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The Shady History of Black and Jewish 'Partnerships' in the Music Industry

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“Artists getting robbed for their publishing/By dirty Jewish execs who think that it’s alms from the covenant.” -Lupe Fiasco

Ruth Alston Brown (née Weston, January 12, 1928 – November 17, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter and actress, sometimes known as the "Queen of R&B".

She was only 19.

But word had spread that she was something special. The genre was still relatively new, barely 20 years itself, and every cash-strapped label was searching for that one hit that would propel them out of the red and into solvency.

There was competition. So the struggling label, it was barely a year old, gave her a guaranteed contract. On her way to sign it, however, she was in a car accident that left her hospitalized. The label took care of those costs, and even though the artist was laid up in the hospital bed (make a note of this), they had her sign the contract.

For the next three years she kept the label afloat. And what was her payoff? $690 dollars a song. What 19 year old wouldn’t take that, right? For that money, a young, cash-strapped artist would worry about all of that contract business later.

But later does come. And, while this sounds like it could be a modern scenario, it actually took place over 60 years ago. (That $690 dollars is adjusted for inflation, it was $69 dollars in 1948). The artist that we’re talking about is Ruth Brown, the label, incidentally, is Atlantic Records which came to be known as “The House that Ruth Built.”

Brown didn’t receive any royalty checks until the 1980s. That’s right…thirty (30) years later. And this was common practice. From the time that Race Records became a thing in the 1920s, record deals with Black artists all had a similar slant — large amount of cash up front — little to nothing on the back-end.

Mamie Smith (née Robinson; May 26, 1891 – September 16, 1946) was an American vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress. As a vaudeville singer she performed in various styles, including jazz and blues. In 1920, she entered blues history as the first African-American artist to make vocal blues recordings.

Here’s why it’s not so cut and dry. Since Mamie Smith made Okeh Records a major player with her hit “Crazy Blues,” it’s been a little about the music and A LOT about the business. You would be hard pressed to convince someone that the talent scout for Okeh, Ralph Peer, didn’t love the music. Or that the Chess Brothers main objective was to exploit their talent. Hell, you would lose in the court of law if you tried a case against Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun. Aretha Franklin might even testify on his behalf.

It’s a business. Most importantly, it’s a business in a capitalist society, where less for you means more for me. One can argue the scruples of record executives forever but at the end of the day, the decisions they make are considered “good business.”

In the late '40s and '50s, artists like Muddy Waters, Wolf, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and the Soul Stirrers were paid flat fees for their recordings and received no royalty payments from Chess on the sales of those records. In fact, most were saddled with artificially inflated debt accounts: As recently as 1986, Muddy Waters's account showed a negative balance of $56,000. The same year, sales from Waters's catalogue earned more than $25,000 in royalties -- money that wasn't paid out at the time but now will be. The estates of both Waters and Wolf are expected to receive significant checks from MCA. "It's wonderful that all these Chess artists who, to my knowledge, never received a royalty check in their lives, are finally getting paid."