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For many of Gennett’s classical releases, the New York studio organized a group of area musicians for its Gennett Symphony Orchestra. The studio recorded classical soloists, such as the famed violinist Scipione Guidi and pianist Herman Ostheimer. The Richmond studio also pressed records by classical music ensembles in the Midwest, including the nearby Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

During the early 1920s, the Gennett studios also recorded such popular singers as Arthur Hall, Sam Ash, George Wilton Ballard, Henry Burr, Al Bernard, Arthur Fields, Harry “Singing Sam” Frankel, Harry McClaskey, and Ernest Hare, a popular New York entertainer who sang in blackface in New York. These singers also appeared prominently on popular sheet music of the day. Because Gennett Records did not bind these artists to long-term contracts, the company lost many of them to competing labels.

Such was the case with Wendell Hall, a “hillbilly” singer who often performed in cheesy hillbilly garb. In 1922, Starr Piano chartered a Pullman car and brought Pittsburgh piano dealers to Richmond for a factory tour and party. A huge buffet luncheon, with a stuffed pig as the centerpiece, was set up in the administration building. As dealers were gathering, a shabbily dressed, red-haired Hall arrived, wanting to make a few records. Hall had worked as a song plugger for Forster Music in Chicago, and traveled the Midwest to play in music stores and theaters. So he knew how to work a crowd. Hall eventually found his way to the buffet line and later pulled out his ukulele and entertained the amused audience with his collection of original hillbilly songs. “He looked like a tramp,” said Starr Piano salesman Wilson Taggart, whose job at the luncheon was to hobnob with dealers. “He and his darned old ukulele, there was just something about him.” With typical Gennett Records spontaneity, Wickemeyer took Hall down to the recording studio the same afternoon, where Hall knocked out one song after another.

Hall’s “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo” and “Red Headed Music Maker,” back-to-back on a blue-labeled Gennett disc, was an instant success. It was one of the first “hillbilly” records ever released and one of the better selling discs waxed in the Richmond studio. (Original copies often appear on Internet record auctions.) Yet Hall wasn’t as dumb as his image suggested. At the afternoon recording session, the Gennett staff gave him a souvenir test pressing, a common courtesy extended to the studio’s recording artists. Hall promptly presented the test record to Victor Records as part of his bid to record for America’s dominant label. Within a few months, he recorded “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo” for Victor, which became one of America’s best-selling records in 1923. Hall soon became a popular radio personality.

Novelty acts like Hall and comedy records were easy money for the record labels, as consumers were eager to buy anything new on disc, and Gennett recorded several. Found in antique stores and Internet record auctions is the odd Gennett Laughing Record, which finds a group of people laughing hysterically at a series of muffed violin solos. Such a disc met the fundamental Gennett Records objective of making profit by selling enough records to exceed the low production costs. Hardly art, but great business.

Gennett’s Physical Culture exercise package, a three-record set of twelve exercises set to music, featured enthusiastic instructions from one Clarence Nichols, dubbed the New York Physical Director. The Physical Culture record sleeve showed a hefty woman in a slip working out next to her Gennett phonograph. The Gennett exercise collection promised an invigorating workout for the body without dieting, gym grind, or long hours of training.

In addition to countless discs by local hotel dance orchestras, Gennett Records produced thousands of sacred music records, mostly by the Criterion Male Quartette and by gospel baritone Homer Rodeheaver. White gospel records were enormously popular in the 1920s, as a Christian evangelical revival swept across the Heartland. Gennett’s Richmond studio, with ready access to the tent gospel groups touring the Midwest, became a leading supplier of sacred discs. The Richmond pressing plant also custom-pressed thousands of discs for the singing Rodeheaver family’s personal Rainbow record label.

William Jennings Bryan, the famous orator, statesman, and three-time U.S. presidential candidate, traveled to Richmond in 1923 to record portions of the Cross of Gold speech, his famous oration from the 1896 Democratic presidential convention. The speech covered both sides of a disc, which Gennett Records issued in early 1924. The studio recorded and issued additional speeches by Bryan, as well as him gently reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible’s 23rd Psalm, backed by a string accompaniment of “Rock of Ages.” Gennett sold Bryan’s religious records during Christmas on a seasonal red label. Bryan died in 1925. Long after Gennett Records closed down, Fred Gennett expressed particular pride in the discs by Bryan and other dignitaries, as opposed to the musical releases.

Recording the Ku Klux Klan

Gennett Records also profited from the early 1920s popularity of the Ku Klux Klan, which exploited the unease created by the mass migration of European Catholics and Jews to the United States after World War I. Indiana became a Klan hotbed, with state membership exceeding 250,000 during the early 1920s, representing the largest Klan contingent of any state in the nation. While Klan behavior is traditionally associated as an affront to African Americans, its political bent in Indiana in the early 1920s was grounded in a radical Protestant patriotism with strong warnings against immigration and the growing influence of Catholics and Jews. For example, the 1924 literature from Whitewater Klan 60, the Richmond-based klavern, wrote, “We honor the Christ as the Klansman’s only criterion of charter,” then attacked the “Roman Catholic Hierarchy,” noting that the men who assassinated presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield were all Catholics.

Klan musical discs recorded by Gennett captured these political winds blowing in the state. Pressed with red labels and gold KKK lettering, the records often listed the performers as “100 percent Americans” and featured vocal numbers with piano or band accompaniment. The Klan took old hymns and politicized them with new lyrics, such as “The Bright Fiery Cross” (based on “The Old Rugged Cross”), “Cross in the Wildwood” (“Church in the Wildwood”), or “Onward Christian Klansman” (“Onward Christian Soldiers”). Other Klan records recorded and custom-pressed by Gennett included “The Pope’s Warning,” “There’ll Be a Hot Time, Klansman,” “You’re Going to Leave the Old Home, Jim,” “Johnny Join the Klan, Come to the Cross,” and “Daddy Swiped Our Last Clean Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan.”

The discs never appeared in Gennett record catalogs. The company recorded and pressed them for direct payment from the Klan. Gennett shipped the discs to the Klan headquarters in Indianapolis or to various Indiana klaverns. Both the Richmond and New York studios recorded Klan discs. The labels of some discs included a post office address in Indianapolis for the American, a Klan-affiliated organization, which took orders for the records. “The Gennett studio did all kinds of custom pressing because you got paid up front,” said Richard Gennett. “That was good business. But none of the Gennetts were members of the Klan.”38 Gennett Records’ assistant sales manager Clayton Jackson recalled the company waxing “a helluva lot of records for them [KKK]. We used to load them on passenger interurban cars [commuter trains] and take them [records] to Indianapolis.”

It is ironic that Gennett Records, a pioneer label for African American and other ethnic music, would press Klan discs. However, it reflected the Gennett family’s business pragmatism in an era of extreme Klan popularity in Indiana. A large part of the Klan appeal in Indiana was attributable to the charismatic David Curtis Stephenson, who headed a Klan region covering twenty-three states from his office in Indianapolis. A forceful speaker, Stephenson wielded tremendous political clout in the Indiana capital before his imprisonment in 1925. Klan popularity in the state steeply declined after he was found guilty of second-degree murder in the highly publicized suicide death of school teacher Madge Oberholtzer, who poisoned herself after having been molested by Stephenson.

During the Stephenson–Klan popularity wave, the organization was highly visible in Richmond. Marketed like a fraternal organization, the Klan had hundreds of members living close to Starr Valley. Historian Leonard Moore, in his exhaustive study of the Klan in 1920s Indiana estimated that one of every three native-born, white Protestant males in Richmond in the early 1920s was a member. In a town of almost 26,000 people during 1921–27, Moore tallied 3,183 Klan members in the membership logs, including 30 percent of the town’s physicians and 20 percent of its lawyers. Local members, who paid $6 annual dues, also included ministers, city councilmen, and small business owners. They met on Friday nights in large numbers in the Pythias Building downtown. Moore found no examples of Klan-related violence or disturbances reported in the Richmond newspapers during 1922–25. However, the local Klan members could create an intimidating presence and burned crosses in the 1920s in the neighborhood directly north of the downtown railroad depot, known as Goose Town, where African Americans and Catholic Italians resided.

The Gennett family’s lack of Klan involvement reflected the hands-off attitude of other Richmond industrial leaders. The heart of the Klan membership in Richmond included small-business owners, sole proprietors, lower-level white-collar employees, and laborers. Gennett studio engineer Wickemeyer and several of his family relatives were Klan members, according to the membership rosters, along with many other Starr Piano employees, including plant foreman Frederick Hufer. Members posted Klan literature in the Starr factory buildings. While the Gennett family employed blacks in their homes, the Starr factories never employed blacks in the 1920s. African Americans represented about 6 percent of Richmond’s population during the era.

The Klan presence in Richmond created occasional tensions at Starr Piano. One morning in the early 1920s, C. A. Rhinehart and W. R. Rhinehart, two Klan members who drove an ice truck in nearby Muncie, entered the administration office near the entrance of the Starr factory and laid $400 on the table with the idea of making one thousand records. Clayton Jackson, Gennett’s assistant sales manager, took the cash and pointed them toward the recording studio. Jackson claimed that Harry Gennett, Henry’s eldest son, became incensed. However, that didn’t stop the Rhineharts from producing several Klan records in Richmond, including W. R. Rhinehart–credited songs “Klansman Keep the Cross A Burning,” “There’ll Be A Hot Time, Klansman,” and “That Dear Old Fiery Cross.” The ice deliveryman who authored these fire-themed lyrics also provided the lead vocals to piano accompaniment.

In another incident, Taggart recalled Clarence Gennett objecting to a Klan test record he heard playing on a phonograph in the Starr front office. After Gennett ordered the disc destroyed, Taggart quietly instructed a staffer to “send the wax down to the electroplating room so we each got a copy of it before we destroyed everything. Clarence never knew that.” Taggart added: “Some of the Catholics took up the fact that they [Gennett Records] were making records for the KKK.”

The most overt Klan action in Richmond occurred on October 5, 1923, when thousands of local and area members assembled in Glen Miller Park and paraded down East Main Street. Coincidentally, it was the same day that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, recorded a second series of important discs at the Richmond studio. “The largest Ku Klux Klan demonstration ever given in Wayne County was viewed last night by approximately 30,000 people,” reported the Richmond Item. “Fully 6,000 members of the Klan participated in the monster parade, which in magnitude and impressiveness has had few equals in the city.” The paper also reported “several hundred members of the women’s branch of the mysterious order” in the parade, and a student band from Earlham College, the local Quaker college, played “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here.” The competing Richmond Palladium & Sun Telegram, which held an antagonistic attitude toward the local Klan, reported only 1,500 participants and emphasized that the local mayor forced Klan members to keep its ceremonies in the park open to the public. “I sat on the front lawn of my grandfather’s house [Henry Gennett’s estate] on Main Street and watched the Klan parade down the street,” said Richard Gennett, son of Fred Gennett. “The Klan was a big thing in Richmond back then. We put out the [KKK] records because they paid us. That was all. We did a lot of vanity records for all kinds of people.”

Halcyon Days in Starr Valley

Specialty pressing for private individuals was a profitable sideline for Gennett Records. Collectors have prized numerous personal recordings by Gennett over the years, such as a rare 1922 disc by bandleader Joe Kayser. However, the primary company revenues were always derived from the standard Gennett releases in the Gennett Records catalog. These discs were sold in a Gennett record sleeve with an emblem depicting three girls in dresses dancing gleefully below the slogan, “The Difference is in the Tone.”

The Gennett releases were shipped by railroad car or truck to the numerous Starr Piano stores, which had large Gennett Records displays set up near the Starr phonograph retail area. Gennett discs in the early 1920s sold for $.85 to $1.10 each, a range comparable to competing labels. Jackson said Gennett Records considered the break-even point for a particular release to be 18,000 to 20,000 copies, though many Gennett releases later in the decade never approached such sales figures.

The independent dealers purchased the Gennett records wholesale, directly from the Starr plant, at 55 percent off the retail price. Small department stores and variety stores around the nation could obtain Gennett records through independent jobbers, who purchased large quantities of records at a discount from a Starr Piano store. They drove around the countryside with the discs piled up in their cars and called on small retailers. “When we had a hit on the East Coast, we’d ship records to beat hell to New York,” Jackson said. “We had two dual-wheel trucks and we’d send loads of records on those two trucks. We’d send them trucks to New York, and they’d bring records back through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. We kept cycling them back this way.”

Starr Piano salesmen commonly promoted Gennett Records during sales calls for the piano company. While Starr Piano employees were paid paltry salaries, the salesmen loved to travel for the company, because the Gennett family demanded that they stay in the best hotels in order to enhance the company’s image. Once, when Taggart stopped in Iowa for the piano company, he met with one of Starr’s independent jobbers in order to promote the Criterion Quartette’s new release of “Iowa Corn Song” on the Gennett label. “I had more fun than a barrel of monkeys on that trip,” said Taggart. “This old man [the jobber] would always hunt up a cheap hotel. I’d always stay at the best. In those days, they had listening booths in the record stores. So I’d go into a music store, slip into one of those booths, and put this ‘Iowa Corn Song’ on, and the people would stack up trying to hear it.”

The early 1920s were the halcyon days for Gennett Records. Back in Richmond, Taggart would encounter Henry Gennett making the rounds of the Starr Piano factory when the division’s record business was booming. “He used to come around in the morning, rubbing his hands together, round and round,” Taggart said. “This was when the record business was pretty good. He’d ask ‘How are the checks coming in today?’ I’d tell him what we got in our end of it. He said, ‘Well, you’re holding up the piano business right now.’”

Clearly, Henry Gennett, who turned sixty-five in 1918, had provided the vision behind Starr Piano. But in the years leading up to 1922, he had essentially turned over day-to-day management to his sons, while he and his wife, Alice, took long trips to exotic spots around the world. Henry also maintained a close connection with Starr Piano’s thriving Pacific Division in California. He enjoyed long stays along the Santa Barbara coast. California had also become a second home to Henry and Alice’s only daughter, Rose. The family sensed that Henry was considering a permanent move to Southern California, where the family owned property.

During these prosperous years, the Gennett sons – Clarence, Fred, and Harry – raised families in stately homes, all within a couple of blocks of their parents’ mansion on East Main Street. The sons, as well as their sister, Rose, each married members of prominent Richmond families living nearby. The eldest son, Harry, who lived at 65 South Twenty-First Street, helped his father manage the piano manufacturing operations. His wife, Grace, was the daughter of Henry Robinson, president of Robinson & Co. (later Swayne, Robinson & Co.), a machining and casting factory across the road from Starr Piano and a major casting supplier to the piano factory. Like his father, Harry Gennett was a short man, but more robust. Probably the best liked of the Gennett sons at Starr Piano, Harry was known for his humor, infectious laugh, and private philanthropy. He took an interest in the welfare of Starr employees and personally secured work permits for Richmond boys under the legal working age who sought employment at the piano factory. Eventually, Harry would take over as president of Starr Piano.

The middle son, Clarence, who lived at 102 S. Eighteenth Street and served as company treasurer, was more removed from the manufacturing operations in the Starr Valley. His wife, Ruby, was the daughter of John Hasecoster, the prominent architect and designer of the Gennett mansion on East Main Street. Clarence’s father-in-law lived a few houses away. In 1915, Clarence and his wife purchased a vacation home in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where the family spent much of the summer. More of a social lion and small-town aristocrat, Clarence was actively involved in numerous social and civic organizations, including the Richmond Country Club. Like his father, he served on the boards of local companies. He was active in the local Presbyterian Church and even found time to moonlight as a sheriff’s deputy.

Some Starr employees found Clarence aloof. “He was a stiff-shirt; he thought he was top-stuff,” said Harold Soule, former recording engineer at the Richmond studio. “He used to drive down the street in his electric car. He wouldn’t even spit on you, let alone look at you.”5Clarence’s niece Florence Gennett offered a more gentle assessment, noting that he “tried to be well-mannered. He wasn’t very down to earth. I used to see him downtown. I’d say ‘Hi, Uncle Clarence!’ He would nod his head slightly and say, ‘How do you do, Florence.’ No smile. Nothing else. He’d just go on his way.”

The youngest son, Fred, supervised Starr Piano sales accounts and the Gennett Records division. A thin man of medium height, with receding black hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Fred resembled a scholar more than a Midwestern businessman engaged in the pioneer recording industry. Personable and unassuming, Fred was the prototypically conservative Indiana executive. Like his brothers, he went to work in the family piano business right out of high school, and became a company officer at age nineteen. In 1907, he married Hazel Reid, daughter of a local fence manufacturer, Pettis Reid, whose family spearheaded the construction of Richmond’s Reid Memorial Hospital. A true blueblood, Hazel held local offices in the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of American Colonists.

Fred and Hazel and their four children lived comfortably, employing an African American maid and a groundskeeper, in a spacious two-story, wood-frame mansion with a large pillared porch at 144 South Twenty-First Street, twenty blocks (1.5 miles) from the Starr Piano factory. Fred routinely walked to work each morning, and neighborhood women would say that they could set their clocks by his passing. Fred’s house was filled with music. On their Starr phonograph, Fred and the children cranked up test pressings or new Gennett releases. When they grew tired of the discs, they simply returned them to the Starr factory to be melted down. Richard Gennett said that his father fancied himself a good pianist, though his skills were limited. Hazel, on the other hand, was an accomplished violinist and pianist and sang in the church choir.

Unlike brother Clarence, Fred was a bit more private. He did not attend church, and he had a particular aversion to Catholicism. Neither was he active in the local country club. He spent many free hours around the house, working in the yard or planting a garden. Richard said that his father didn’t drink or smoke, at least around the kids, and eschewed crude language. “Whenever I would cuss, Pop would stare down at me and say ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’”

Fred shared his father’s fascination with California and spent weeks at a time with his father on the West Coast. He was actively involved in the development of the Pacific Division and once expressed the desire to move the company’s piano manufacturing operations to the West Coast. But, as with many projects Fred envisioned or initiated, he did not follow through. He was easily bored with details, a personality trait that cost the company money in later years.

In April 1922, while Henry Gennett was conducting business at Starr’s Pacific Division in Los Angeles, he became ill. He promptly returned to Richmond, where his health continued to deteriorate for about a month. On a Friday night, June 2, 1922, he died at Miami Valley Hospital in nearby Dayton, Ohio, with his wife and son Harry at his side. Henry was sixty-nine years old.

His body was laid out for viewing the next day at his home. That evening, hundreds of his employees assembled at the downtown Starr Piano store and walked as a group to the Gennett mansion, where hundreds of other local friends paid respects. On Sunday morning, members of the local Elks lodge assembled to attend the funeral in the open area of the mansion’s main floor, with the casket positioned in front of the huge fireplace. The room was packed. Richard Gennett remembered that a Starr employee service pin, awarded to company workers, was attached to his grandfather’s coat lapel but was removed by someone just before the casket was closed. Henry’s body was cremated in Cincinnati, and the ashes were sent to California, the state he loved.

Henry died at the financial peak of Starr Piano and Gennett Records. Shortly after his death, a letter from the company’s accountants arrived in Starr Valley. Taggart accidentally opened it and learned that the estimated net worth of Starr Piano was $7 million. From the viewpoint of many Starr Piano employees, including Taggart, Henry’s hard-driving demeanor had been key to the company’s national prominence. “One time we had sent down a whole mess of records that were to go to Los Angeles,” Taggart said. “When we would get them ready, we would take them down to the packing room and then they were supposed to go in with a carload of pianos. We got a telegram back one day saying there were no records in that car. Right away, old Henry jumped on me. I got the books out which showed where the packing room had receipted for them when we took them down [to the train car]. Henry gathered together Harry, Clarence, Fred, myself, and the packing room boss. He said, ‘Well now, I’ll tell you boys, whoever is to blame for this foul up, I want him fired right now. Let’s clean it up.’ He never fired the packing room boss or anybody. He would make decisions though. The old man had the reputation that when orders for pianos and records would slow up, he’d go out himself and get some orders. None of those boys would.”

Harry became company president upon his father’s death. He regularly sought business counsel for years from his mother, Alice, who served as company vice president and board director and often visited the plant. In fact, the three sons frequently met with their mother at noon at the Gennett mansion to brief her on company activities. “She had a very strong personality,” said grandson Henry Gennett Martin. “She never settled for being in the background. She was a matriarch.” Florence Gennett, Harry’s daughter-in-law, recalled the considerable faith that Harry held in his mother. “He thought she was just about the smartest person that ever was,” Florence said. “She had helped Grandfather Gennett build up the business. She had involved herself in it. She really knew about it. He [Harry] would always side with his mother in any arguments with the other brothers.”

The gradual financial slide of Starr Piano and its record division began with Henry’s death. Certainly, the company soon faced enormous challenges beyond the control of the sons. By 1923, the arrival of the cheap home radio seriously affected the piano, phonograph, and recording industries. The annual production of pianos in the United States declined by more than half between 1923 and 1929, with the production of player pianos falling some 86 percent in the same period. Another deadly blow was the onset of the Great Depression in late 1929. In the 1930s, the surviving Gennett family members were locked in bitter disputes over the direction of Starr Piano and its confusing web of subsidiaries. Family friction only contributed to the company’s steady losses, leading to the sale of the company in 1952 at a fraction of the financial worth it had attained during Henry Gennett’s life.

Fortunately for music history, the Gennett family kept their record label in operation throughout the 1920s. Had Gennett Records closed down at its financial peak in the early part of the decade, the label would be long forgotten, a faded memory surviving only in the dusty piles of 78s in antique stores. But when home radio began to impact the sale of pop and classical records, Gennett Records and its competitors responded aggressively, pursuing previously neglected market segments, such as urban black and rural white customers.

A leader in pursuing these market segments, the small Gennett label was among the first companies to record America’s indigenous music genres: jazz, blues, and old-time music, the precursor to country music. As Henry’s ashes were being sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean in mid-1922, a new American music from New Orleans was evolving in noisy dance halls on the south side of Chicago. His youngest son, Fred, along with Fred Wiggins, the Starr Piano store manager in Chicago, were unknowingly about to secure for the small Indiana record label a permanent place in the annals of American recorded music.

Photo courtesy of General Electric Company

Photo courtesy of
General Electric Company

Rick Kennedy is a veteran communications manager with General Electric Company and a former journalist. A freelance music writer for more than 30 years, he is author (with Randy McNutt) of Little Labels–Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music (Indiana University Press, 2001).

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