J. Mayo Williams
The names of several former Ivy Leaguers like Fritz Pollard may be more recognizable to most people’s ears. But there is another former Brown athlete and NFL pioneer whose legacy may strike more of a note than many realize. In fact, the next time you hear a blues singer on the radio, you, and your ears, may have this guy to thank.
J. Mayo “Ink” Williams could be described as an anomaly for an African-American male in the early 1900s. He graduated from Brown. Impressive, but other blacks had done the same. He was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NFL. Impressive as well, but there were two other African-Americans with him in the League at the time. So what made Williams so unique? Merely that he rose through the ranks of the recording industry to be one of the most successful producers of blues talent, and to play a major role on music that lasts to this day.
Born in 1894 in Monmouth, Ill., Williams was a standout end for Brown in 1917, 1919 and 1920, earning New York Time third team All-America honors his senior year. Known as a brilliant player who rarely missed a tackle, his senior yearbook said he had never been seen to “emerge from scrimmage without a five-inch grin.”
Williams was also a standout on the cinders, being named New England champion in the 40-yard dash while still at Brown.
Upon graduating in 1921, Williams moved to Chicago to be closer to his mother. It was here that he would not only spearhead changes for future generations of black athletes, but provide opportunities for numerous black musicians as well.
In the infancy of the NFL, Williams joined former Brown teammate Fritz Pollard along with Paul Robeson as members of the Hammond Pros. His playing career lasted until 1926 and included stops in Canton, Dayton and Cleveland. But his primary focus at this time was not the gridiron but the music industry.
In 1922, Paramount Records, based in Wisconsin just outside of Chicago, became the second company to market “race” records, following Okeh from St. Louis. Paramount became famous for its “race” record series and if any one person could take credit for the success, it was Ink Williams.
In the 1920s, before the widespread popularity of the radio blurred the lines between different styles of music, “race” records were marketed and sold to the African-American community. These 78-rpm recordings were produced in small quantities and featured regional styles of blues and jazz.
The first “race” record is attributed to black cabaret singer Mamie Smith, whose recording of “Crazy Blues” was a huge success, eventually selling more than two million copies. Smith’s success was a wake-up call to a recording industry that suddenly realized the huge potential in the African-American market.
The success of “race” records depended on the mail-order business, primarily from customers in the rural South. The sides were marketed through advertisements in black-owned newspapers like the “Chicago Defender,” which had wide distribution in the South.
Finding an opportunity to move into the recording industry at Paramount, Williams interviewed with executives M.A. Supper and Otto Moeser. He later admitted that he may have exaggerated his qualifications for the position, but he was hired as a manager of Chicago Music, the “race” division of Paramount. And more importantly, he would serve as a talent scout and supervisor of recording sessions in the Chicago area. It would be in this role that his greatest successes would occur.
As an educated man dealing largely with artists playing rural music, Williams, whose musicasl tastes ran toward more cultured performers like Paul Robeson, put aside his musical and cultural differences for Paramount. He did have an appreciation for the blues that he picked up from his mother as a child, and he felt the style of music was a valuable part of the African-American community.
Despite his inexperience, Williams, whose side career in the NFL was never discovered by Paramount executives, was the most successful “race” producer of his time. About half of the approximately 40 artists he recorded for Paramount sold well enough ? around 10,000 copies — for the company to record new sides.
Williams established an office on Chicago’s South Side, away from the Wisconsin headquarters of Paramount. His location, in the heart of Chicago’s “stroll” or African-American entertainment district, allowed him to travel to clubs or cabarets within a few blocks to recruit new talent. He also solicited public suggestions for talent in African-American newspapers like “The Chicago Defender.”
Williams, who said his nickname “Ink” came from his ability to convince artists to sign with him, had an uncanny ability to produce musicians that black customers liked. Many artists were surprised, however, to find a black man as an executive, and in 1927, Little Brother Montgomery even refused to record with him, thinking there was no way he could be an executive.
By today’s standards, it would be unlikely to find a producer who doesn’t socialize with talent. But Williams’ “high” social status and introverted personality may have contributed to his tendency to do just this. He also maintained that keeping all artists at an equal distance allowed him to avoid any views of favoritism.
One of the biggest changes in music at this time was the gradual shift in popularity of blues recordings from female nightclub singers to male singer-musicians. This shift is seen in two of Williams’ biggest discoveries, theatre-blues singer Ma Rainey and street corner dancer and banjo player Papa Charlie Jackson.
Rainey — Paramount’s best selling blues artist — had been popular in the South for two decades when Williams discovered her at the Monument Club in Chicago. A stickler for grammar early in his career — even going so far as to say “You didn’t have a chance with me if you split a verb, even if you were one hell of a singer.” Williams seemed to reconsider his practices upon meeting Rainey. Despite being illiterate, Rainey was an immensely talented singer and caused Williams to remark, “What do you want, good grammar or good blues?”
Jackson, whose banjo was strung like a guitar, was the first successful self-accompanied artist in the “race field.” His jazz-flavored style was unique for the time period, and he was arguably one of the most technically proficient artists of his time in any genre.
In 1927 Williams resigned from Paramount and started a new independent record company with two other investors. Officially the label was called The Chicago Record Company, but the singles were marketed under the name “Black Patti,” the nickname of Sissieretta Jones, a black concert soprano star of the early 1900s.
Despite the popularity of “race” records, Black Patti was only the second black-owned label of its time. Its roster of musicians played everything from jazz to gospel, but the label specialized in blues. Some of the artists included Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, Rev. J.M. Gates, and Ivy Smith and Cow Cow Davenport.
Perhaps most importantly, the label issued the Down Home Boys’ “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues.” This recording, of only which a handful exist today, is one of the oldest surviving recordings of the Stagolee Blues. A black folk ballad, the song tells the story of how Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons over a Stetson hat. Groups ranging from The Grateful Dead to The Clash have covered the song, and the owner of the only known Black Patti pressing still in existence has turned down offers of up to $20,000 for his copy.
Despite the future influence the label would have on music, Black Patti’s sales figures weren’t as profitable as hoped, and after just seven months of operation the label folded in September of 1927. Today, Black Patti’s output of 55 records are some of the most sought-after 78s of this period.
With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, record sales came to a screeching halt. After selling more than 100 million records a year in the mid-1920s, sales dropped to below 10 million in the early 1930s. In addition, numerous labels, including Paramount, went out of business.
As the Great Depression hit, Williams ventured south where he got back on the gridiron as a football coach at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Williams was on the staff of Morehouse coach Franklin L. Forbes in 1932 and 1933, and was head coach for the 1934 season when his squad went 4-3-2.
In 1934, Williams headed back to the Midwest, signing on as a talent scout for Decca Records and its legendary 7000 series of “race” records. By this time, the blues was firmly entrenched in popular muisc and only a few labels, including Decca, issued the sides marketed specifically to African-Americans.
While employed by Decca, Williams produced the recordings for future gospel star Mahalia Jackson, as well as former Paramount stars like Trixie Smith and Blind Joe Taggart.
One of Williams’ strong suits was his ability to keep up with the times as far as what listeners wanted to hear. Post-depression, popular music switched from individual performers to group recordings and Williams was on the cusp of these changes.
“I tried to keep up with trends and changes in the music business,” Williams told an interviewer. “You didn’t find many artists that played a single instrument after the Depression. Those times were gone.”
Ironically, the 78s that Williams produced helped dissolve regional forms of the blues. With the widespread popularity of radio, records from many different areas influenced musicians, especially those in the rural South, and regional styles were blurred.
Upon retiring from Decca in 1946, Williams struck out on his own with Ebony Records. In the late 1940s, before he rose to success with Chess Records, a young Muddy Waters recorded for Williams and Ebony.
Williams continued to run his one-man company into the 1970s and in all he spent nearly 50 years in the business. His successes were recognized in 2004 when the Blues Foundation acknowledged his contributions to the genre with his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
As an NFL pioneer and trend-setting record executive, Williams influence on popular culture, from athletics to music, is hard to underestimate. His efforts on the football field helped pave the way for the generations of African-Americans that followed. And his work in the recording industry brought to life the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey and Muddy Waters, among others, while playing a major role in bringing the blues to the ears of the world.
A charter member of the Xi Lambda chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Williams passed away in Chicago in 1980 at the age of 85.
This story was written by Eddy Lentz in 2004 for the Ivy League Black History Month celebration.