In the new Netflix adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and in August Wilson’s original play, the record company owner and talent agent are cast to represent the droves of white music executives who profited off of Black artists in the 1920s. The resentment that causes among the story’s Black musicians — including Rainey, the Chicago singer commonly referred to as the “Mother of the Blues” — is a motivation for its violent climax.
In real life, the record company also had a go-between: Ma Rainey was signed to a recording contract — and likely financially exploited — with the help of a Black talent scout from Chicago.
That unscrupulous A&R, J. Mayo Williams, is in the Blues Hall of Fame for his work with Rainey and other musicians, but he did not begin his career as a record executive. He gained his earliest acclaim as one of the National Football League’s first Black players.
Williams grew up in Monmouth, Illinois, where his family moved after his father was killed by a co-worker in Arkansas. After leading the Monmouth Maroons to the Illinois State Championship football game, he was recruited to play at Brown University by Fritz Pollard, a Lane Tech grad who would become the NFL’s first Black coach.
In the early years of the NFL, Williams and Pollard were two of the league’s three Black players. Williams was nicknamed “Ink” or “Inky.” (Some music historians assert this was because of his skill at getting musicians to sign contracts, but he was referred to as “Ink” in newspaper stories long before then, during his football career, so it was more likely a racial slur.)
Williams played six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a left end for the Hammond Pros, one of the league’s also-rans. The Pros never posted a winning season, and folded in 1925. The team wasn’t really from Hammond — they played home games in the Cubs’ ballpark at Clark and Addison, then simply called Cubs Park — and the players weren’t really pros. Williams was paid $150 a game for five or six games every autumn, which meant he needed a day job. Those were the Prohibition years, so he sold bathtub gin to a jazz club, wrote a sports column for the Chicago Whip, a Black newspaper that competed with the Defender, and worked as a collection agent for the Pace Phonographic Corporation, which ran Black Swan Records, one of the first labels to record Black artists. Williams got that job through a fraternity brother, and, although he was no musician, used it as his entree into the music business.
When Black Swan went bankrupt in 1923 and sold its masters to Paramount Records, Williams saw an opportunity. Paramount was getting into what were then called “race records,” and it needed someone who knew Chicago’s Black music scene. Williams was hired on two conditions: he wouldn’t recruit white artists, and he would work on commission, extracting royalties, fees, and copyrights from the musicians he signed.
The same year Paramount hired Williams, Ma Rainey quit the Southern tent-show circuit and moved up to Chicago. The city was the nation’s jazz capital, having also attracted Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver. Williams discovered his star blues singer in December 1923 at the Monogram Theater, a juke joint two blocks from his office at 3453 S. State Street, in the heart of the Black Belt. (Ethel Waters wrote that the club’s walls were so thin, “you stopped singing every time a train passed.”) Williams signed Rainey to Paramount and produced her first sides for the label, including “See See Rider Blues,” featuring Armstrong on trumpet. It was a landmark recording.
In a 1924 Defender ad, music fans were challenged to name a new “Mystery Record,” “sung by the world famous ‘Ma’ Rainey, Mother of the Blues.” First prize was a console phonograph. Williams was listed as one of the judges.
Despite his lack of musical training, Williams was a successful talent scout. He also signed Papa Charlie Jackson, the first self-accompanied bluesman to cut a record, after hearing him busking in the Maxwell Street Market. Later in his career, he headed the race records department at Decca, where he recorded Kokomo Arnold, Sleepy John Estes, Alberta Hunter, and Louis Jordan. According to Monmouth College historian Jeff Rankin, he used his Ivy League education, combined with his country background, to act as a bridge between the Blues world and white-owned record companies.
“Williams went against the grain among fellow educated African Americans of the time, who considered blues music to be unsophisticated and potentially damaging to upward mobility for Blacks,” writes Rankin. “While growing up in Monmouth, he had developed an appreciation for the genre from his mother and believed the blues to be a proud part of his racial heritage.”
Like many talent agents and record executives before and after, Williams gained a reputation as a con artist. He paid his musicians a flat recording fee, then chiseled them out of royalties and copyrights.
Of course, he did so on behalf of the white bosses at Paramount. By hiring Williams to work on commission, rather than as a salaried employee, Paramount more or less forced him to grift; taking advantage of the company’s contract system was the only way for him to earn a living. Williams later boasted to a prospective biographer that nine out of ten Paramount artists received no royalties, regardless of sales – a figure that likely included Rainey. In his book Recorded Music in American Life, music historian William Howland Kenney detailed Williams’s dishonest methods:
Others condemned his “performance royalty” or recording fee before the session took place. Alberta Hunter accused him of pocketing money owed to her by negotiating with other record companies for rights to record her material. Indeed, a standard recording contract, written by Paramount, not Williams, provided for a 1¢ royalty for each “net” record sale, leaving plenty of doubt over the definition of terms. His creative bookkeeping assured that the vast majority of artists saw no sales royalties at all…August Wilson’s play portrays white studio executives exploiting Ma Rainey for profit. In reality, of course, African Americans like Mayo Williams also exploited them for their own and the company’s profit.
Hunter called Williams “a thief from the day he was conceived.” Williams didn’t deny it. He once said, “I’ve got a good bit of Shylock in me,” and believed that the only way to make money in music was to “screw the artist before he screws you.”
Despite that, in 2004, Williams was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. Reads his biography there: “He produced and recorded many top Blues artists, including Blind Boy Fuller, Louis Jordan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Tampa Red, and Muddy Waters, among others, playing a large hand in bringing Blues music to the world.”