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Why the Difference Is in the Tone:
The Starr-Gennett Legacy
Bailey’s Lucky Seven recording at Starr-Gennett’s
New York studios, date unknown

Many members of the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society support the efforts of the Starr-Gennett Foundation, located in Richmond, Indiana, and the Foundation is grateful for their support. Richmond is the former home of the headquarters for the Starr Piano Company and its recording division, commonly called Gennett Records. Starr Piano’s story is most frequently remembered for the company’s significant contributions to the history of jazz music. The Starr-Gennett Foundation seeks to promote and preserve not only this important jazz legacy, but also the many other parts of the Starr-Gennett legacy, including some very significant Canadian connections. The Starr Piano Company’s role in the establishment of the phonograph and record industry in Canada and the United States as well as Starr’s role in the development and spread of the blues, old-time country, and gospel music do not often bear mention in jazz history. For that matter, many jazz histories do not note the role of record labels, such as Gennett, in jazz’s development until decades after the heyday of Gennett in the 1920s. However, the legacy of the Starr-Gennett enterprise can still be heard in the popular music world of today.

The Starr Piano Company began as the small Trayser Piano Company, which was launched by George Trayser, Richard Jackson, and James Starr in 1872. Building on the piano-building expertise of George Trayser, a German-born piano craftsman, James and Benjamin Starr moved operations in the mid-1880s to the Whitewater River Gorge, a spectacular geologic feature in the middle of Richmond. The Starr brothers came from one of Richmond’s original Quaker families, which figured prominently in Richmond’s early development.

As the Company grew, the Starr brothers began to sell pianos through the Jesse French Company, based in St. Louis, Missouri. Henry Gennett, then vice-president of Jesse French, and his father-in-law, John Lumsden, initiated merger negotiations with James and Benjamin Starr that resulted in the 1893 incorporation of the Starr Piano Company, a new incarnation of the earlier Trayser Piano Company. Starr pianos gained an international reputation and distribution, winning awards for their quality at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and many other international exhibitions.

Gennett Records catalogue, 1919

By 1897, Starr Piano Company stock had doubled in value, and operations continued to grow exponentially. The Starr Piano Company was part of an elite group of American piano manufacturers that controlled over 75 percent of the booming piano market. Player pianos and piano rolls were added to the product line around 1906. The Starr Piano Company had stores in nearly every major city and frequently shipped pianos overseas. Starr’s Canadian distribution branch, the Starr Sales Company, became the Starr Company of Canada in 1918. The Starr Company of Canada was created as the Canadian recording division of the Starr Piano Company, which had established a recording division stateside only three years before, in 1915, around the same time Starr began to manufacture phonographs.

The newly formed Starr Company of Canada quickly gained a subsidiary, Starr Phonograph Company of Quebec in 1920. The Starr Phonograph Company was created under the supervision of Roméo Beaudry, an important figure in the early production of Francophone recordings in Canada. The Starr Piano Company’s Canadian subsidiaries do not appear to have remained under the supervision of the company headquarters in Richmond beyond 1925, when the Compo Company bought the Canadian Starr label, which continued to be released after its purchase by Compo.

The Compo Company, founded by Herbert Berliner in 1918, pressed Starr’s American masters to issue Gennett recordings in Canada (and thus eliminated costly customs fees for Starr) beginning in 1919. Roméo Beaudry was a friend of Herbert Berliner, and Berliner permitted Beaudry to use recording facilities owned by Berliner to record Francophone artists including J. Hervey Germain and Hector Pellerin, among others, for a Gennett Francophone series. Starr Piano’s Canadian division was issuing recordings made both in the States and in Canada, if only for a few short years. But these preliminary connections between the Starr companies in Canada and the United States indicate the role that the Starr Piano Company played in the developing phonograph and record industry in Canada.

Meanwhile, Starr Piano was booming in the States. After the death of John Lumsden in 1898 and Benjamin Starr in 1903, Henry Gennett assumed leadership of the prosperous company. Henry Gennett’s oldest son, Harry, was Vice-President, and his middle son, Clarence, was treasurer. Fred Gennett, the youngest of Henry’s three sons, was employed as secretary. Under Henry Gennett’s entrepreneurial and visionary leadership, the Starr Piano Company and Gennett family would capture some of the earliest recordings of American musical pioneers who were bringing to life indigenous styles of American popular music, including jazz, blues, and old-time country.

Given Richmond’s close proximity to Chicago and the construction of a Gennett recording studio in New York City, Gennett Records had easy access to the legendary musicians who helped define early jazz music. In the 1920s, the Gennett label would record practically any musician, regardless of race, who might produce a profitable record. As a result, Gennett Records offered the very first issued recordings of a host of jazz innovators including Louis Armstrong, Joe "King" Oliver (and his Creole Jazz Band), Duke Ellington (purportedly), the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines, and Hoagy Carmichael. Other important jazz artists who recorded for the label, often very early in their careers, include Jelly Roll Morton, Mary Lou Williams, Sidney Bechet, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Fletcher Henderson, Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Artie Shaw, Miff Mole, Jimmy Durante, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Freddie Keppard, Jimmy Noone, and Coleman Hawkins. Richmond earned the renown of being the "cradle of recorded jazz" due to Gennett Records.

Louis Armstrong Marker,
Gennett Records Walk of Fame

Beyond the emergence of jazz, the 1920s witnessed the popularization of another unique American style of popular music—the blues. Some of the most notable blues musicians to record for the Gennett label include Jaybird Coleman, Roosevelt Sykes, Viola McCoy, Johnny Watson (Daddy Stove Pipe), Long Cleve Reed, Charles Davenport, Tommie Bradley, Scrapper Blackwell, the Mississippi Sheiks, Sleepy John Estes, and Cryin’ Sam Collins. A performer known as "Georgia Tom" also made several blues records for Gennett, but many people know "Georgia Tom" as Thomas A. Dorsey, the recognized father of modern gospel music. Additionally, Gennett recorded sides in Richmond at $40 apiece for the Paramount label in 1929, when Paramount’s new studio was under construction. These sessions captured two of the eminent names in blues history—Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton.

As the catalog of recordings expanded, the Gennetts introduced new subsidiary labels to encompass this wide variety of musical styles and also to increase distribution to new markets. The Champion label, initiated in 1925, was created to supply rural and chainstore markets. The red Champion label featured many re-releases of records originally issued on the Gennett label, often using a pseudonym for the artist or group to avoid paying the musicians’ royalties. Fred Gennett, head of the recording division, helped establish the Black Patti label in 1927 to capitalize on the popularity of Gennett’s race records. Only 55 Black Patti recordings were ever released. Several Black Patti recordings were also reissued on other Gennett labels, using artist pseudonyms like the Champion reissues. Other subsidiary labels included Silvertone, Superior, Supertone, Challenge, Conqueror, Bell, and Buddy. Many of these other subsidiary labels were recorded and pressed by Gennett for companies like Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Gennett began to release old-time country music in earnest in 1925. Like the blues, oldtime country was more noticeably emerging as commercial music during the 1920s and was specifically marketed to a rural audience through the chain stores and mail order catalogs that featured Gennett’s Champion label, among other Gennett subsidiary labels. Gene Autry is the most-recognized early country performer to record for the label and today is most remembered for his reputation as the "Singing Cowboy," but when Autry recorded for Gennett, he frequently emulated Jimmie Rodgers’ "blue yodel" style. Other important old-time musicians who recorded for the label include Doc Roberts, the Tweedy Brothers, Bradley Kincaid, Uncle Dave Macon, Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, Ernest Stoneman, and many more. Gennett would release old-time country music until 1934, when the company discontinued the Champion label. Over 320 oldtime country recordings were released between 1925 and 1934.

The Starr Piano Company continued to manufacture pianos until 1949 and diversified its product offerings beyond music in the 1930s to include refrigerators and refrigeration supplies, which were sold around the U.S. In 1952, the J. Solotken Company of Indianapolis bought the Starr Piano Company and the company’s assets in an auction later that year. The Whitewater River Gorge, once bustling from over 75 years of piano production and the new sound of pioneering musicians echoing in the air, was now silent. Yet the legacy of Starr Piano and Gennett Records and the impact they had on Canada’s and America’s musical heritage lives on.

Tangible reminders of the remarkable StarrGennett legacy still exist – recordings made at the Gennett Studios, artists’ letters and memoirs, pianos manufactured in the Starr factories, buildings associated with Starr Piano and the Gennett family, and memorabilia including record catalogs, historic photographs, and advertising posters. The Starr-Gennett Foundation’s mission has focused on locating and acquiring artifacts to document and preserve this important part of Richmond’s heritage. Now the Starr-Gennett Foundation will use these stories, artifacts and buildings to bring the Starr-Gennett legacy to life.

The Foundation’s interpretive plans will engage both visitors and residents in experiencing the Starr-Gennett legacy. Plans include:

  • Gennett Records Walk of Fame – The first ten markers in the Gennett Walk of Fame will be unveiled at a free festival on September 8, 2007, and will be located along South 1st Street in Richmond at the site of the Starr Piano Company. Markers are three-dimensional, cast bronze and colored tile mosaic emblems in the form of 78 rpm phonograph records. Each marker features a Gennett or subsidiary label design and an artistic mosaic rendering of the represented musician. The Foundation’s National Advisory Board selected the first 20 nominees, and the second ten markers will be unveiled in July, 2008.
  • Audio tour CD, guidebook and interpretive signage – This tour will be highlighted by music recorded by Gennett Records and will showcase important locations in Richmond that have connections to the Starr-Gennett story.
  • Satellite exhibits – Artifacts and pictures will be presented in small exhibits at locations throughout Richmond to encourage visitors to explore the city and enjoy the discovery of the Starr-Gennett story. The first of these satellite exhibits was installed in Richmond in May, 2007.
  • Starr Gennett Music Festival – Honoring Richmond’s musical heritage, this festival is planned to become a signature event for the city.
  • Starr-Gennett Interpretive Center – The centerpiece of the Foundation’s plans, the interpretive center will feature interactive exhibits depicting Richmond in the early 20th century and telling the stories of StarrGennett’s production of pianos and records.

Starr-Gennett Foundation Accomplishments

  • The Foundation has collected over 1,000 artifacts related to the Starr-Gennett legacy including photographs, paper items, phonograph records (over 900), pianos, phonographs and more.
  • The Foundation is working on digitizing Gennett recordings to be part of a free online archive and has secured several grants from the Wayne County Foundation, the GRAMMY Foundation, and the Indiana State Library of more than $70,000 to assist with this process. The archive will be up and running in summer, 2007.
  • The Foundation has completed an oral history project with grants from the Wayne County Foundation and the Indiana Humanities Council that was presented in a traveling panel exhibit as part of Richmond’s Bicentennial Celebration. Select interview transcripts from this project are available via the Foundation’s website.
  • The Foundation supports the discographical research of Professor Charles Dahan and T. Malcolm Rockwell as they work to compile a master Gennett discography.
  • Sam Meier worked with the Foundation and Wayne County Historical Museum to produce a set of CDs and a booklet featuring information and historic photos about Gennett Records. This CD set is being marketed by the Foundation with other memorabilia being produced by the Foundation.
  • A walking tour booklet featuring sites connected to the Starr-Gennett legacy has been published by the Foundation.
  • The Foundation offers a small but free exhibit of various artifacts titled "The Difference Is In the Tone" at Charlie’s Coffee Bar and Gallery in Richmond.
  • Successful music events such as the July, 2005, Gennett Roots Revealed concert and The Untouchable Times Weekend Getaway have been offered. The "Country Blues and Gennett Records" event attracted over 600 people in October, 2004, at Earlham College’s Goddard Auditorium.
  • The Foundation issues a new "Gems from the Gennett Studios" CD every year as a membership premium.
  • Working with the City of Richmond, the Foundation has helped with development of the former site of the Starr Piano Company through the creation of temporary interpretive signs and the stabilization of the "parrot logo building."
  • The Foundation led efforts to create a driving audio tour detailing Richmond’s history in honor of the City’s Bicentennial. This audio tour provides the groundwork for the creation of a full-length audio tour devoted to Starr Piano and Gennett Records.

For more information, sign up for the Foundation’s free monthly e-newsletter at www.StarrGennett. org or join the Foundation as a member. Memberships begin at $35 (U.S. Dollars) and include a subscription to the bi-annual, eight-page Starr-Gennett News. Club level memberships, beginning at $50, include subscription to the News, a free copy of the booklet History of the Whitewater Gorge, a copy of the annual "Gems from the Gennett Studios" CD, and a 15% discount on Foundation merchandise. Many promotional items are available through the Foundation’s website and office, including t-shirts with the Gennett Records’ parrot logo, books such as Rick Kennedy’s history Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy, and other gifts and memorabilia. Music includes Sam Meier’s CD compilations of rare Gennett material, available as three separate CDs or in a boxed set of three with a booklet by Meier, Duncan Schiedt, and Tom Graves, former Project Coordinator.

To contact the Foundation:

Starr-Gennett Foundation
33 South 7th Street
Richmond, IN 47374 USA
Email: Info@StarrGennett.org
Phone: (765) 962-1511, ext. 104
Fax: (765) 966-0882