord - filmmaker Cord Jefferson, one of our collaborators...

CORD JEFFERSON: My parents tell this story about when I was about 2, putting me in front of a mirror with them and just sort of letting me take in the differences in all of us and the fact that I neither looked...


CORD JEFFERSON: ...Entirely like my mother nor entirely like my father. Because they said that I asked, what am I? What am I?

JAMI FLOYD: I cannot remember a time when I was not aware of being different from everybody else I knew.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is journalist Jami Floyd, another of our collaborators. She runs WNYC's Race and Justice Unit.

JAMI FLOYD: I mean, everybody I knew was either white or Black. There was nobody else who was kind of coffee-colored with an afro like me (laughter). And I mean coffee with some milk in it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAMI FLOYD: To this day, I feel a lot Blacker than I really am. Like, in my mind, I am really Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAMI FLOYD: That doesn't mean my Black friends and colleagues always see me as Black. And so it is complicated. And then when you step into the multi-racial...

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. So we'll get back to Jami and Cord and the family soonish. But we've got a lot of ground to cover. So first...

SHIMA OLIAEE: We're going to take you on an audio roller coaster through what they discovered in those pages.

JAD ABUMRAD: Chapter 1 - The Rise.


DAVID SUISMAN: OK. Let's go. He was born in 1884.

EMMETT PRICE: 1884 in Covington...


EMMETT PRICE: Georgia...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Scholars David Suisman and Emmett Price.

EMMETT PRICE: ...Which is about 32 miles east of Atlanta...

DAVID SUISMAN: ...A very picturesque place that's been used for a lot of movies and TV shows, like...


WAYLON JENNINGS: (Singing) Just the good ol' boys...

DAVID SUISMAN: "The Dukes Of Hazzard" was shot there. And...


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) In the heat of the night...

DAVID SUISMAN: "In The Heat Of The Night," and other films and TV shows that needed a good antebellum background.

WILLIE RUFF: Now, remember...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Scholar Willie Ruff.

WILLIE RUFF: ...Harry Pace was born just a few years after emancipation...

EMMETT PRICE: ...About 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

WILLIE RUFF: His parents were slaves.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Grandparents, actually.

JAD ABUMRAD: One of the things we know about Harry - or we think we know - is that his grandfather owned a plantation, raped one of his slaves. She had a child, and that child was Harry's grandfather...

PAUL SLADE: ...Which helps to tell us why Harry himself was so fair-skinned, which played quite a role throughout his life.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is journalist Paul Slade. To our knowledge, he has written the only book that's out there about Harry.

SHIMA OLIAEE: What do we know about Harry's father and mother?

EMMETT PRICE: So we know that his father was named Charles. Charles was a blacksmith.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We know that his dad died when he was really young.

EMMETT PRICE: Five or six, dad's gone. Mother is Nancy Francis Pace. And we think that Harry's mother was a laundress. So...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...If that is true...


EMMETT PRICE: ...Then we do know that the type of folks whose laundry she would be doing would be of significant means.

JAD ABUMRAD: She was a single mom, so no doubt she took Harry around town with her as she was picking up laundry and dropping it off.

EMMETT PRICE: And so he was able to see a huge swath of people that most average kids wouldn't have access to.

CORD JEFFERSON: It was probably pretty eye-opening for him at a young age.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Cord Jefferson again.

CORD JEFFERSON: I have no idea. But I just think that he probably saw people treat his mother pretty horribly as a servant, as somebody who you give your dirty underthings to. My grandmother and grandfather were domestic servants at a rich white man's estate in Ohio. If you see yourself as being part of the underclass, I think that there is some anger that develops with that.

JAD ABUMRAD: One of the things we do know about Harry is that later in his life, he would write a brutal revenge story...

PETER PACE: Through all these years, he had held this bitterness, this desire for revenge against those of his own blood who had cheated him out of the heritage and the life that properly belonged to him.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...About a young mixed-race kid, like him, who tracks down his white ancestors and kills them.

PETER PACE: He thought of himself as being a special avenger of God, an instrument to be used in bringing about punishment.

JAD ABUMRAD: So yeah. There might have been some anger there.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In any case, by the time he's 10, 11...

EMMETT PRICE: Harry clearly excelled in Latin, in Greek.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He played music. He sang.

PAUL SLADE: I think even at that point it must have been pretty clear that Harry was a phenomenally bright kid.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And at the age of 12, he is sent to Atlanta University.

CORD JEFFERSON: Who paid for it, by the way?

SHIMA OLIAEE: From the brochures of the school that I went through from that time, they had donations.



CORD JEFFERSON: So he basically - so he got a scholarship.


EMMETT PRICE: I mean, Atlanta University was the spot.


EMMETT PRICE: It was the intellectual mecca for Black folks.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: I think the motto of Atlanta University is, I'll find a way or make one. How boss is that? What? I'll find a way or make one. Watch me.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Professor Charles McKinney.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. So take us back to Harry. Like, what do we know about his life on campus?

EMMETT PRICE: We know that when he gets to school, this cat was well-dressed. This dude...

CORD JEFFERSON: He's a handsome man.

JAD ABUMRAD: There's one picture you can find where he's about 17...

CORD JEFFERSON: ...Dark jacket, starched white collar...

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Closely cropped hair, wavy...

CORD JEFFERSON: ...Slight smirk that seems, I would say, pleased with himself.

KIESE LAYMON: All of the Black - young Black women would have fell for this dude.

JAD ABUMRAD: Writer Kiese Laymon, by the way.

EMMETT PRICE: He couldn't be the country boy that he was from Covington.

SHIMA OLIAEE: His first few years, he sings acapella in the choir...


SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, I know the law (ph)...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Joins a debate team, writes for the school newspaper.

EMMETT PRICE: He works his way through school...

DAVID SUISMAN: ...Working as a printer. He was what was known as a printer's devil...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Sorry.

DAVID SUISMAN: ...Which is some kind of print shop job.

JAD ABUMRAD: A printer's devil.


SHIMA OLIAEE: A young boy at or below the level of apprentice in a printing establishment.

JAD ABUMRAD: Are you just getting that from the internet just now?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Just looked it up.


EMMETT PRICE: While he's at Atlanta University, he finds out that the white printer's devil is making more money than him. What does he do? He quit. He says enough of this. I refuse to be treated in this manner.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. So he's printing. He's singing. He's learning to advocate for himself. All that's just a warmup because by far the most important thing that happens to him at Atlanta University...

PAUL SLADE: Well, the most significant thing that happens to him there is that he meets W. E. B. Du Bois.

EMMETT PRICE: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.

JAD ABUMRAD: One of the greatest thinkers America has ever produced.


W E B DU BOIS: In 1897, I went to Atlanta University and stayed there 13 years making a systematic study of the American Negro. It's fair to say that for the next 25 years, there wasn't a book published on the Negro problem that didn't have to depend upon what we were doing at Atlanta University.

IMANI PERRY: Well, with Du Bois, I mean, you know, he's sort of who all of us Black studies academics are chasing because he's the ultimate, like, Renaissance intellectual.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is scholar Imani Perry.

IMANI PERRY: You know, he's the father of American sociology. He's a novelist. He's, you know, one of the founders of the NAACP also.

EMMETT PRICE: In 1903, he writes "The Souls Of Black Folks."

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness...

EMMETT PRICE: We get his phrase of double-consciousness.

CORD JEFFERSON: ...(Reading) The sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

EMMETT PRICE: Which is deep.

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) One feels his two-ness...

EMMETT PRICE: The - it's the most critical work for Black people still - still.

IMANI PERRY: I mean, he's like...

EMMETT PRICE: Published this in 1903.

IMANI PERRY: Many of us, even if we have very different politics, we're all chasing Du Bois.


W E B DU BOIS: Negroes had to have some voice in their government and trained men to lead them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: On that point of who would lead Black America, it's exactly when Harry steps foot on campus that Du Bois writes the following phrase.

EMMETT PRICE: (Reading) The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the talented tenth.

BILL DOGGETT: W. E. B. Du Bois coins and brings to life this idea of the talented tenth...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Scholar Bill Doggett.

BILL DOGGETT: ...That African Americans, Negroes, only 35 years earlier slaves, could improve its lot in America by investing in the talented tenth - the brightest, the most intellectual of the race.

IMANI PERRY: Certainly, you know, Du Bois was an elitist.

JAD ABUMRAD: But his idea was, I want to find people who can accomplish things that are so great that even the most bigoted white person can't deny it.

PAUL SLADE: And Harry was almost a personification of that, I think.

EMMETT PRICE: In the talented tenth, Pace is No. 1.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. If we were to imagine, then, Harry has just started there, like, what would have been the first interaction like?

EMMETT PRICE: Harry Pace would have heard about him. But then when he sees him, Du Bois is light-skinned. So you could only imagine Harry Pace following this guy around, trying to figure out what makes him tick.

JAD ABUMRAD: Easy to imagine that one day after class, he's like, excuse me, Mr. Du Bois. I have a question.



EMMETT PRICE: I mean, you see this bond that's there. I mean, if we think about "Star Wars"...


EMMETT PRICE: ...Harry Pace is the Padawan, you know, to the Jedi Master Du Bois.


FRANK OZ: (As Yoda) Yes, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force.

PAUL SLADE: W. E. B. Du Bois more or less adopts Harry. He recruits Harry to help him with some of his own research projects. He, I think, gives Harry the father figure that this fatherless kid has never had.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he also gives Harry a whole outlook.

IMANI PERRY: For - to be a race man driven by a sense of service to Black people.

JAD ABUMRAD: The talented tenth - that it's up to him to lift up the race. Double-consciousness - it's up to him to see himself through the hostile white gaze and manipulate that gaze for his own benefit.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In fact, later in his life, he would give speeches about how important it is to use public opinion to make equality happen.

JAD ABUMRAD: Question was, how do you do that? How do you show white America what Black America is capable of?

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's after the break.



JAD ABUMRAD: OK. This is The Vanishing Of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB, Episode 1.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's Jad Abumrad.

JAD ABUMRAD: I am Jad. You are...

SHIMA OLIAEE: I'm Shima Oliaee.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we are here.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah, we're two people making a podcast.

JAD ABUMRAD: Let's do this. So get us back to the story.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. So Harry Pace - Talented Tenther, DuBoisian race man that wants to uplift as he climbs. The question is, how? How are you going to do it?

JAD ABUMRAD: And the answer he comes up with through a roundabout series of events ends up creating this amazing thing that we're celebrating the 100th anniversary of pretty much right now. But it begins...

SHIMA OLIAEE: At a bank.


PAUL SLADE: So 1907...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry is working at Solvent Bank on Beale Street in Memphis. He taught Latin and Greek for a while. He tried to start a magazine. And now he was working at a bank.

PAUL SLADE: Harry's there at Solvent Bank.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Sitting at his desk.

PAUL SLADE: And a man who turns out to be W.C. Handy walks in. Now, Handy...


ANNOUNCER: The father of the blues.


SINGER: (Singing) When I didn't love you.



PAUL SLADE: ...Who we now know as the father of the blues, the man who really introduced blues music to America and to the world...


W C HANDY: It is my good fortune...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Handy from an oral history.


W C HANDY: ...To live for two years in the state of Mississippi and to hear the crude singing...

W C HANDY: ...Of the Negro down there.

PAUL SLADE: Harry would have known who W.C. Handy was.


PAUL SLADE: Obviously, first of all, they have to talk about the mortgage business.

JAD ABUMRAD: Mr. Handy, please sign this form and that form.

PAUL SLADE: As the meeting draws towards an end, all the mortgage business is completed. I imagine Harry hesitating for a moment and wondering, do I dare do this? He might not like it. What's he going to say? Should I show him my lyrics?

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

Turns out, Harry had been writing some song lyrics that he probably had in the top drawer of his desk.

PAUL SLADE: The way I imagine it, he gets up his nerve. He takes a deep breath. He does show Handy his lyrics. And lo and behold, Handy rather likes them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Shortly after that meeting, they get together and start writing songs.

PAUL SLADE: The first song that he collaborated on Harry with was called "In The Cotton Fields Of Dixie."


SHIMA OLIAEE: I can do any of this.

JAD ABUMRAD: Like that - Shima, are you a sight reader?

SHIMA OLIAEE: One of the most exciting moments in this series was I finally found the sheet music for the song after much hunting, and Jad, Jami Floyd and I ended up visiting John McWhorter at his home in Queens.

JOHN MCWHORTER: John McWhorter - and I teach linguistics and some other things at Columbia University. And in my off-time, such as it is, I am a great lover of music. Right now I'm in a room where I believe there are 850 Broadway cast albums, and I'm straight.


JOHN MCWHORTER: I don't know.

JAD ABUMRAD: He agreed to sight read the song for us.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Can you sing it a little bit so we can hear it?

JOHN MCWHORTER: It's out of my range but...

(Singing) In the cotton fields of Dixie is a dear old southern home, where the mockingbirds and moonlight love to sing. Though it's just a lonely cabin, it is mine, though far I roam, in the land where cotton is king.

I'm not a tenor. I'm a baritone.


JOHN MCWHORTER: That's where it's written. So it's not a good song, but that's what he did.

JAD ABUMRAD: What? You know, it's better than I thought it was going to be.


JOHN MCWHORTER: It grows on you, doesn't it, damn it?


JOHN MCWHORTER: The chorus grows on you.

JAD ABUMRAD: I think the chorus isn't bad. If you squint your ears and don't listen to the words...


JOHN MCWHORTER: If you don't think about what it's about.

JAMI FLOYD: You know, we are struggling to understand, what are they trying to accomplish? Are they trying to advance a people?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Oh, they wanted to make some money.

JAD ABUMRAD: The they in this case was probably more Handy than Pace. Of the two of them, he was far more famous and far less political, and he knew that these plantation songs - they sold.

JOHN MCWHORTER: There wasn't a market for conscious sheet music back then.

JAMI FLOYD: But John, who were they writing this song for?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Good white people who want to hear about that wonderful period when everybody was so happy in the South - and you would bring, you know, Trixie (ph) and Rebecca (ph) and Uncle Bill (ph) around the piano, and everybody would sing along to it. And then they'd laugh and clap and then, you know, die of typhus or whatever. Bill, I can play this. Will you sing along with me?

(Imitating Uncle Bill) Oh, sure, honey.

And so...

(Singing as Uncle Bill) In the cotton fields of Dixie is a dear old Southern home where the mockingbirds...

(Imitating Uncle Bill) Oh, get that flossy (ph).

(Singing as Uncle Bill) And moonlight love to sing.

(Imitating Uncle Bill) OK, Wilbur (ph), can you come do harmony with me?

(Imitating Wilbur) Well, I guess I could. OK so...

(Singing as Uncle Bill) Just a lonely cabin - it is mine though far I roam, in the land where cotton is king.

That's what this was for.

JAMI FLOYD: (Vocalizing).

JOHN MCWHORTER: And then Aunt Madge (ph) would bring some lemonade.

(Imitating Aunt Madge) Here y'all go.

JAMI FLOYD: Because this is their form of entertainment.

JOHN MCWHORTER: That's all there was.

JAD ABUMRAD: This particular song - they wrote it, paid a guy 50 bucks to publish it, and he ran off with their money, which is karmically something. I don't know. Then they make another song called "Beale Street Blues." It sells pretty well. And then suddenly, they move from Memphis to New York City.


DAVID SUISMAN: When they move to New York, their goal is to set up shop in and amongst all of the other Tin Pan Alley housing...

SHIMA OLIAEE: So all white.

DAVID SUISMAN: ...Which are all white-owned. We're going to compete with everybody else, show them we have just as good if not better material.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Problem is, unsurprisingly...

DAVID SUISMAN: They run into a lot of racism.


JAD ABUMRAD: There are accounts of white music publishers literally accosting them in the street.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, at this point, the way that things worked was the sheet music was sold in dime stores. And most of those stores were white-owned. So what Pace and Handy decided to do is they hired white piano players - song pluggers, as they were called - to go into those dime stores and demonstrate their music.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, so would this be the thing where you'd walk into a place and you grab a sheet music and be like, huh, I wonder what this sounds like. Mr. Demonstrator, can you play this for me?


JAD ABUMRAD: And then they'd key it out.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: Or Ms. Demonstrator - they were often women?

ELLIOTT HURWITT: Yeah, some of them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's so interesting to think about the sheet music passing for Black or white just like - you know, like a person.


JAD ABUMRAD: This is historian Elliott Hurwitt. He says the strategy worked.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: You know, they're making all this money. I had mentioned 1918, 1920...


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Cablegrams goes off in inquiry.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: ..."Yellow Dog Blues," people love it. It sells huge numbers of those recordings - (vocalizing).

SHIMA OLIAEE: And then...


ELLIOTT HURWITT: (Vocalizing).

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...The big one.

PAUL SLADE: "St. Louis Blues."

ELLIOTT HURWITT: Maybe the most popular song of the 20th century. It's recorded over 2,000 times.



ELLIOTT HURWITT: There are "St. Louis Blues" recordings by Stevie Wonder...


STEVIE WONDER: (Vocalizing).


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) St. Louis Woman.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, I hate to see...

JAD ABUMRAD: The Beatles.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) The evening sun...

ELLIOTT HURWITT: ...Herbie Hancock. People will be recording that for another hundred years. So the product that these guys produced was immensely important and spread all over the world and really helped American folklore and American styles and ways of thinking.

It's through these two men primarily - through Pace and Handy - that this pervades and permeates mainstream American society. So white people in Ohio have their sheet music on the piano, and they're playing it at parties. People are buying recordings of their records in Australia, in England, eventually in Korea and in Russia. This is how America really invades the world.


JAD ABUMRAD: So Pace and Handy are killing it...


JAD ABUMRAD: ...Absolutely killing it.


SHIMA OLIAEE: But at the height of their success...

DAVID SUISMAN: There is this sharp division.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: Handy is really stuck on sheet music.

PAUL SLADE: The old world of sheet music sales.

JAD ABUMRAD: You know, he was 11 years older than Harry. He liked how things were going.

PAUL SLADE: But, Harry, that's not what he wanted.

ELLIOTT HURWITT: He believed that records are the big new thing.


JAD ABUMRAD: Now, records at this point were just a few decades in, but people were just starting to get into them. Pace was like, let's do it. Handy said no.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So right at the peak of their popularity, with barely any notice...

EMMETT PRICE: He quit. He rolled out. He was like, enough. I'm done.

PAUL SLADE: Harry Pace bailed out of Pace and Handy. Harry also poached a good number of Pace and Handy's staff...


PAUL SLADE: ...Right the way from the post room to the accounts department, mostly people in their 20s.

JAD ABUMRAD: Do we have any idea how Handy - how this hit him?


JAD ABUMRAD: What does he say?

ELLIOTT HURWITT: He says, all in, down and out. He talks about, I was broke in the bank and blind, you know...


ELLIOTT HURWITT: ...How could Pace do this to me? - kind of thing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But for Harry, this was about more than just music.

EMMETT PRICE: Remember; Pace is a race man.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He's got a mission.

EMMETT PRICE: He's a race man the same way that Du Bois is a race man. Harry Pace is all about Black people, of how do I uplift - right? - while I climb?

SHIMA OLIAEE: And in the record industry, there was a lot more uplifting to do there than in sheet music.

JAD ABUMRAD: Because, basically, you had three main white record companies, and what they were releasing was almost entirely these really demeaning minstrel songs.


PERSON: "All Coons Look Alike To Me."

BILL DOGGETT: Like "All Coons Look Alike To Me" and "The Phrenologist Coon."


PERSON: "The Phrenologist Coon."

JAD ABUMRAD: Bill Doggett again. He says it is impossible to overstate just how massive minstrelsy was at this point in time.

BILL DOGGETT: The minstrel show is the behemoth of American entertainment at the turn of the century. It is based on the demonization of Blackness.

JAD ABUMRAD: You had white bands dressing up in blackface singing outrageously racist songs based on overblown stereotypes.

BILL DOGGETT: You know, the watermelon, the fried chicken, the big lips.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And he told us about a songwriter, Bob Cole - Black man - who Harry definitely would have known about.

JOHN WORTHAM: What makes it even worse is when a song like this is good.

JAD ABUMRAD: John Wortham (ph) actually played us one of Bob Cole's songs.

JOHN WORTHAM: This is Robert Cole.

And so (playing piano, singing) if you like-a (ph) me like I like-a you, and you like me just the same, and then they're under the bamboo tree.

And it's about a jungle person from Matabooloo, and it's in this dialect. And, Jesus Christ, the song is very catchy.

BILL DOGGETT: Bob Cole had an issue with the coon song, all of the extremes. He had a lot of trouble with that. And so all of a sudden, one day - I believe it was 1910 or 1911 - he made a decision. I don't know if he was drunk or what. He walked into a lake and drowned.


BILL DOGGETT: Here is the most successful Black writer of his time period.


BILL DOGGETT: I don't think it's an accidental drowning.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So the idea that Harry would want to move on from sheet music, this was the context, right?

JAD ABUMRAD: The white companies were releasing these minstrel songs. That's all they were doing. They were putting out circular platters of white supremacy and destroying lives in the process. And Harry wanted to change that.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And if Handy didn't want to be involved with that, their partnership was over.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Harry Pace obviously saw the need. He - I can't - I mean...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is performer Rhiannon Giddens.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Why are we, are we neglecting all of this talent? You know, I mean that's the kind of rage, to be honest. Like, I mean, I can't speak for the man 'cause I - you know, he's obviously dead. But I can only imagine that it would be rage-inducing...


RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...You know, to put it mildly. So I can only imagine, you know, that that all got funneled into, you know, let's do this ourselves.

DAVID SUISMAN: He understood that who makes records, under what conditions, and to what effects really matters. He understands that those are political issues.


DAVID SUISMAN: This is not going to be a regular business.

PAUL SLADE: No, no, no. Pace definitely saw it as a social movement as much as a purely commercial one.

TIM BROOKS: But Pace, being the businessman he was, went out and got funding for it. He got a board of directors with Du Bois and others on the board.

JAD ABUMRAD: Media historian Tim Brooks.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Well, how old is he?

PAUL SLADE: Harry would have been 36 at the time.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The first question he had to consider...

TIM BROOKS: What to call it - well, he wanted to call it something that spoke of Black pride.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Do you know who named it?

PAUL SLADE: I do. For several months at the end of 1920, Harry was writing letters to W.E.B. Du Bois. The idea of calling the label Black Swan actually came from Du Bois.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He told Harry, before you were born, there used to be this singer.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: She was a soprano.


ELIZABETH TAYLOR GREENFIELD: (Singing in non-English language).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: So Black Swan - the name itself, you know, was named after an opera singer...


ELIZABETH TAYLOR GREENFIELD: (Singing in non-English language).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...You know, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. And that was her moniker. She was known as the Black Swan.

TIM BROOKS: The first concerts were 1851, 1852.

DWANDALYN REECE: When she made her debut in New York City...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Curator Dwandalyn Reece.

DWANDALYN REECE: ...She was brought out on stage. And there was laughter. Audiences were jarred and laughed at her. They couldn't make sense out of what they were hearing out of that body.

TIM BROOKS: She had a magnificent voice. Looking back, it's this magical moment, even in slavery days, when a Black woman could command this kind of attention. So that was very much in the air.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So in May of 1921, almost exactly a hundred years ago, Harry Pace launches Black Swan.

DAVID SUISMAN: When he launches the company, it is hailed in the Black press.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Chicago Defender, May 7, 1921. (Reading) News of the completion of the first list of Black Swan Records, which are now ready for delivery, will be received with great interest and enthusiasm by our people all over the United States. When the announcement was made that a company had been formed to manufacture phonograph records by our artists, a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resent the idea of having a race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.

PAUL SLADE: They could see what a huge deal it was. I've got one of their first press ads here from May 1921.

PETER PACE: Ask your dealer for Black Swan Records, the only phonograph company owned and controlled by colored people using exclusively Negro voices and musicians.

WILLIE RUFF: So the only records using exclusively Negro voices and musicians. Yes. That was a slogan and a fact.

EMMETT PRICE: You remember FUBU?


ANNOUNCER: FUBU runs the fashion world.

EMMETT PRICE: FUBU - FUBU clothes. FUBU, right?


ANNOUNCER: The look, the style, the vibe, the feel.

EMMETT PRICE: For us, by us.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This was the 1920s version.


ANNOUNCER: Did it - I'm just keeping it real.

PETER PACE: All stockholders are colored. All artists are colored. All employees are colored.

JAD ABUMRAD: And what did they release? What was their first record?

PAUL SLADE: That was "At Dawning" by Revella Hughes.


REVELLA HUGHES: (Singing) Hear the song (ph).


PAUL SLADE: And "For All Eternity"...


CARROLL CLARK: (Singing) Air is faint with magic power.

PAUL SLADE: ...By Carroll Clark.

JAD ABUMRAD: It's more opera-y (ph) than I expected.

DAVID SUISMAN: Well it's - this is classic talented tenth stuff - uplift the race by trying to encourage people to listen to better music, quality music.


CARROLL CLARK: (Singing) I love thee (ph).

JOHN MCWHORTER: A lot of the Black Swan material is boring as [expletive], to be honest, because it's just this hoity-toity, white, light classical crap. But I get why he recorded it because the idea is to show that Black people could do that too.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So "At Dawning"? Comes out. And Harry releases a couple other classical records. How did these do? Did anyone buy them?

EMMETT PRICE: Yeah, I mean - Ah.

PAUL SLADE: They sell only $674.64 worth of records.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).


PAUL SLADE: So that sort of level, they're not going to survive too long.

EMMETT PRICE: So now he has to figure out - what is he going to do?


JAD ABUMRAD: This is one of the many moments we wish we could get in Harry's Pace head. But we can't. There are no journal entries. There's no letters to go to. But we can say that it probably hit him pretty hard. Like, we know he had a stubborn will. But we also know that when he met failure at other times in his life, it really rocked him.

There's a short account from a writer named Mira Stewart (ph), who apparently knew Pace personally. And he describes a moment after Atlanta University when Harry was working on Beale Street trying to start a magazine with W.E.B. Du Bois. It failed. And, as he describes it, Harry looked out the window and, quote, "There was the Mississippi River swift and deep at the foot of Beale Street." And according to this writer, Pace very seriously considered throwing himself in and committing suicide. And maybe that's how he felt at this point, but then a very lucky break that would change him and American music forever.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Can you describe the moment where all of the fortune changes?

EMMETT PRICE: So Harry Pace, trying to figure out what to do - it's 1921 - Harry walks into a bar called Edmond's Cellar in Harlem. It's the spot. This place is small. It seats maybe 150, 175 on a good day.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But on that night...

EMMETT PRICE: These folks are jammed in elbow-to-elbow.

SHIMA OLIAEE: They'd all come to see this one hotshot 21-year-old.

EMMETT PRICE: And you imagine just a very tiny spotlight on her.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Down in Georgia, got a dance that's new. Ain't nothing to it. It's easy to do, called shake that thing.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And she is amazing...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Oh, shake that thing.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...So full of life.

EMMETT PRICE: Some artists, you listen to them, you can have light conversation, and they're the backdrop. But when Ethel Waters sings...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Now the old folks are doing it.

EMMETT PRICE: ...She is the oxygen in the room.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) But the old folks learn the young ones what to do about shaking that thing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry is spellbound.


ETHEL WATERS: (Laughter) I come along. In that era, I was working in nightclubs (laughter).

WILLIE RUFF: That laugh of hers, oh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Willie Ruff got a chance to interview Ethel Waters about those early days.

WILLIE RUFF: I can't tell you what a thrill it is for me these 45 years later to hear her voice.


ETHEL WATERS: They'd call me then Sweet Mama String Beans.

WILLIE RUFF: Sweet Mama String Bean.


ETHEL WATERS: That's because I was so thin.

WILLIE RUFF: And you got it before you started in show business?

ETHEL WATERS: Yeah. But I was awfully thin. That was one of the things the Lord stopped me from grieving over because I was always a tall child.

WILLIE RUFF: She was tall, elegant, pretty.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I got rhythm.

WILLIE RUFF: She could dance.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I got music.

IMANI PERRY: She was a good dancer.

EMMETT PRICE: Well, she did the shimmy.

MARGO JEFFERSON: The buzzard lope, the Charleston, of course.

EMMETT PRICE: You know that song, "Back That Thing Up" (ph)? She knew how to back that thing up.

DWANDALYN REECE: Ethel Waters is one of those entertainers - I wish I would have been alive to see her on stage. She can get something across.


ETHEL WATERS: I could sing, dance, talk and whistle. I'd make you laugh. And I'd make you cry.

WILLIE RUFF: Make you laugh, and I'd make you cry.


ETHEL WATERS: To me, baby, I got to tell the story. When I say a thing, I'm envisioning a picture. And I'm trying to paint that picture for you to see. I want you to see what I see.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, in terms of, what did Harry see when he walked into Edmonds and saw her? - it's interesting to imagine because, on the one hand, Ethel Waters is as un-Paceian as you get.

RANDAL JELKS: He says, look, you know, I grew up - by 4, I know how to curse like a sailor. I knew junkies. I knew sex workers.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Author Randal Jelks.

RANDAL JELKS: She's a woman of the streets, so to speak.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But perhaps, he also saw something in her that was in him.

CORD JEFFERSON: It was a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.

MARGO JEFFERSON: So she understood the use of masks...

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is writer Margo Jefferson.

MARGO JEFFERSON: ...The love of and the absolute immersion, as if it was her birthright in masquerade and disguise.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Ethel was a chameleon.

MARGO JEFFERSON: She played with styles, doing what you might call vocal blackface and vocal whiteface.

JAD ABUMRAD: Can you give us an example of that? What does that mean?

MARGO JEFFERSON: Well, you can hear that - good question - in the, for example...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.

MARGO JEFFERSON: ...In "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." The first verse, she sings, you know, with what we might call whiteface gusto.

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.

MARGO JEFFERSON: I cahnt (ph), (laughter) you know? And you can just hear having a wonderful, amused time with I cahnt (ph) give you anything but love. Then...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.

MARGO JEFFERSON: The second verse...

SHIMA OLIAEE: She drops her voice.

MARGO JEFFERSON: She finds Bessie Smith, you know, much lower. She does that. And then, the little grace notes start going into blue notes. The phrasing changes. So you can absolutely hear the two.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God. When Harry saw her at the bar, it must have been like, oh, you're the person I've been looking - you can do it all.

MARGO JEFFERSON: You know it. You've got it all.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So in between sets...


SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Harry or maybe one of his associates elbows his way to the front of the room, where Ethel is lounging by the piano.


ETHEL WATERS: I - he said, well, will you do me a favor? - this man, I can't think of his name. He was a very nice man and a very intelligent man, colored man. And he said, there's a colored company. He said, the Black Swan Records. He said, why, the Black Swan is starting out. And that was Pace and Handy.

JAD ABUMRAD: It was actually just Pace.


ETHEL WATERS: And I knew both of them. I knew Mr. Pace from Memphis, Tenn. when he was in the insurance business. And I knew Handy when they - and they was in the music publishing business because you had to get permission from him to sing the "St. Louis Blues." But I knew it. And they had this little office on 139th Street down in the basement. So he said, just go out there and talk. (Laughter) So the - I go - I make an appointment to go with him down in this basement to where this office was - very nice place and very dignified because I was from the - other side of the tracks. But it was all colored. It was us (laughter). But we still had lines of distinction (laughter), still do. So Mr. Pace was at the office at the time - very nice, friendly man. Anyhow, the result was they said, would I be interested in making a test recording? So we went to a place in Jersey. That was when they were singing through horns.

WILLIE RUFF: But this was before the invention of the microphone. You and I are talking with good microphones. They had to do that in the recording studio with a megaphone.


ETHEL WATERS: They'd have these horns drop down, tubas and bass horns and things like that, you know? And that dominated.

SHIMA OLIAEE: As the story goes, Harry, Ethel and Harry's arranger, Fletcher Henderson, get into a discussion about what Ethel's going to sing.

DWANDALYN REECE: Do we do more classical concert, you know, elevating, elite kind of music? Or do we go popular?

JAD ABUMRAD: No doubt Harry was like, can you do some opera? But it seems like what happened is Ethel said, no, we're going to do popular, and you're going to pay me $100, which was three times what she was making at Edmonds.


ETHEL WATERS: And so I went in this little hot studio. It was a little hot room. And I sang the "Down Home Blues."


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Woke up this morning. The day was dawning. My loving daddy was not about. And he's got that loving that always makes me shout.


ETHEL WATERS: So when they put it out, it was an instant sensation in New York.

PAUL SLADE: An absolutely massive hit.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Before it all gives out.


ETHEL WATERS: It was a big hit, and it got Pace of the Black Swan Records off the hip.

WILLIE RUFF: She says that recording got them off the hip, you know, put them on the map.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) ...Or make me glad.

PAUL SLADE: "Down Home Blues" just completely transformed tour tunes. It was night and day.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) 'Cause I ain't been gotten, that don't mean I can't be had.

WILLIE RUFF: The success of "Down Home Blues" was so big.

PAUL SLADE: It kept on going back to the press again and again.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Some men like me 'cause I'm happy, some because I'm snappy. Some call me honey. Quite a few think I've got money.

PAUL SLADE: Harry always used to claim he sold 500,000 copies of "Down Home Blues" in six months.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Probably a bit of an exaggeration.

PAUL SLADE: Harry is hyping it up for all he's worth when he gives that figure.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But it's hard to appreciate. You know, music of the past can sometimes sound really far away. It's hard to appreciate what an atomic bomb Ethel was. You could argue that from this moment forward, she became the first crossover artist in American history.

EMMETT PRICE: She was Beyonce before Beyonce, right? I mean, she was on stage. She was in the movies. She was a recording star. So she's a superstar.

JAD ABUMRAD: As soon as Ethel hit, Harry basically does a 180 from opera to blues. And he starts spitting out press releases full of lies just to stoke the hype.

WILLIE RUFF: So this was dated December 24, Christmas Eve, 1921, in my newspaper, The Chicago Defender. How I loved that paper. (Reading) Ethel must not marry, sign contracts for big salary providing she does not marry within a year (laughter).

That's the - this is the contract.

(Reading) Ethel Waters has signed a unique contract with Harry H. Pace which stipulates that she is not to marry for at least a year and that during this period, she is to devote her time largely to singing for Black Swan Records. It was due to numerous offers of marriage (laughter), many of her suitors suggesting that she give up her professional life at once for domesticity, that Mr. Pace was prompted to make this step.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Side note - Ethel Waters was openly in a relationship with a woman. Harry would have known this. She was dating another woman named Ethel, a dancer. And they were famous in Harlem for getting into screaming matches in the streets.

CORD JEFFERSON: New York Age, on the must-not-marry contract.

JAD ABUMRAD: But she played along.

CORD JEFFERSON: Upon receipt of these documents, Ms. Waters is reported to have smiled and prominently attached her signature to the contract, which was returned to New York without delay.

WILLIE RUFF: Mr. Waters contract makes her now the highest salaried colored star in the country.

CORD JEFFERSON: There is no diminution in the number of perspectives swains - I'm sorry.


CORD JEFFERSON: Swains is a word that we should bring back - information as to the effect that there is no diminution in the number of prospective swains, however, and that each city visited adds its quota to the list of victims.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) List of victims.

CORD JEFFERSON: This is an amazing sentence. I mean, what a beautiful - she must've felt amazing. This is in the newspaper.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my God. Yeah.

CORD JEFFERSON: It's just like everybody's famously aroused by you.


SHIMA OLIAEE: In any case, only a few months after that big hit, after Ethel signs the contract...

PAUL SLADE: Harry was getting the tour underway.

EMMETT PRICE: They start touring...


EMMETT PRICE: ...As Black Swan Records. I mean, we'll later see Motown Records do this, Stax Records do this, you know, Bad Boy Records do this. All of the record labels that come later in terms of Black-owned for Black folks - they take the same model.

PAUL SLADE: The tour actually kicks off in Washington, D.C., November the 17, 1921.

JAD ABUMRAD: Paul spent months scouring old newspapers to put together the only full account that we know of of this tour.

PAUL SLADE: Started in Washington, then Philadelphia. They played in New York. A little later it was Baltimore - spent a long time touring around small towns in Ohio.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Paul says at first, they played little nickelodeons in Black-run theaters.

PAUL SLADE: Cincinnati. They played Little Rock.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Ethel would always headline.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Woke up this morning.

PAUL SLADE: She was the big star - lower down the bill, maybe a comedian. I mean, one case had some acrobats.


JAD ABUMRAD: And all along the way, it's like one of those "Avenger" movies where superheroes just keep making cameos. Like, that just keeps happening. For example, in New Orleans...

PAUL SLADE: That's where Fletcher Henderson met Louis Armstrong.

JAD ABUMRAD: Was on this tour?

SHIMA OLIAEE: On this first tour? Dang.

PAUL SLADE: And it's - ultimately, that's the meeting that led to Louis Armstrong joining Fletcher Henderson's band and, you know, inventing swing music.


JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

PAUL SLADE: Louis Armstrong was an unknown young trumpeter at the time.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So there was Louis - also, in a few of the early days, Jack Johnson.


ANNOUNCER: One of the greatest fighting machines in the history of boxing.

JAD ABUMRAD: Jack Johnson was the first heavyweight boxing champion in America, maybe the most famous person in the country at that point. And he was the reason for that phrase, great white hope. White people hated that he was so good, kept throwing up challenger after challenger.

PAUL SLADE: He always beat them.


ANNOUNCER: Johnson rushes in, lands an uppercut, three left hooks - a tremendous barrage of punches.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Apparently, on the tour, he'd do little comedy skits.


JACK JOHNSON: I have been requested to tell just how I knocked out so many of my opponents.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And he would tell stories.

PAUL SLADE: He put the moves on Ethel at one point, but she brushed him off.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Speaking of Ethel...


ERNIE: Julie (ph) is proud to have with us tonight a talented lady, Ms. Ethel Waters.

ETHEL WATERS: Thank you, Ernie (ph), and hello men (ph). It's a privilege to be here.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Another thing that happens is that Ethel Waters appears on this new thing called the radio...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Here I go again.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Sings a few songs.


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Just hearing trumpets blow again.

EMMETT PRICE: So that makes her the first Black woman to ever sing on U.S. radio.




ETHEL WATERS: I was the first - and I was the first colored person...

EMMETT PRICE: Having that voice transmitted across the airwaves was extremely significant.

PAUL SLADE: But anyway, let me get back on track. As the tour gathers force, Ethel was determined that they should play dates in the South because her argument was that all the records that have sold for Black Swan, all that music originates from the South. We have a responsibility to let the people there hear us play it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: As soon as she suggests this...

PAUL SLADE: ...Four members of the band...

EMMETT PRICE: ...They quit. They weren't going down South. You got lynching going on. You got a clear Jim and Jane Crow going on.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But Ethel said she wouldn't perform unless they did.


PAUL SLADE: They went South January, February 1922. This was the second leg of the tour - Cincinnati; Memphis; Pine Bluff; Little Rock, Ark...

EMMETT PRICE: And so in many ways...

PAUL SLADE: ...Nashville; Chattanooga...

EMMETT PRICE: ...Ethel Waters and the folks who were on this tour...

PAUL SLADE: ...Savannah; South Carolina...

EMMETT PRICE: ...These artists felt that they were activists...

PAUL SLADE: ...Paris, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; Waco, Texas; Dallas, Texas.

EMMETT PRICE: ...That Black people not only can excel in Texas, but we actually come in peace.


EMMETT PRICE: We literally come in peace.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But that's not always what they found.

JAD ABUMRAD: For example, Macon, Ga. - moments before they show up to perform at the Douglass Theatre...

PAUL SLADE: There's a white race riot, essentially, in Macon.

JAD ABUMRAD: A young Black man had been accused of attacking a white police officer. A white mob then invaded the Black section of town, searched homes, trashed businesses. Eventually, they found the man, shot him hundreds of times, tied him to a tree and then lit a fire at his feet.

PAUL SLADE: They then take the body, they throw it into the back of a truck and they drive it into the center of Macon's Black neighborhood, which is...


PAUL SLADE: ...Where this theater, the Douglass Theatre, is. And they - depending on which account you believe, they either throw the body actually into the lobby at the Macon, or they throw it up against its main entrance.


ETHEL WATERS: I played Macon, Ga.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Here's Ethel remembering that moment many years later.


ETHEL WATERS: And I got there just a few - oh, they had just removed, say about a half hour before I got there, the remains of a person that had been lynched, a man that had been lynched. And you'd never sense the pall that comes over it. It - oh, it was - it just - you could feel it. You didn't see nothing but...

PAUL SLADE: Ten years later, when Irving Berlin writes the song "Supper Time"...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Supper time...

PAUL SLADE: ...For Ethel, which is an anti-lynching song...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) ...I must set...

PAUL SLADE: ...That's the incident that Ethel thinks of to fuel her performance.


ETHEL WATERS: When Mr. Berlin was telling me about (unintelligible), I only had to remember...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Somehow I ain't able 'cause that man of mine ain't coming home no more.


ETHEL WATERS: ...The grief and the fear.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In any case...

JAD ABUMRAD: I got to say - the fact that this tour even happened is kind of a miracle (laughter).

PAUL SLADE: Yeah, absolutely.

SHIMA OLIAEE: As the Troubadours toured through the South, something surprising happened.

PAUL SLADE: Black Swan became quite a chic thing for people right at the top of white society.

JAD ABUMRAD: He says nouveau-riche white people started giving each other Black Swan records as wedding gifts. And Harry started adding shows to the tour.

PAUL SLADE: What would often happen is that they'd organized what they called a midnight frolic...


PAUL SLADE: ...After the main show on a Friday or a Saturday night. It would start about 11 o'clock at night and would run probably till about 2 or 3 in the morning. And this would be a whites-only show.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is like the equivalent of Brooklyn hipsters coming in and slumming it.


SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

PAUL SLADE: I think that's probably right.

SHIMA OLIAEE: One of the strangest, most amazing details of this tour is that at a few of these midnight shows for Ethel Waters' big entrance, the electrician would...


SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Kill the lights.

PAUL SLADE: The stage would suddenly be plunged into complete darkness.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Ethel would then walk onto stage holding a giant Japanese fan that covered her entire body. And behind the fan was her dress made of a 100%...


JAD ABUMRAD: What? You mean, radium like the element?

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

PAUL SLADE: Yeah. Absolutely.


PAUL SLADE: So the whole building is pitch-black. And all you can see is Ethel on stage.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She then snaps shut her fan. And what the crowd suddenly sees is this woman...

PAUL SLADE: Illuminated by the light of this radium dress.


PAUL SLADE: And, you know, you imagine the whole house just going crazy.


JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. That's so cool.

PAUL SLADE: This is 1922.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's so good.

PAUL SLADE: No one would have seen anything like that.

JAD ABUMRAD: There is so - that is crazy on so many levels.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was Black Swan Records' most incandescent moment. But ultimately...

JAD ABUMRAD: That was the beginning of the end.

PAUL SLADE: Almost, yeah. I mean, it's like a wave cresting and breaking. Everything was brilliant. It looked as if, you know, the company's good luck would never end. And then suddenly the wave...


PAUL SLADE: ...Crashed. And...


PAUL SLADE: ...Everything just went to [expletive].

JAD ABUMRAD: Chapter two, the fall.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, it went to [expletive] in stages. When Harry got back from tour, things were going great.

PAUL SLADE: I've got an extract here from one of his letters to Du Bois. (Reading) We were selling around 7,000 records a day and had only...


PAUL SLADE: (Reading) ...Three presses in the factory, which could make 6,000 records daily.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, dang.

PAUL SLADE: He's - literally, he is selling records faster than he can make them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Desperate to keep up, he buys an entire record-pressing plant in Long Island.

EMMETT PRICE: And then the white response, that backlash - the white record owners got pretty pissed.

PAUL SLADE: September the 1, 1922, you've got workers at the plant. They're shoveling coal into the furnace, which powers the plant. And one of them discovers a three-inch shell in the coal.

EMMETT PRICE: They discover a bomb...

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) Chicago Defender, September 16, 1922.

EMMETT PRICE: ...At the Black Swan plant.

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) Just where the bomb came from could not be ascertained. The officials of the company were alarmed at first, lest they were the work of white competitors. The Daily News carried a picture of the bomb, which was of unusually large size.

PAUL SLADE: And if that shell had gone into the furnace...


PAUL SLADE: ...It would have blown the whole place up.

PETER PACE: Yeah. I have in my hand here a letter from Harry Pace to the board of directors of Black Swan Records. (Reading) During the past few months, we have been the target of attack from our competitors. The desire seems to be that we must be put out of business by any means, fair or foul.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The white labels had woken up. And they were coming after Harry.

EMMETT PRICE: The white backlash.

WILLIE RUFF: It was clear then that there was profit to be made producing and distributing music for Black people.

JAD ABUMRAD: Harry's success had proven to the white companies, oh, there's a market here.

PETER PACE: (Reading) There are over 12 million colored people in the United States.

JAD ABUMRAD: There are millions of people who have money and don't want to buy minstrel songs. So, all of a sudden, in the space of just a few months...

PAUL SLADE: Just about every record label, every white-owned record label launches its own specialist race records imprint.

PETER PACE: (Reading) My dear Dr. Du Bois, this summer has been very dull for us. The white companies have, every one of them, gone in for colored business teeth and toenail.

PAUL SLADE: Paramount comes along in August 1922, launches its own race label. Columbia was early as February 1923. And the really big one was Victor.

SHIMA OLIAEE: August 1923.

PETER PACE: (Reading) It's caused a serious slump in our sales.

PAUL SLADE: Well, that's like suddenly discovering Google or Facebook have decided to operate against you.

PETER PACE: (Reading) Another phase of oppression from which we are suffering is the attempt that is going on to wean away our singers from us.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: And so the poaching begins. Trixie Smith gets pulled away.


TRIXIE SMITH: (Singing) My man rocks me with one steady roll.

JAD ABUMRAD: Trixie Smith - we haven't talked about her yet. She was a Black Swan artist - coined the term...


TRIXIE SMITH: (Singing) He kept rocking with one steady roll.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Rock ’n’ roll on this Black Swan release. She gets poached.

PAUL SLADE: They also...


CARROLL CLARK: (Singing) Nobody knows the...

PAUL SLADE: ...Poached Carroll Clark.

JAD ABUMRAD: Who recorded spirituals for Black Swan.

PAUL SLADE: And, of course, Harry hit the roof.


PAUL SLADE: There's a very good news report from the Chicago Defender. It says, (reading) Mr. Pace is advised by his attorneys that another company has bribed certain dealers to damage their Black Swan records before selling them to consumers with a view of making the consumer feel that the race product was sent out in that condition and to cause him to cease buying them.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, man, if I'm Harry, at this point, I'm hiring some thugs.

PAUL SLADE: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, this is...

JAD ABUMRAD: That is low.

PAUL SLADE: ...The sort of stuff that was going on.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry is a gentleman, Jad. He's a gentleman. He's not going to do that.

JAD ABUMRAD: They're scratching his records.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Making things even worse, in the middle of all this...

EMMETT PRICE: You get Ethel Waters...


ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Am I blue? Am I blue?

EMMETT PRICE: ...Who gets pulled away.


JAD ABUMRAD: Ethel, no.


PAUL SLADE: Ethel's Aeolian sides start appearing in 1923.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This feels like the end of, like, “Scarface.”


AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) You want to play rough?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Like, Harry in a room alone with a bunch of cocaine...

PAUL SLADE: (Laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...And some, like, big guns.


AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Say hello to my little friend.


SHIMA OLIAEE: And it's just not going to...


JAD ABUMRAD: Harry Pace, like Tony Montana in "Scarface," he goes down ugly. First thing he does is he starts running ads in newspapers saying...

PETER PACE: (Reading) Don't be deceived.

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) Don't be deceived.

PAUL SLADE: (Reading) Don't be deceived.

PETER PACE: Passing for colored has become popular since we established Black Swan Records, the only genuine colored records.

EMMETT PRICE: Harry would accuse white companies of passing for Black.

PETER PACE: Every white phonograph company is now issuing a Jim Crow catalogue of records.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

PAUL SLADE: He says they're operating a Jim Crow annex.


PAUL SLADE: And I've saved the best 'til last.


JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, no (laughter). It gets worse?

EMMETT PRICE: This is desperate measures for desperate times.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry, at this point, is in a bind.

PAUL SLADE: What he desperately needs to do is to get some kind of Black Swan product out there on the market to fight back.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But the white companies had stolen all his stars.

EMMETT PRICE: What is he going to do?

PAUL SLADE: So he decides - what he does is...

EMMETT PRICE: He does the exact opposite of what he's known for.

SHIMA OLIAEE: As he accuses the white labels of passing, he himself gets his hands on a bunch of unreleased music by white bands. He gets them through a white lawyer, by the way. And he changes the names - not the music, just the names.

EMMETT PRICE: He takes white artists' recordings, and he passes them off as Black.

PAUL SLADE: Mamie Jones, for example - she was really a white singer called Aileen Stanley. Henderson's Dance Orchestra - that would have been either the Merry Melody Men or Lanin's Roseland Orchestra. Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians - that's a German name, Wiedoeft - they became Haynes' Harlem Syncopators.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: I have to say, I'm really on the fence about the morality of this move. Is this a badass move, or is this just, like, the opposite?

PAUL SLADE: (Laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: What it is is a premonition of things to come.

JAD ABUMRAD: Make a long story short, just a few months after Ethel Waters records "Down Home Blues" and literally lights up the night in a radium dress...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry is basically broke.

PETER PACE: (As Harry Pace) We are cramped now, very seriously, for cash. We are cutting down to the bone in every way, although I have personally put in large amounts of money and have used my personal credit to borrow more.

PAUL SLADE: Harry was forced to cut the price of Black Swan's discs. They had started off at a dollar. He had to cut them first to 85 cents and then to 75 cents.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Eventually, he's selling whole bundles of discs.

PAUL SLADE: And he's throwing in a free 10-cent pack of needles. So...

SHIMA OLIAEE: What (laughter)?

PAUL SLADE: Phonograph needles (laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK (laughter).

PAUL SLADE: So, you know, at prices like that, there's just not much room for profit.


JAD ABUMRAD: Harry holds out for as long as he can. But then ultimately...

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) Chicago Defender, April 19, 1924.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...He sells Black Swan to Paramount Records, a white company.

CORD JEFFERSON: (Reading) White combinations of white businesses are frequent. It does not often occur where there is a combination of a white and a racial business. It is of more than local interest, therefore, to note the recent consolidation of the phonograph record business of the Paramount, a white organization, and the Black Swan.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Black Swan Records came and went in just two years. But if you think about it, if you think about what came before and what came after, it was a pretty gigantic domino to fall.

PAUL SLADE: Black Swan really hastened the process of the white labels giving Black artists a chance. And it only needs to be a couple of years for Robert Johnson to have died before he ever recorded a note. That process had been delayed by just a couple of years, we'd have no Robert Johnson. And with no Robert Johnson...


PAUL SLADE: ...You've got no Rolling Stones and no Eric Clapton.


JAD ABUMRAD: That's weird to imagine.

PAUL SLADE: Once you take that brick out, you know, the whole tower starts to look pretty shaky.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I mean, it's all historical speculation, really.

JAD ABUMRAD: Here's what we'll say. Everything that we just told you about Black Swan and Ethel and all the stuff - that's just the first part of Harry's story. This guy lived five lifetimes in one.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And the craziest part is yet to come.

ERIC PACE: There is a conspiracy. There is. Like, they threatened my family. They threatened Harry, Jr., your father. They threatened Josephine.

EMMETT PRICE: It's like, poof. That [expletive] haunting.

JAD ABUMRAD: In the next episode, Harry's record roulette starts to spin out of control.

CHARLES MCKINNEY: You know, so after - basically after 60 years of of battle, you know, how many more years did he owe you, right? How many more years did he owe?

JAD ABUMRAD: That's on the next episode of The Vanishing Of Harry Pace.


JAD ABUMRAD: The Vanishing Of Harry Pace was created by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee and is presented as a collaboration between Osm Audio, RADIOLAB and Radio Diaries. The series is based on the book "Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise And Brutal Fall Of America's First Black-Owned Record Label," by Paul Slade. We had original music from musician Hania Rani - her song "Buka" off the album "Esja."

SHIMA OLIAEE: Our editorial advisors are Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Cord Jefferson and Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer. Our fact checker is Natalie Meade. Series artwork was created by Katia Herrera. And special thanks to Nellie Giles, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman.

JAD ABUMRAD: Next episode is right on the heels of this one.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Thank you for listening.



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