Bristol, Tenn., Aug. 5, 1927: All of Bristol has been excited for more than a week now, about our visit from a “bigtime” talent scout from New York City.
Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA), the world’s largest phonograph record producer, has been advertising every day about his search for singers here.
Peer says Bristol is just his first stop. When he leaves here, he will hold singing auditions all over the South, looking for what he describes as “hillbilly” singers. Those are the singers the Victor company wants. Hillbillies are people from this country’s hills and plains who write and sing songs about the rural American experience. Just plain country folk who can really feel their music.
In a dingy storage room, made up to be a temporary recording studio, on the third floor of an old, abandoned hat warehouse at 408-10 State Street, Peer has been listening to the singing talents of “hillbillies” for days now. These would-be hillbilly singing successes have come from rustic mountain cabins and clapboard farm houses for hundreds of miles around. Some with talent. Others have gone home disappointed.
Yesterday, though, Peer really liked what he heard from a 28-year-old, poor, down-on-his-luck, one-time brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad named Jimmie Rodgers from Meridian, Miss.
Peer said, “I was elated when I heard this guy perform. It seemed to me that he had his own personal and peculiar style, and I thought his yodel alone might spell success. I consider Rodgers to be one of my best bets,” here in Bristol.
Rodgers recorded two songs in the audition: an old mountain lullaby called “Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” and a song he had written about a railroad friend of his who was killed in the Great War (World War I) which Rodger’s titled “Soldier’s Sweetheart.”
Rodger’s can thank his wife, Carrie, for his being here in Bristol to get this “bigtime” break. Carrie heard about the audition by chance and decided the whole family, including their 6-year-old daughter, Carrie Anita, needed to make the drive up here for a shot at stardom. The family had no money. Jimmy had to sing on street corners and in local bars in towns along the way just to make enough money to pay for their Bristol trip.
The Rodger’s family stayed in an old run-down boarding house Wednesday night. But after yesterday’s audition, Ralph Peer slipped Rodgers a $20 bill to put a little hope in his step. The singing brakeman and his family ate and slept well last night, in a nice hotel.
If Ralph Peer is right, Jimmy Rodgers and his family will likely become accustomed to those finer accommodations, as he travels around the country performing in the not-too-distant future.
Jimmy Rodgers didn’t catapult to stardom “overnight” after that audition – but almost. After a few months of selling his two audition recordings, the Victor company sent him a royalty check for $27.43.
It would take another six months for Jimmy Rodgers to do more recordings and really to step into the singing spotlight, but step he did in 1928. He was creating a whole new sound in recorded music. It would take decades actually to put a name to what he sang, but today, its name is something called “Country Music.” Within the year, his royalty checks jumped to $2,000 a month (about $26,000 today), as he became one of the most popular and unique singers in the entire country. Millions of dollars and fans rolled into his life after that. And, over the years, he acquired a more lasting legacy than just money and popularity. Today, he has the unequivocal title of “The Father of Country Music.” All the greats have studied him – Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Earnest Tubb … It is a long and wide list.
Unfortunately, like a shooting star, his career was brief. Rodgers suffered from tuberculosis most of his life. The disease always made it difficult for him to perform. In just six short years, from the time he walked up those three flights of dusty stairs in Bristol, to his peak as a rising star, TB finally killed him. He died while doing a recording session in New York on May 26, 1933, at just 35 years old.
Thousands of his fans actually cried. The rough commonalty of his work life, his music and he himself touched the hearts of country folk like no one had ever done. His death brought true sadness to millions.The deaths of Elvis and Michael Jackson might be equivalents today, to the shared sad feelings of the country on the loss of this remarkably versatile entertainer in 1933.
Jimmy Rodger’s body was brought back to Meridian – appropriately enough – on a long, slow, last train ride. He was buried there as one of the great entertainment icons of the age and has earned a permanent place in all our Southern Memories.
Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal