The way radio worked changed rapidly in the 1920’s. Two things served to organize the landscape of radio and to broaden its reach as a unified force across the country.
In 1926, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was formed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse Electric to become the first major radio network. NBC set up several different networks around the country, the main ones being NBC Red and NBC Blue.
It was followed in January 1927 by a network of 47 affiliates known as United Independent Broadcasters, which struggled until it was bought by Columbia Records in April and was renamed the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System.
However, Columbia wanted out by 1928, and they sold the network to the owners of a Philadelphia radio station who installed William S. Paley as president. He quickly renamed it the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and set about building a powerful network to challenge NBC.
The second change came in the form of government regulation. Until 1927, the radio waves were up for grabs, as stations competed with one another for time and listeners. Listeners of one program were frequently interrupted by overlapping programs. With the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, the new Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was given the power to license stations and to assign frequencies and power levels. Many low-power stations were denied licenses, and the power output of bigger stations was limited to prevent the wild frequency battles between stations.
Popular music continued along the same lines as it had been going since the beginnings of the jazz era. Tin Pan Alley still cranked out popular sing-a-long songs, like “Ain’t She Sweet?” and “Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider,” Irving Berlin standards, like Always and sentimental tunes, like Helen Morgan’s Bill, or novelty songs, like I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream. And the big, popular bands, like those led by Paul Whiteman and Nat Shilkret, were just as big and popular, cranking out a mix of Dixieland jazz and more sophisticated music.
However, there were three things that stood out from the crowd. Two of them were huge. One looms large only in retrospect.
First, this era belonged to the first music pop star: Asa Yoelson, otherwise known as Al Jolson. He started out as a singer in a circus, moved on to Broadway, and by age 35 was a huge recording star with his own theater. He starred in many movies, including what is considered the film that ended the silent picture era and ushered in “talkies”–The Jazz Singer.
The recordings he made for Brunswick Records in the late 20’s are among his (or anyone’s) biggest hits: I’m Sitting On Top of the World, When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along, Sonny Boy, There’s A Rainbow Round My Shoulder, Little Pal, and I’m In Seventh Heaven
Listening to Jolson in 2014 is a little rough, because his style is so broad and melodramatic that it has made for easy parodying through the years. In fact, most people my age would sooner have heard Michigan J. Frog and his Jolson-like stylings or, more recently, a Jolson hit from the electrified Eric Cartman on South Park than the original. His singing was born of the need to fill a room without amplification and to be seen at the back of the theater.
There’s also the matter of that unfortunate carryover from his vaudeville days: blackface.
These days, Jolson’s performance of Mammy in the Jazz Singer is cringe-worthy. It doesn’t matter that he was a leading force for promoting African-American artists, or that he was instrumental in opening doors for the first Broadway production with an all-black cast at a time when black people were banned. Jolson also insisted on the hiring and fair treatment of black people at a time when membership in the KKK was at an all-time high. But his adherence to the minstrel show stereotypes turned him into a symbol of old-school racism.
The second stand-out was the dawn of country music. I wrote about Vernon Dalhart and Ernest V. Stoneman in the 1925 entry, but the big, earth-shattering event occurred in Bristol, Tennessee, between July 25 and August 5, 1927. That’s when Ralph Peer took recording out of the New York City studios and went out to record some “hillbilly” acts for Victor Records. In the same session, he managed to record both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
The Carters were huge throughout the 20’s and 30’s with hits like Keep On the Sunny Side, Wabash Cannonball, Worried Man Blues and Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By). Their biggest made the top 40 in 1928. Wildwood Flower perfectly displays the guitar picking style of Maybelle Carter that combined rhythm and melody. Known as the “Carter scratch,” it turned the guitar into a lead instrument.
Jimmie Rodgers was among the first performers to write his own songs. He developed a yodeling style that combined folk and 12-bar blues that he turned into a series of 13 Blue Yodels. His first, Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas), was such a massive hit that he became an overnight sensation. He wound up in movies and recorded Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ On the Corner) with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. Sadly, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924, and he died in 1933 at age 35.
The last thing of note isn’t very obvious from listening to the records of the 1920’s, but it’s another beginning to something big. In 1928, the biggest recording artist in the history of ever had his first hit as a singer for Paul Whiteman’s band. Bing Crosby hit #1 with a jazzy version of Ol’ Man River.