In the 1920s, a small recording studio in Richmond, Indiana, gained fame for producing hit songs recorded by top talent including Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. The studio played a crucial role in the early development of American music, forging a path whose influence can still be seen today.
Gennett Records was founded in 1917 by the Starr Piano Company, one of the nation’s largest piano manufacturers. Located in Richmond, Indiana, Starr employed 750 people in a sprawling 300,000 square foot factory. The company sold about 15,000 pianos a year in the years leading up to the Great Depression.
In the days before television and radio, the piano played a central role in home entertainment. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented a technology that changed American musical culture. The phonograph would soon take over America. Improvements to the phonograph throughout the late 1800s would result in a commercially viable product.
Realizing that this machine was the future of home musical entertainment, the owners of Starr Piano obtained the rights to sell phonographs. Later, responding to a demand for phonograph discs, Starr Piano experimented with a Starr record label. Their success spurred them to create the Gennett Record brand. In 1920, the Gennett label sold 3 million records.
At first, Gennett set up its recording studio in New York, where competing studios were located. Seeking to capitalize on a more central location, a Richmond studio opened in 1921. The studio was located on the grounds of the piano factory. Little more than a one-story dilapidated shed, artists flocked to the rustic studio to make their recordings.
In addition to being a top recording studio, Gennett was also the most progressive recording studio in the country in the 1920s. The studio was the first to produce interracial recordings and was known for its willingness to sign diverse artists. African American jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton made America’s first interracial recording at Gennett with the all-white New Orleans Rhythm Kings band from Chicago.
Gennett produced recordings of many unconventional musical styles, and through their records, introduced Americans to new sounds. In 1927, Hoagy Carmichael made history when he recorded “Stardust” at Gennett’s Richmond studio. It remains the most popular song of his career. Other stars to produce early hits at Gennett Records include Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Doc Roberts, Thomas Dorsey, Jaybird Coleman, and Gene Autrey. By the late 1920s, Gennett was producing 25 labels worldwide and had introduced a budget label, Champion Records, for older hits. Their records were even sold in the Sears Catalog.
The beginning of the Great Depression spelled trouble for Gennett. Amidst slumping sales, they were forced to cut back on production, eventually halting it altogether in 1934. In 1935, Starr Piano Co. sold many Gennett masters, along with the Gennett and Champion trademarks, to Decca Records. Contract pressing services continued until 1942, when the WWII War Production Board began to ration shellac. At that time, Gennett sold its shellac allocation to another company and further reduced its production. Rumor had it that the company planned a comeback after the war, but it was not to be. Gennett quietly closed its doors in 1947.
During its 20 years as a leader in the American recording industry, Gennett Records trail-blazed a path for modern American music. In 2007, the Starr-Gennett Foundation created a Walk of Fame in downtown Richmond to commemorate the many legendary singers to record songs at Gennett.
The inaugural ten inductees were Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael, Gene Autrey, Vernon Dalhart, Big Bill Broozy, Georgia Tom, King Oliver, and Lawrence Welk.