The following obituary was originally OCR'd for the compilers of the two volume Routledge Encyclopedia Of The Blues (2006). As it is not cited as a reference for the published entry I guess nobody there bothered to read it (too lengthy?) but maybe some folk hereabout have the staying power. It was published in "Come For To Sing" (Autumn 1980 p 18-19).
The passing of J. Mayo "Ink" Williams
(Much of our great black music, and its history, is becoming lost to us as the pioneers of blues, jazz, and other black musical forms pass away, taking their stories with them. Even recent history can disappear unrecorded. Thus, news of the death of J. Mayo Williams, one of the most important figures in the history of blues and jazz recording, came as a sad shock; his story was never completely told. However, Bob Koester shares with us here some memories of this most remarkable man. Editor)
You could tell the big guy drinking with Little Brother that night at the Plugged Nickel was a man of some importance. Not just the cigar he chewed; it was something about the way he carried himself.
Of course, we had heard of J. Mayo Williarns, and the man fit the image of a '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s A & R (artist and repertoire) man, a man of the era before there were guys who decided what artists and what tunes would appear on phonograph records. Before the time of the egomaniacs who call them selves "producers." (I'll accept "directors," but the producers are, to my way of thinking, the artists and writers.) Yet, Mayo was a producer. He didn't think of himself as the genius on a record date, but he did pick the personnel and the tunes, just as a film producer picks stars and story.
We had corresponded with each other, and spoken on the phone a few times; but the meeting was memorable. Eventually we became better acquainted, though not as much as I would have liked, and I learned some of his story.
Mayo was an athlete who had starred on a football team while attending a Downstate college. Later he came to Chicago to pursue a career in journalism, working, by 1922, for a black newspaper on the South Side (not the Defender), which was owned by a relative of Harry Pace. When Pace's Black Swan Record Company was taken over by Paramount Records (to pay off the pressing bill), Mayo became the first (and for many years the only) black A&R man for a white owned record company (as they all were, once Black Swan went broke).
He went across the street to the Monogram Theater and signed Ma Rainey and the house accompanist, Lovie Austin. Paramount already had Alberta Hunter and Ida Cox, so the label prospered enormously in the next few years. Mayo recalled a few trips into the South to sign talent, and vividly remembered crossing the tracks in (was it?) Dallas to sign Blind Lemon Jefferson. But most of the Paramount roster came right out of the South Side theaters.
Mayo soon decided to go into business for himself, in partnership with the Gennett family, and the legendary Black Patti label was born. "I was supposed to find the talent and do the records, and they were supposed to press, advertise, and promote them. "According to Mayo, the Gennetts did not hold up their end of the bargain, so the venture didn't last long. Certainly Black Patti discs are so rare today that there was little cause for optimism about the venture. Only Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon and Reverend J.M. Gates showed even a glimmer of hope for sales.
Brunswick-Balke-Collander had acquired the Vocalion label in 1926 and hired black pianist-writer Richard M. Jones as A & R man, but they replaced him with Mayo Williams about a year later, when Black Patti folded. Vocalion quickly surpassed Okeh as the most successful "race" label in the business. LeRoy Carr and Tampa Red, more folk-oriented than the vaudeville blues women of the other labels, responded to some need in the black community for more down-home music. Soon, Okeh, Columbia, and Paramount were scouring the South for guitarists and piano players who sang the blues.
Yet there remained some of the vaudeville influences in Mayo's "product." Jazz musicians such as Punch Miller, Albert Wynn, Ikey Robinson, and so forth continued to appear on the label, as well as the remarkable series of sides by Jimmie Noone and King Oliver, the classic session with Walter Page's Blue Devils, and, later, when Brunswick decided to add a "race" series on the parent label, those fabulous Jabbo Smith dates.
Piano blues by Cow Cow Davenport, Montana Taylor, Speckled Red, and others were recorded when Pinetop Smith's "Boogie Woogie" became a hit and a standard. A wealth of great music, recorded with more care than was usual on the other labels, guarded Vocalion-Brunswick pre-eminence through the Depression years. After the shotgun methods of Paramount and Black Patti, Mayo took his time with the Vocalions, and it showed in the finished masters and the sales figures.
By 1934, however, Brunswick had been sold twice and was now a subsidiary of a Los Angeles film lab. Due undoubtedly to an 80 to 90 percent shrinkage in the record business, things were pretty grim. Even at 35 cents, "race" records sold in such small quantities that some were pressed initially in the low dozens.
Into this sad situation came some English capital, which united with a platoon of frustrated Brunswick executives to form Decca Records, Inc. Blues artists were soon receiving letters from Mayo. "I'm still making records, but now the label is Decca." It sure was! Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, Bill Gaither, Bumble Bee Slim, and others who had been unsuccessful in earlier sessions on various labels sold well in the tiny market, where a "hit" was 10,000 pieces. There was even room in the busy recording schedule for experimenting with jug and washboard bands, Willie "The Lion" Smith's jazz group, and female blues vocalists who had been virtually absent from the studios for half a decade. Georgia White clicked for Decca, and was a mainstay until the war.
In 1937 Chicago was the second most important recording center in the country, but for "race" records, it reigned supreme. However, the musician's union local's flamboyant leader, James Caesar Petrillo, declared a ban on all recording activity in the area. RCA briefly moved to studios in Aurora and Vocalion adjourned to a program of location recording in Dallas. Memphis, Hot Springs, Fort Worth, Hattiesburg, and elsewhere. Decca moved to New York.
The Decca studio was just off 52nd Street, which was crowded with little bars and clubs featuring the greatest jazz musicians of the time. The Decca New York sessions dipped frequently into this pool of talent to use Sidney Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, James P. Johnson, the John Kirby Quintet, Lil Armstrong, Barney Bigard, and others as accompanists for its blues artists. Georgia White was joined by other denizens of the classic blues era. Trixie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Monettee Moore, and others made marvelous and moderately successful sides with 52nd Street accompanists. Mayo credits pianist Sammy Price with playing a large part at this time. Price apparently acted as Mayo's assistant, even before he began his series of dates with his "Texas Bluesicians," few if any of whom were from Texas.
The roster of the "race" series had included occasional spiritual records by quartets, sermons, and an occasional gospel singer. By the late 1930s, the work of Thomas A. Dorsey (formerly Ma Rainey's and Tampa Red's accompanist Georgia Tom) had begun to have its effect. In the late '30s, Mayo Williams recorded both of the first two really great gospel singers. Rosetta Tharpe cut a full album, accompanied by her marvelous guitar, before her brief career with the Lucky Millender Band, then returned for more than 10 years as the gospel artist for Decca, usually accompanied by Sammy Price and including the wild and unusual duets with Sister Marie Knight. Mahalia Jackson did one session for Decca, which was commercially unsuccessful but did document her early style.
Probably the biggest artist Decca had in the early '40s was Louis Jordan, whose Tympany Five revitalized old blues standards as well as introducing new repertoire. His story is too well known to need repetition here.
Starting his own operation (perhaps during a nationwide Musician's Union ban in 1943), Mayo recorded a few artists on his own Harlem-Southern-Chicago labels. Tab Smith, Ann Sortier McCoy (one-time wife of Robert Nighthawk?), and the classic Big Joe Williams ("God Bless President Roosevelt") made some of the most interesting sides. Mayo's activity at Decca seems to have been curtailed somewhat, in terms of new recording artists. This may have been a result of shellac rationing during World War II. Decca concentrated on its most successful artists: Louis Jordan, Rosetta Tharpe, and the Buddy Johnson, Lionel Hampton, and Lucky Millender Orchestras. In fact, Mayo may not have been as heavily involved in some of this activity as before the war, but he remained with Decca into the 1950s. Big Joe Williams says he owned a hotel (apparently in New York) during this time.
Sometimes in the mid-1950s, Mayo moved back to Chicago, where he maintained an office in the bank building at 47th and Drexel. Visitors of that time recall a perpetual poker game, and very little in the way of real musical activity, but "Ink" operated Ebony Records from about 1956 until the mid 1960s. One exceedingly rare item was an LP involving an interview of Ink, with dubs from some of the hits he produced for Paramount, Vocalion, and Decca. He had to cancel the release after a small pressing, due to some legal problems. Also on Ebony were some curious sides by Little Brother Montgomery, Lil Armstrong, Bonnie "Bornbshell" Lee, Oscar Brown, Jr., Frank London Brown, Little David Alexander, and Hammie Nixon (overdubbing Sleepy John Estes sides from Decca). None of these sides was successful, and distribution was virtually nil. Williams seems to have spotted some good talent, but lacked the resources to produce a saleable product in the '60s market.
At a recent board meeting of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, it was sadly announced that J. Mayo Williams, prime target for a lengthy interview of the Archives Committee, had died in a home for the elderly in December 1979. I hope someone can tell his story at greater length; it is very sad that he did not live to tell it himself.
Mayo was a controversial figure, inasmuch as Decca's artists were not well-paid during its early years; Mayo sweetened the deal for the artists by buying the composer's share of the songs, thus receiving composer's royalties himself--or so I am told. But record sales then were, as mentioned, low, and performer's royalties were virtually unknown even in the much larger popular music field. At any rate, J. Mayo Williams, the man who always had a recording contract in his pocket, who knew recordable talent, and who knew how to etch the best that an artist had to give, should be long remembered.