Monday, December 05, 2016

Ethel Waters on WGV-AM

 Ethel Waters was an American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist; active between 1919 and 1959. She died on September 1, 1977, aged 80 from cancer. Three of her recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame post-mortem and you know all three of them: Stormy Weather, Am I Blue, and Dinah. Her all-too-late accolades were the result of her career peaking in an era when it was much harder to be black and in the music biz. Nonetheless there is an apocryphal radio first in her career. The much-respected jazz book Riding on a Blue Note by Gary Giddins even refers to this early black radio first in passing: 

"The Black Swan [record label] house pianist was Fletcher Henderson... Henderson organized a band to accompany her on a tour of the South, where they became the first blacks heard on the radio."

The context her is an early Ethel Waters tour. She had done her first recordings for Black Swan in 1921. She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Then in early 1924, Paramount records bought the label. (She stayed with paramount only one year before signing to Columbia in 1925.) This quick succession makes dates difficult.  Collectively record geeks have solved much of this for us here, and here].

From this discography we know that she recorded 14 sides (multiple takes) recorded in four sessions, one in May of 1921, then three in 1922, one in June another in July and a final session in December of 1922. So it is generally believed this occurred while she was still active on Black swan. But she made no recordings for them in 1923 (though the 1922 recordings were pressed) and none in 1924. So the 1921 and 1922 dates are generally more reliable.

WGV-AM was first licensed on March 21st, 1922. The station was owned by the Interstate Electric Co.  Some sources state that it was "operated" by the New Orleans Item newspaper. But that didn't begin printing until 1924 so the relationship may have begun later. Note, a maritime station also used those calls in Galveston, TX starting around 1914. More here. But the station is known to have been broadcasting before it was licensed. According to C. Joseph Pusater in his book Enterprise in Radio our WGV had already been on air over a year before it had a license. So in early January 1921, Dorr Simmons, a factory manager for the Interstate Electric Co. began broadcasting phonograph music on his experimental station.

Sad side note: Dorr Simmons continued to work in radio for a decade. But his career ended abruptly in November of 1932. He was an engineer at KTBS in Shreveport, LA and "came in contact with a section of the transmitter carrying 5,200 volts." Multiple newspapers mentioned his death. One even specified that he touched a radio amplifier while installing new equipment. He was 44 years old.

I would assume Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson played on WGV after they did their first recording sessions for Swan in May of 1921, and no later than their recording session in December of 1922. The FRC had only been assigning licenses since October of 1920 so it was not unusual that a station not yet have a call sign. Their appearance on radio was very early in the history of black radio. But with the uncertain date it is hard to definitively say it is the first.