Before Chess Records became identified with the birth of the Chicago Blues, there was a label in the Windy City, called Black Patti. It was founded by a black producer for Paramount Records named Mayo “Ink” Williams. Williams cut an unusual figure among African-Americans in the early 1900s. He graduated from Brown, an Ivy League school, in a time when few blacks attended college. A few other blacks had done the same, but he still stood out. He played football at Brown and went on to a career in the NFL, one of the first African-Americans to play there but two other African-Americans also played in the League during the same time. What made Williams stand out? He was interested in the emerging, almost brand new recording industry and became one of the most successful producers of blues records, and remained one for many years.
Before the Blues fell on hard times, Williams’s had made a good start with Black Patti but misjudged the market and failed in the year he started his label. He recorded and released compelling music (as a long-time talent scout for other labels, he knew where to look). He had enough marketing savvy to pick a name for his enterprise that would stand out and he had high hopes for the label’s success. He took its name from the black opera singer Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, who was known as Black Patti because she evidently bore a resemblance to Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, an international star at the time.
Despite the future influence the label would have on the evolution of the blues music, Black Patti’s sales were never profitable as he had hoped, and after just seven months of operation, the label folded in September of 1927. Today, Black Patti’s output of 55 records are some of the most sought-after 78s of this period.
Perhaps most importantly, the label issued the Down Home Boys' "Original Stack O' Lee Blues.” Only a handful of these recordings can be found today. It’s one of the oldest surviving recordings of ”Stackolee Blues,” which went on to become a favorite of blues singers and folk singers during the folk revival of the 1960s and is still performed today. When Mississippi John Hurt, who had retired when his career was ended by the demise of the race records business by the Great Depression, began performing and recording again, the song became a part of the repertoire of a generation of younger performers. Essentially a folk ballad with a bluesy, syncopated arrangement, the song tells the story of how “Stackolee Lee” shot Billy Lyons after an argument over a Stetson hat. Popular singers from Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown and groups ranging from The Clash and The Grateful Dead covered the song, ensuring its place in America’s musical history. The owner of the only Black Patti pressing still known to be in existence has turned down offers of up to $20,000 for his copy.
In 1927, when his label began its brief seven-month run, the genre was known as “race” records. It was recorded primarily by African Americans and sold to African Americans, many of them homesick for the sounds of the South they had left behind when they came north for work in the factories, rather than pursue a meager living as sharecroppers. There were now 14 million blacks in the US and they had money to spend on Victrolas and the 78 rpm recordings. Then the depression hit and race records were a luxury few of them could afford. The records are now extremely rare. Some of them were probably occasionally burned in trash barrels on Maxwell Street, where the blues singers often gathered to play for shoppers looking for bargains. Maxwell Street was filled with storefronts and street vendors who represented nearly every ethnic group in the city. There were Italians, Russians, Irish, Bohemians, Greeks, Poles, Latinos, honest businessmen, con men, street walkers and street preachers. Nicknamed “Jew Town” (in those politically incorrect days it was considered no more offensive than Chinatown or Greek Town. It eventually became known as “The Home of the Blues” and Black Patti Records must have helped make that happen.
The Role of Joe Bussard
Joe Bussard, a legend among 78 collectors, picked up the Back Patti recording of The Down Home Boys’ 1927 “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues” 40 years ago in Tazewell, Virginia. Bussard cites the record as “the rarest of all country-blues records.”
For today’s collectors, Black Patti Records are perhaps the most sought after 78s on their bucket lists; they were pressed in very limited quantities of one hundred or fewer each and sold almost exclusively in a handful of stores in Chicago and a small number of record shops in the South. “When I told the collector and producer Chris King,” said Bussard, “that I’d spent a few weeks trying to track down sales or distribution records to no avail, he could barely suppress a guffaw: ‘They didn’t keep ledgers for this material,’ he said. There are fewer than five extant copies of each Black Patti release, and some have never been found. In 2000, Pete Whelan, one of the earliest collectors of rare blues and jazz 78s, dedicated an entire issue of 78 Quarterly to Black Patti: its cover features a dark, nearly indiscernible figure with gold eyes, emerging from the shadows and holding two Black Patti labels where her breasts would be. The tagline reads: ‘The most seductive feature ever!’”
Nearly all the artists Williams recorded have disappeared from the standard histories of the blues. With names like Steamboat Joe and his Laffen’ Clarinet, Tapp Ferman and His Banjo, and. a pipe organ player named—oddly enough—Ralph Waldo Emerson, they are largely unremembered. But for collectors, the Black Patti connection makes them valuable nonetheless.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” as Bussard tells it, but his discoveries are not based solely on luck. As one writer put it, “Over the years he’s developed a sixth sense for uncovering records, and his Black Patti score is the perfect example. It all started with a wrong turn. He’d gotten lost on his way to a flea market when he came across an old man walking down the road. “I stopped and asked him where the flea market was,” said Bussard, “and ended up offering him a ride.”
Bussard played him some Black Patti songs in the car as they drove. The man told him he had some of the records he was looking for. When they arrived, Bussard's’ sixth sense kicked in and his excitement along with it. The old man reached for a dusty box he kept under the bed and as Bussard recalled, “It had 20 inches of bed dust on it, it was like snow blowing all over the place.” In the box, Bussard found five ultra-rare Black Patti discs. One of them was the “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues.”
“It really was the find of the century," said Bussard as he studied a record that’s now valued at more than $30,000. The rest is musical history and a hell of a good story to tell at swap meets. Williams will be remembered for helping to lay the foundation for today’s blues and rock and roll, and Joe Bussard will be remembered for rediscovering the lost treasures from Black Patti’s nearly forgotten seven months as a commercial failure but an important player in the birth of the modern blues.