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Recording in Charlotte 1926-1945

Written by Tom Hanchett, 1985

Before the major recording companies set up shop in Nashville in the late 1940s, several southern cities were important centers of the emerging country music industry including Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte.

During the decade of the 1930s Charlotte ranked among the nation’s busiest locations for the recording of country music, as well as a site for gospel, blues and jazz. RCA Victor made numerous trips to the area, and Decca Records came as well, together recording more than 1,500 songs. Many of the best-known country performers of the era recorded in Charlotte, including the legendary Carter Family, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, banjo star Uncle Dave Macon, the influential stringbands of the Mainer family, and many more. Additionally, Charlotte sessions captured on disc a broad range of bluesmen, gospel singers, and amateur folk musicians, preserving a rich slice of Southern culture in the early twentieth century.

Queen City of the Piedmont
It was no accident that Charlotte became a recording center. The city lay at the heart of the southern piedmont, the broad band of rolling, red clay hills between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the flat coastal plain. Since the close of the Civil War, Southerners had waged a campaign to industrialize the piedmont, under the slogan “Bring the Mills to the Cotton Fields!” In the late 1920s,the piedmont overtook New England as the world’s major cotton manufacturing area. Charlotte emerged as a trade hub of this mighty new empire. Textile machinery distributors the world over opened Charlotte offices; mill owners and their heirs commissioned mansions in suburban Myers Park and Eastover; downtown skyscrapers rose to hold the banks that financed the region’s growth. In 1930 the United States Census declared that Charlotte had become the largest city in North and South Carolina.

While Charlotte itself had sizable mill districts, most factories were scattered in nearby towns and villages. Within a hundred-mile radius of Charlotte, more than six hundred mills drew thousands of rural families from piedmont or mountain farms. This massive rural-to-urban population shift shaped the South as we know it today.

The move from farm to town also helped give rise to commercial country music. As rural folk moved into new, unfamiliar surroundings, they formed a concentrated audience for professional entertainers who could play the old songs of home. As time passed, these musicians found that listeners were equally hungry for new styles of playing that matched the faster pace of urban life, and for new songs that expressed their loneliness, longing for home, and hope for better times ahead.

Performers traveled an informal circuit of cities across the piedmont: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina; Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and others in between. They would take up residence in a city for several months until the area had been “played out,” and then move on.

For several reasons, Charlotte became a key stop on this circuit. Its very size and central location in the mill region promised a large audience for country musicians. This was aided by a web of paved highways that radiated from the city, a legacy of North Carolina Governor (and not coincidentally Charlotte resident) Cameron Morrison’s “Good Roads” program of the 1920s. WBT radio, begun by Charlotte investors in 1922, proved to be another important drawing card. The first station in the Carolinas, it was purchased by CBS in 1929 and boosted to the legal maximum of 50,000 watts in 1933. WBT could be heard all over the Southeast, and in addition CBS soon made the station the linchpin of its regional Dixie Network, feeding programs to sister stations throughout the South.

Before World War II, most radio stations relied on live performers rather than records to entertain their audiences. WBT filled much of its daytime programming with country shows. They seldom paid much, but performers jumped at the chance to plug personal appearances. Entertainers could easily schedule a daily program on WBT (the most desirable times were early morning—before mills opened—or at noon—when farmers came back to the house for lunch), drive to an evening show date at a small-town courthouse or schoolhouse, and be back for the next day’s broadcast.

Recording Teams Come South
Meanwhile, the fledgling phonograph industry had discovered country music. Beginning in 1923 and continuing into the 1940s, many country, blues or gospel acts were recorded in “field” sessions throughout the South, as well as in New York or Chicago studios. Customarily, northern executives carried portable equipment by car or shipped it by train to southern music centers. For record firms, this was often cheaper than bringing musicians north; performers liked the system because it meant fewer interruptions in busy radio and touring schedules.

For a typical session an A & R (artists-and-repertory) man lined up talent, selected songs, and oversaw the recording process. One or two engineers usually handled the actual recording. Equipment consisted of microphones (seldom more than two), a small control panel, and a bulky cutting lathe that produced wax “masters.” In the days before magnetic tape, songs were literally cut into wax. If a musician botched a take, technicians had to shave a layer off the disc or use a new one. The complete masters, each containing one selection, were carefully shipped back to company headquarters where records were manufactured. The longplaying 33’/a rpm album and the 45 rpm disc would not be introduced until after World War II; before then, songs were released on 78 rpm discs with one tune per side. (Today, musicians still speak of “cutting a side” or “waxing a side’.’)

The First Charlotte Sessions
In 1927 Ralph Peer, executive of the Victor Talking Machine Company, began a series of southern recording trips that put his company at the forefront of pre­war country, blues, and gospel recording. Victor teams visited many towns over the years, but tended to concentrate on those where they had corporate contacts. The booming trade city of Charlotte was the distribution headquarters for Victor’s products in the Carolinas, and it eventually became one of the company’s foremost southern recording locations. Documents indicate that Peer first set up his equipment in Charlotte August 9, 1927. The visit formed part of the same tour that resulted in Peer’s discovery of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tennessee. In Charlotte, six days of hard work produced forty-six sides. Peer found no major stars at this stop, but did record several important musicians including the country duo the Carolina Tar Heels, balladeer Kelly Harrell, the Georgia Yellow Hammers stringband, and bluesman Luke Jordan.

Soon after, the Great Depression sharply curtailed record sales. Country, blues and gospel were especially hard hit, for many of the working-class fans who supported these styles lost their jobs. Victor only visited Charlotte once during the early 1930s, in May 1931. By that time, the company had merged with the Radio Corporation of America to become RCA Victor. Locally, the Southern Radio Corporation now held the wholesale franchise to distribute RCA Victor radios, Victrolas, and records to retailers in the Carolinas. Southern Radio’s office and warehouse space occupied the top two floors of a handsome three-story building at 208 South Tryon Street, Charlotte’s main commercial thoroughfare. There, among boxes of stored records, Peer set up his makeshift studio.

Two six-day weeks yielded an even one hundred sides. Among the artists were two rising stars of country music, Jimmie Davis and the Carter Family. Davis later wrote You Are My Sunshineand rode his musical fame to the governorship of Louisiana in the 1940s. In his 1931 Charlotte sessions, he sang not only country tunes, but also several well- delivered blues songs backed by a slide guitar.

The Carter Family had already become major record sellers in the four years since Peer had first signed them. Their 1931 Charlotte sessions produced seven songs. One, Let the Church Roll On,later entered the ranks of bluegrass standards through a top-selling album by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Another Carter Charlotte tune is still in print in its original form as the title selection for the RCA Camden album My Old Cottage Home. The 1931 session led to a second Charlotte date for the Carters in June of 1938, this time with Decca Records, which produced twenty-two more sides. The Carter Family returned again in the early 1940s to broadcast on WBT radio, and it was then that they made their last performance together as the original trio.

Charlotte Becomes a Major Recording Center
Charlotte recording resumed when the worst of the Depression had passed. Victor representatives visited the Queen City three times in 1936, twice in 1937, and once in 1938. Decca seems to have made one substantial stay in June 1938. In September 1938 and February 1939, Victor set up shop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a small textile and railroad town some forty miles south of Charlotte (a location convenient both to WBT performers and to singers on smaller South Carolina stations).

Seated: Fred Kirby, Hank Warren, standing: (l to r) Roy Grant, Shannon Grayson, Arval Hogan

Recording conditions were not a great deal more sophisticated than they had been during the early sessions. The 1936 RCA dates took place in the warehouse space at 208 South Tryon Street (now replaced by the BB&T skyscraper). The 1937 and 1938 Charlotte RCA sessions were held in rooms on the top floor of the ten-story Hotel Charlotte (which today stands vacant at West Trade and Poplar Streets), while the Rock Hill sessions took place in the Andrew Jackson Hotel (now the Guarantee Fidelity Building on Main Street). The field teams simply draped the walls of the “recording studio” with heavy curtains and set up their equipment in an adjoining space.

Musicians who waited in the hotel corridors for their turn to record remember the tension. Both new and established artists worried that each session might be their last: if discs did not sell, the musician probably would not be asked back. Once his turn came, an artist had anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours to cut his songs. Most tunes were recorded in one or two takes—a far cry from the weeks of studio time invested in a single pop hit today—and an experienced group could wax a dozen or more numbers in one session.

Financial arrangements varied, but most groups seem to have made twenty-five or fifty dollars a person for each session’s labor. Some received a small royalty from each record sold, as well. Meager as it now seems, fifty dollars was a welcome sight for a picker who earned ten or twenty dollars for a whole week’s radio work; to those who toiled at even lower-paying jobs in the mills or fields, it was a princely sum.

Charlotte Recording Artists
The Charlotte recording sessions attracted top-flight musicians from across the Southeast. One of the most notable was Bill Monroe, who launched his recording career here February 17, 1936, and is today widely acknowledged as the father of bluegrass music. An expert mandolinist, Monroe and his guitar-playing brother Charlie came to work the radio and personal appearance circuit in the piedmont textile region in the mid-1980s. RCA A&R man Eli Oberstein tried repeatedly to get the Monroes into the studio, but the duo, based in Greenville, South Carolina, did not think that it was worthwhile to disrupt their radio schedule. “I believe we was playing two programs a day,” Bill told interviewer Jim Rooney in the book Bossmen. “We played one in Charlotte of a morning, say at seven o’clock, then we’d drive to Greenville for a twelve. We had a hundred miles to drive.”

When Oberstein’s persistence finally brought Bill and Charlie up the stairs at 208 South Tryon Street, he hit pay dirt. Their initial release What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul?became one of the most popular country songs of the 1930s,” according to historian Douglas B. Green. It led RCA to record a total of sixty Monroe Brothers sides in Charlotte from 1936 through 1938.

Bill and Charlie Monroe split in 1938, and Bill went on to shape a hard-driving stringband sound that later became known as bluegrass, in honor of his native Kentucky. Although the style did not gel until the mid-1940s, the Charlotte recordings hint at what was to come, especially numbers like Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, and Roll On Buddy, Roll On, both of which have become bluegrass favorites.

At the same time that Bill Monroe was starting his recording career in Charlotte, a number of established stars of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry visited the Charlotte studios. Fiddling Arthur Smith was one, a major innovator on his instrument who was dubbed “King of the Country Fiddlers” by Roy Acuff. He made the Tennessee-to-Carolina journey on four occasions, waxing a string of impressive instrumental, including Bonaparte’s Retreat and Florida Blues, as well as vocal compositions that have become lasting favorites. Walking in My Sleep, There’s More Pretty Girls Than One, In the Pines, Beautiful Brown Eyes (later a pop hit for Rosemary Clooney), and the humorous Pig at Home in a Pen were first recorded in Charlotte or Rock Hill.

Accompanying Smith was another soon-to-be-famous duo: the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon. Alton and Rabon Delmore specialized in warm harmonies and dexterous guitar work. Their style, borrowing heavily from the blues, broke new ground in the 1930s and can still be heard today in the playing of Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and others. The Delmores recorded their first hits in Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans, but cut nearly half their pre-World War II sides in the Charlotte area in the late 1930s. Among the best known of their seventy-three Charlotte songs is Nashville Blues.

Uncle Dave Macon
Uncle Dave Macon

Along with Smith and the Delmore Brothers, another Opry star who recorded more in Charlotte than in Nashville was Uncle Dave Macon. Macon had been called the most popular banjo player of the pre-bluegrass era, and he was a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry from the mid-1920s into the 1950s. Born in 1870, Uncle Dave was much older than most other early recording artists, so his discs provide a rare glimpse of folk, minstrel, and vaudeville songs that had been popular in his nineteenth century youth. Macon made his last recordings for RCA Victor at the Hotel Charlotte in August 1937 and January 1938. These range from old-fashioned hymns like Fame Apart From God’s Approval and Honest Confession is Good for the Soul to rollicking tunes about the pleasures of Country Ham and Red Gravy or Travelin’ Downthe Road.

Radio and recording opportunities in the Charlotte area not only drew notable musicians from elsewhere, but also helped a number of piedmont players achieve country music stardom. Bill and Earl Bolick of Hickory, North Carolina, formed the close-harmony duo the Blue Sky Boys. They cut their first records for Victor in Charlotte in 1936 while still in their teens, and eventually rivaled the Delmore Brothers in popularity in the Southeast. Another brother duo who debuted on record at the same time was Howard and Dorsey Dixon of Rockingham. Dorsey Dixon is remembered as a composer of cotton mill songs, and of the tragic tale that became a hit for Roy Acuff under the title, Wreck on the Highway.

Nearly every WBT performer tried his hand at recording when RCA Victor or Decca came to town. Fred Kirby, Don White, Claude Casey, Bill and Cliff Carlisle, and Arthur Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks (no relation to Fiddling Arthur Smith), are among those who waxed their early sides in the Charlotte and Rock Hill sessions. Two stringband groups, both major WBT acts, deserve special mention: the Tennessee Ramblers and the interlocking organi­zations led by J. E. and Wade Mainer.

Dick Hartman's Tennessee Ramblers with Happy Morris, Elmer Warren, Dick Hartman, Harry Blair, Cecil Campbell and Kenneth Wolfe.
Dick Hartman’s Tennessee Ramblers with Happy Morris, Elmer Warren, Dick Hartman, Harry Blair, Cecil Campbell and Kenneth Wolfe.

The Tennessee Ramblers were among the longest-running bands in Charlotte. Under the leadership of Dick Hartman (the lone Tennessean of the group) they were brought to Charlotte by Crazy Water Crystals Company in 1934. They cut their first Charlotte sides in 1936, and continued to record in Charlotte and elsewhere into the early 1950s, by that time under the leadership of Cecil “Curley” Campbell, one of Hartman’s original sidemen.

More widely remembered are brothers J. E. and Wade Mainer and the influential players they helped bring to record. The Mainers came from the North Carolina mountains in the early 1930s to work in the textile mills near Charlotte, but soon broadcast on WSOC and WBT with J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. In 1936 Wade Mainer went out on his own as a recording artist, eventually racking up some ninety-four sides in Charlotte and Rock Hill sessions, making him one of the area’s most prolific recording stars. J. E.’s Mountaineers also continued to record in Charlotte, and achieved national exposure during a stint on high-wattage “border radio” which broadcast from Mexico across much of North America. Historians point to the Mountaineers’ sound as an important link between traditional string-band music and the new bluegrass style.

A number of Mainer sidemen also recorded on their own. Fiddlers Homer Sherrill and Steve Ledford made early RCA records in the Charlotte area and had long and active careers. Brothers Zeke and Wiley Morris gained their first recording experience with the Mainers, and later had a major hit on their own with Let Me Be Your Salty Dog. DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins brought to radio and records the distinctive three-finger banjo style that eventually became the trademark of bluegrass music. He recorded his first discs in a 1937 RCA date at the Hotel Charlotte as a member of J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. Both Earl Scruggs and Don Reno have pointed to Jenkins as a key influence on their banjo playing.

Other Musical Styles Recorded in Charlotte
Along with country music, Charlotte recordings preserved other musical styles popular in the area. Bob Pope’s Hotel Charlotte Orchestra, the Frankie and Johnny Orchestra, Jimmy Gunn and His Orchestra, and others offered jazz during the opening years of the big-band era. The Hawaiian Pals and the Honolulu Strollers cashed in on the craze for Hawaiian music that swept the nation in the 1920s and 1930s.

After white country artists, the most numerous recording musicians in the Charlotte area were black blues and gospel performers. Few of the bluesmen won the fame during this period that whites enjoyed, partly because the radio stations in the area almost never broadcast blues. One musician who is remembered today is guitarist Luke Jordan, who journeyed from Lynchburg, Virginia to record in 1927. His Church Bell Blues and Cocaine Blue continue to be played by modern-day folk musicians.

Golden Gate Quartet
Golden Gate Quartet

Local radio stations did feature black gospel groups, and several became successful recording artists. The Heavenly Gospel Singers, for example, recorded nearly seventy sides for RCA in Charlotte and Rock Hill, a number greater than the Monroe Brothers. Perhaps most famous were the Golden Gate Quartet. Norfolk natives, the Gates launched their recording career in 1937 in the midst of a broadcasting stint on WBT, and eventually sang in Carnegie Hall and at the White House. Today, they reside in Paris, and enjoy great popularity throughout Europe.

Charlotte recording sessions produced star performers and hit records, but they also left us priceless documents of our cultural heritage. A local preacher, Elder Otis Jones was recorded sermonizing to his congregation. Some of the best comedy routines of Mustard and Gravy (“Dixie’s Tastiest Combination”), a vaudeville or minstrel style act, were preserved on record in Charlotte. “We would have made more records, but we didn’t bother to go back,” said a member of the Blankenship Family stringband of Alexander County, North Carolina who cut a single disc in 1931. Comments researcher Robert Coltman, the Blankenship recording was important not in terms of record sales but as a cultural document,

[box title=””]just engaging homemade music, centering around the gruff singing and rusty, archaic fiddling of a man born shortly after the Civil War, two of his daughters, and a son. . . typical of thousands of amateur musicians, comparatively few of whom reached record, who created entertainment in the days before radio and television.[/box]

End of an Era
Recording in the Charlotte area tapered off after 1940. Columbia Records came in June 1941 to record the Rangers Quartet, popular white gospel singers of WBT. RCA held its last major Charlotte session in 1945 and Capitol breezed through town in 1949. Several smaller labels recorded at local stations in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But the era of major label recording in Charlotte was basically over by the war’s end. This seems ironic in retrospect, for WBT’s CBS network country shows had just entered their heyday.

The explanation for Charlotte’s decline as a recording center lies in the broader changes effecting country music as a whole. Material shortages during the war led to cut backs in all field recording. After the war, the large companies decided to establish permanent studios in the South. Nashville, with its highpowered clear-channel WSM which broadcast the Grand Ole Opry, had attracted many of the profession’s top stars, so the record companies centered their activities there. In the 1950s,WBT began to move away from country music, and eventually the booming pre-war music era faded from memory.

Today, Charlotte is proudly rediscovering its role in the early years of country, blues, and gospel recording. The Charlotte area sessions helped launch the careers of such notables as Bill Monroe, the Golden Gate Quartet and Snuffy Jenkins, and contributed to the recorded legacies of many more. The wax discs captured in song the hopes and feelings of a whole generation of working-class Southerners.

In the early years of recording, musicians seldom considered their records as important to their careers as radio broadcasts or personal appearances. But it is the records that will enable the music to live on. And here and there in quiet rooms, young musicians bend their ears to phonograph speakers, learning the old songs and passing them on to new generations of listeners in the piedmont Carolinas and far beyond.

Tom Hanchett