(Photo courtesy of PBS)
"During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call 'the single most important event in the history of country music.'"
So begins an article recently published by PBS, evocatively titled "The modern music industry was shaped by a man you've never heard of." It follows the release of a new book by music journalist Barr Mazor, called "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music."
So, who exactly was Ralph Peer – and why all the sudden fuss over a man we've "never heard of"?
Born in Missouri in 1892, Ralph Peer built for himself a successful career in recording engineering and record producing – by completely changing the way those things were done. In particular, Peer is credited with pioneering the field recording of music: In June of 1923, he strayed from the norm (which involved inviting artists to record their music in unfamiliar sound studios) by taking his recording equipment on the road. He traveled south to Atlanta, Georgia, where he recorded regional music in places like hotel rooms, ballrooms, and empty warehouse so as to bring the studio to the artist, instead of the other way around. In that way, he revolutionized the way that things were done.
But he didn't stop there. Peer also transformed the way we listen to music, and the way in which artists were paid. He was known to seek out rustic, emotional songs that relied heavily on improvisation, rather than those that could be easily transcribed to sheet music. He then helped create Broadcast Music, Inc. to monetize those records once they were recorded and also guarantee that the musicians were paid whenever their songs were played. To this day, BMI remains an important entity in the music industry. It is a Performance Rights Organization paying royalties to its members for performances of their music and representing some of the biggest names in every possible genre.
In addition to those mighty accomplishments, Ralph Peer may have been the one to give us the first-ever country music recording ("Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane"/"That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster's Goin' To Crow" by Fiddlin' John Carson) and his efforts as a talent scout gave us Jimmie Rodgers (who later became known as the Father of Country Music) and the Carter Family, whom he discovered while touring the southern states with Victor Records in August 1927. He recorded both of them as part of the Bristol Sessions.
Peer's ear was not only tuned to country music. He also went on to publish and record jazz artists through the Southern Music Publishing Company. Those artists included Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. In addition, he worked with popular music artists and recorded Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind."
In the 1930's, Peer discovered Central American music and was one of the pioneers to bring those sounds to the United States. During and after World War II, he published such American classics as "You Are My Sunshine" (sung by Jimmie Davis, covered by Bing Crosby and many others) and "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (Russ Morgan.) Before eventually retiring from the music industry, Peer ventured into the world of '50's rock: Southern published hits by Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and others.
Although Ralph Peer was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984, we don't seem to hear much about him today. He worked behind the scenes, letting the stars he recorded outshine him with their fame – but his contributions to American music as we know it today were immeasurable.
Now, at a time when the music industry is once again going through a period of great change, it is important to look back on the careers of those who came before us – those who gracefully dealt with and adapted to change, and (perhaps more importantly) those who led the charge. Ralph Peer was one of those people. He altered the landscape of the American music scene by adapting local music to suit a broader audience – and also by making sure that those musicians were paid their fair share. He would surely have a lot to say about today's migrating culture, and about the technologies that are once again changing the ways in which we record, listen to and pay for music.