Box sets have existed since music was first etched into shellac discs, but never has one encompassed the vast history and variety of recorded song in the way that The Roots of Popular Music: The Ralph S. Peer Story does. The 50 songs contained in this three-CD set, released September 15, 2017 on Sony Music Latin, span genres from blues and bluegrass to country, Latin, jazz, R&B and rock ’n’ roll — essentially, the entire scope of 20th-century popular music — all connected by one common thread: A&R and publishing pioneer Ralph S. Peer.
It was Peer who recorded Mamie Smith singing “Crazy Blues” for Okeh Records in 1920 — launching a genre with the first blues song recorded by and for African-Americans. It was Peer who started scouring America’s musical pockets for unique regional sounds and talents that could be marketed to wider audiences, and wound up producing “The Bristol Sessions” — the 1927 recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers that are considered “the big bang” of country music. In fact, it was Peer who recorded the first country song in 1921. He’s also credited with turning America — and the world — on to Latin music, which helped turn bandleaders Xavier Cugat, Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz into major stars. He did the same for jazz, with Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and others.
After his A&R career, Peer published some of the 20th century’s most beloved songs (“Georgia on My Mind,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Stardust,” “Bésame Mucho,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” to name a few), often landing them with exactly the right talent, from Bing Crosby to Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly, while establishing a new music-publishing paradigm by paying songwriters mechanical royalties based on sales of their work. He also helped establish BMI as an alternative performing rights organization when the already-established ASCAP resisted tracking performance royalties for the roots-music genres Peer championed.
Ralph Peer with Walt Disney
“His ears were open to music of quality and interest without regard to race, creed or color at a time very different from today,” says Ralph Peer II, chairman and CEO of peermusic, the publishing company founded in 1928 by his father (as Southern Music Publishing), which now ranks as the world’s largest privately held music publisher.
As these chronologically presented tracks convey, Peer’s influence continues to be felt long after his 1960 death: songs he produced and/or published are still being discovered, recorded and loved by new generations of artists and fans. The box’s third CD — “Act Three” of a career divided here into three acts — features songs recorded well after his death by Willie Nelson, Ennio Morricone, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Dylan, Julio Iglesias, Marc Anthony and even Lou Bega, whose “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of …)” is based on, and samples, Pérez Prado’s original.
And yet, until the 2015 publication of author Barry Mazor’s acclaimed biography Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, the full spectrum and impact of Peer’s career was barely known. The biography directly inspired the box set, according to co-producer Julio Bague, vice president of peermusic. After reading the book, he says, he thought it needed an audio companion.
“I approached producer Anthony Gonzalez, with whom I’d worked in the past, and with help from the Peer family and the peermusic team, we worked for over two years retrieving content and assembling the repertoire,” Bague explains.
Country Music Hall of Fame placque
Executive producer Gregg Vickers, Sony U.S. Latin sales director, shepherded the project on the label side. As for how they winnowed the selections to 50 — even the Grammy Hall of Fame has ensconced 59 Peer-produced or -published songs — he says they decided to include only artists and songs signed directly by Peer.
“We stuck to that vision; every recording was either produced by Ralph S. Peer or is a copyright that he signed to peermusic, with the exception of one that is co-owned,” Vickers says.
Engineer Paul Blakemore, whose credits include Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective and Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot, handled restoration and mastering.
“He was a real visionary,” Blakemore says. “Peer did some of the earliest on-location recordings with a complete mechanical recording lathe. Other people did location recording, like Alan Lomax, who documented a lot of rural and African-American music and work songs, but his work concentrated on the folk genre. Ralph’s music spans all these different genres, and the artists he brought forward in these genres were some of the most important in the history of music. The scope of his career is staggering, and this compilation really shows the breadth and the depth of what he did.”
Alternating between professional appreciation and giddy enthusiasm, Blakemore captures the set’s appeal for both serious collectors and casual aficionados.
“There’s such an embarrassment of riches,” he says. “I mean, Ralph Peer had the presence of mind to publish ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ That’s one of the greatest songs ever written. The A.P. Carter song ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, that’s a really important piece of Americana. It’s iconic.
“And Tito Puente’s ‘Ran Kan Kan’ … it reminds you of just how blazing hot those bands were at the time. Astonishing musicianship. These were cut directly to a mono disc without overdubs or fixes or editing. They really played this stuff that hot from the beginning of the song to the end. It’s amazing.”
Associate producer Mazor, who wrote the accompanying 48-page booklet, notes, “Those of us who love roots-derived music get used to anthologies and histories that focus on one genre, so there haven’t been many box sets that have the Carter Family and Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Pérez Prado, Bob Dylan and Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers, Flatt & Scruggs and Tito Puente in the same context. They not only all belong here as artists carrying the Ralph S. Peer legacy forward, but as standard bearers for all of American music.
“While he’s most often remembered as the man who did so much to establish blues, country and Latin music as distinct, even separate recording genres, that wasn’t the whole picture,” Mazor adds. “His central idea — that roots music from specific places and cultures could reach broad audiences around the world if handled as pop — broke across those lines, and worked in lasting ways as they were applied to new roots-music styles when they showed up. Gathering groundbreaking sounds Peer recorded as a legendary A&R man and performances of songs he published, right up to our own day, this set shows how genres we take almost for granted as separate actually inter-relate, and how Peer’s musical contributions really worked. That’s not just interesting; it’s fun.”
Born in 1892 in Independence, Missouri, Ralph Sylvester Peer worked as a teen for his dad, a Columbia Phonograph franchisee, and got his early grounding in the business at Columbia’s regional office in Kansas City. He went to work full-time for the company in 1909, and quickly rose to regional manager. After a stint in the Navy, he moved to Manhattan to work for new label Okeh Records. And thus began his industry-altering career.
Ralph Peer II says his father “strove to find songs and artists that would speak to the public.” But his genius was not just in recognizing talented songwriters and performers, it was in knowing how to market their work, and how to create markets if none existed, arranging targeted promotion and distribution to ensure the music reached its intended audiences.
THE ROOTS OF POPULAR MUSIC: THE RALPH S. PEER STORY
Today, Peer music’s catalogue contains over a quarter of a million copyrights, including many by world-renowned artists in every genre, administered by 32 offices in 28 countries. This year, as the company celebrates its 90th birthday, its founder has earned further attention in several forms; Peer was featured this summer in the first installment of PBS’ American Epic series, about the period in which he and others combed the country in search of new talent to record, and was recognized by the Recording Academy in February with a Grammy Trustees Award (and Rodgers was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award; both will be spotlighted on the Grammy Salute to Music Legends telecast airing Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. EST as part of PBS’ Great Performances series).
In addition, on Oct. 19, the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame is presenting Ralph Peer II with its Publisher of the Year Award — also named after his father — in recognition of the company’s continuing tradition of service to songwriters.
As this confluence of events confirms, according to Bague, “It’s the perfect time for this project’s release.”
Blakemore suggests there’s another important reason for releasing The Roots of Popular Music: The Ralph S. Peer Story, in addition to acknowledging Peer’s legacy.
“A lot of this material was of-the-moment popular music,” he says, “but you know there will be somebody who hears this as a youngster, and it’s going to have a major influence.”