Nearly a half-century after its demise, the memory of Trumpet Records has perhaps begun to fade. However, the company`s legacy – the music – lives on and, if anything, the volume has built. Recordings of such artists as Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James are still as inspirational and compelling as they were when the first soulful notes were heard rolling down Farish Street in the early 1950s.
No less inspirational and compelling is the story of Trumpet Records and its founder, Lillian McMurray. With no prior experience in the music industry, “Miss Lillian” nonetheless left a lasting and pioneering imprint on the music scene, and established Trumpet Records as one of the great blues record labels of all time. It`s a story of passion and determination, and it has been woefully under-told.
Now, however, that story is being told anew through a recently published book by Marc W. Ryan titled “Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street” (University Press of Mississippi). An independent music scholar residing in California, Ryan`s research is impressive and his writing clean and concise. But, as he points out in the book`s prologue, he is a devoted fan of the music and McMurray, and his admiration for the sound and the person is evident in his work. Thus, Ryan targets the reader`s mind and heart, and he captures both.
From selling to creating
The unlikely story begins in 1949, when McMurray`s husband purchased a hardware store in downtown Jackson on Farish Street, the boundary line of the city`s white and black communities. Going through the existing inventory, McMurray, a white woman, discovered a stack of unsold blues records. Intrigued, she put one on the record player. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” said the late McMurray, a native of Purvis who was only 28 years old at the time.
Convinced she was hearing the popular music of the future, McMurray began selling “race records” from the store on Farish Street. But when she heard black customers singing along with the records, McMurray decided she did not just want to sell records – she wanted to create them.
In April 1950, McMurray commissioned her first recording of the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a black gospel group that had rarely even appeared outside the metropolitan Jackson area. She subsequently signed such heavyweight black acts as the Southern Sons Quartette, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Williamson and James.
However, Lillian found both black roots music as well as white intriguing. She had never heard Hank Williams Sr. before 1950, and she found the basic simplicity of country and western just as appealing as blues, R&B and black spirituals. Thus, Lillian also signed and recorded such country acts as Kay Kellum, The Hodges Brothers and Jimmy Swan.
Ryan points out that it was here that McMurray`s keen ear and foresight come to the fore. With both black and white roots music in her portfolio, McMurray began to realize the commonality between blues/R&B/spirituals and country, and she started experimenting with “cross pollinating” the two genera. It was a fusion that had no name then, but today is usually referred to simply as “rock and roll.”
Ryan writes, “A starkly joyous black blues culture, a proud and sober African-American spiritual tradition and a vibrant, mournful, thumping Anglo-American folk tradition were all in attendance. From this union sprang Trumpet Records.”
Determined and confident, yet sincere and plainspoken, McMurray and Trumpet Records saw some financial success.
Trumpet singles made 33 chart appearances from 1951-1954. By far the biggest and most lasting was James’ seminal blues hit “Dust My Broom,” which hit No. 1 in some markets.
These successes would be short-lived, however. While McMurray may have been a record executive pioneer, others were just a few steps behind. Just as the listening public was struck by the Trumpet Records sound, so were other record executives, and many of them possessed more capital and far less scruples than McMurray. So, Trumpet`s artists were systematically picked off, many of the acts betraying McMurray`s loyalty and signing with other labels in violation of their Trumpet contract. McMurray spent too much of the mid-1950s in courtrooms in contract dispute and copyright infringement cases.
This took its toll, and in 1956, McMurray closed Trumpet Records, took off her entrepreneur`s hat and devoted the rest of her life to her family. She still dabbled in the industry, and she never lost the love for the music and artists, as evidenced when she erected a monument to the late Williamson in 1980. McMurray died in 1999.
In the last words of his book, Ryan writes, “I like to think when all is said and done in this crazy world, if there is a Hall of Fame for Good Human Beings, ‘Miss Lillian’ will have a special niche there, too.”
Not only is Ryan`s 226-page, soft-cover book well written, the illustrations are just as wonderful. Old promotional photographs, publicity posters and advertisements augment the narrative beautifully.
Throw in a comprehensive discography and extensive background not only on the featured artists but the band members, as well, and “Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street” quickly emerges as a must-read.
For more on the book, visit University Press’ Web site at http://www.upress.state.ms.us/.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.