Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PEER, Ralph

(b Ralph Sylvester Peer, 22 May 1892, Independence MO; d 19 January 1960, Hollywood) Talent scout, record producer, music publisher. Of all the pioneers in early 'hillbilly' and 'race' music, including Lester Melrose and British-born Art Satherley, Peer became the best known and most successful; with luck, instinct and enlightened self-interest he created a music publishing empire.

Peer’s father sold sewing machines, Columbia phonographs and records; Ralph ordered records and parts for phonographs, then went to work for Columbia in Kansas City, was hired away to Okeh and worked for Fred Hagar, who was responsible for the first blues record (Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues' in 1920). Peer coined the term 'race' records (less limiting than 'Negro'). He recorded harmonica player Henry Whittier early in 1923 but thought nothing of it, and was sent to Atlanta in June, where furniture dealer Polk Brockman was the regional Okeh distributor. (The name of the label was later spelled OKeh on the record labels.) In those days record players and records were mostly sold in furniture stores, Edison’s phonograph and then Berliner’s gramophone (Americans continued to use the word ‘phonograph’) considered a living room or parlor accessory. Brockman had spotted a new market in working-class white and black people who were moving into town from the countryside; he wanted Peer to record Fiddlin' John Carson. 'The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane'/'Old Hen Cackled And The Rooster's Going To Crow' could be called the first genuine country record. Peer thought so little of it he didn’t give it an Okeh catalogue number, but Brockman soon sold out the initial pressing and history was made: they had discovered what we now call Americana. Brockman became a record producer; in particular, he was the first to record Rev. J.M. Gates (1885-1941), the most popular recorded preacher, who recorded about 100 three-minute sermons in 1926 alone. But Brockman lacked Peer’s instinct for business.

Peer made more field trips, recording Pops Stoneman, and a string band from Virginia who didn’t have a name. Peer asked them what they wanted to be called, and they said he could call them anything he wanted, because they were just a bunch of hillbillies, so he called them the Hill Billies, naming the music. He soon realized the value of copyrights and pressed artists for 'new' songs, but also knew it would be foolish to cheat the composers, sharing royalties from the beginning. Peer left Okeh late in 1925 but could not find another job, so he offered to record free for Victor in exchange for the copyrights. Time and again he was in the right place at the right time: he chose Bristol, Tennessee, because it was in the corner of the state not far from North Carolina, Virginia and not all that far from Kentucky; he advertised in the newspaper for performers who wanted to record, and in the first week in August 1927 he recorded the first sessions by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. He made the most famous sides by bluesmen Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey in Memphis in 1928; his contact in that case was music shop owner H.C. Speir in Jackson MS (b 1895), who had made test recordings and sent them to Peer.

He formed a publishing company, Southern Music, in 1928, owned by Victor with the understanding that Victor would throw pop copyrights his way. Meanwhile he had lured Eli Oberstein from Okeh to Victor to keep an eye on his interests, but the two men became enemies; Oberstein was a colorful wheeler-dealer who became a successful producer at Victor and had his own eye on the main chance, and Peer was picking up only scraps (albeit some pretty nice ones: Hoagy Carmichael's 'Lazy Bones', Don Redman's 'Cherry'). But then RCA's David Sarnoff, having taken over Victor, sold Southern Music with all its copyrights to Peer in 1932 to avoid anti-trust problems. Affiliated with ASCAP since 1928, Peer saw the ASCAP strike against the broadcasters coming, and had also been acquiring Mexican and South American copyrights; he formed Peer International in 1940, among the first important BMI affiliates, decades later still one of the biggest, and was able to do business during the strike. He became an expert on international copyright law, and set up the first overseas offices for country music. He also grew camellias, receiving a medal from the Royal Horticultural Society in London for research. His widow continued to support the Country Music Association, especially in international aspects; his son Ralph Peer Jr held CMA offices.

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, by Barry Mazor (2014), was the first book on the subject of Peer and his career, and a fine one. See also entries for Country Music, Oberstein, ASCAP and BMI.