The Old-Time Herald is pleased to present a new resource on our website. “Champion Records: Old-Time Playing and Singing” is an extensive historical record, compiled by Kinney Rorrer and T. Malcolm Rockwell, showing the shipping figures for old-time music recordings issued on the Champion label between 1925 and 1934. The data offer important insights into the popularity of some of the prominent as well as lesser-known performers of the era, and the impact that the Great Depression had on the early country music industry.
Fans of old-time music have, in many instances, listened to reissues of pioneer old-time players and singers such as Ernest Stoneman, Grayson and Whitter, Roy Harvey, Doc Roberts, the Red Fox Chasers, Ben Jarrell, Jimmy Johnson’s String Band, and many others whose classic sides were recorded by the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana. While many of the earliest releases by these artists were issued on the 75-cent Gennett label, many others were issued on Starr’s budget label, Champion, and sold for 35 cents each. After the demise of the Gennett label in 1930, the Starr Piano Company continued releasing old-time music on the Champion label as well as on another budget label, Superior. (Starr Piano also custom-pressed old-time releases for Sears and Roebuck on their Supertone, Challenge, and Silvertone labels, sold through their catalogues.) However, in many cases, the later old-time releases were limited to Champion only. The Champion releases also included Hawaiian music, novelty tunes, jazz, popular music, gospel, and blues (so-called “race records”).
The Champion releases began in September of 1925 and continued until December of 1934. The series began with number 15001 and ended with release number 16832. The first old-time release on Champion was by Vernon Dalhart (“The Runaway Train” / “The Lightning Express,” Champion 15017, recorded 1925), whose recordings would account for 15 of the first 25 old-time releases. As Dalhart’s popularity faded, more authentic rural Southern singers and players would come to dominate the old-time music series. By the 15200s, Champion tended to release old-time music in blocks of three or four records at a time. Eventually the old-time releases would come in blocks of six or more. By 1930 it was not unusual to have as many as a dozen old-time releases at a time. Old-time singing, string bands, and gospel music came to rule the series by the early 1930s. While Champion drew artists from many regions in the South, artists from West Virginia and Kentucky became major players in the new releases. This may have been due to their proximity to Richmond, Indiana.
The highest-selling record among the Champion old-time releases was by Carson Robison. 37,280 copies of his Champion 15746 (“Why Did I Get Married” / “’Leven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat”) were shipped. Champion 15750 (Melvin Robinette and Byrd Moore’s “Birmingham Jail” and Leonard Rutherford and John D. Foster’s “Six Months Ain’t Long”) came in second with 29,871 copies shipped from the factories in Richmond. Grayson and Whitter, Asa Martin, and John McGhee also had respectable selling records, with their best-sellers topping 16,000, 21,000, and 17,000 discs sold, respectively. By the 1930s, following the collapse of the national economy in the fall of 1929, record sales became anemic. With the exception of some of the Jimmie Rodgers-inspired singers such as Gene Autry and Cliff Carlisle, few old-time releases were topping 500 copies by 1933. Many in fact fell into the double digits only. Unfortunately, it was during this sales drought that amazing and exciting groups such as the Shepherd Brothers, the Walter Family, Jimmie Johnson’s String Band, and others appeared before the microphone at Gennett studios. Many of these masterful performances survive in only a handful of copies, if they survive at all. During its lifetime, Champion Records recorded and thus preserved some of the finest rural acoustic music of the time. The recordings are, as discographer George Blacker has called them, a true “parade of champions.”
Special and sincere thanks go to T. Malcolm Rockwell for his hours of labor in going through the surviving ledgers and tabulating the figures for me. This project would not have been possible without his hard work. Thanks also to Dave Freeman for checking my figures and sending me some additional ones. Finally, special thanks go to Roger Misiewicz for urging me to take on this endeavor. I appreciate his example and moral support very much.