Fred Gennett

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Fred Gennett was in charge of the record division of Starr Piano, Gennett Records, one of the most important independent record labels of the early twentieth century. Starr Piano was a family business,…
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Fred Gennett was in charge of the record division of Starr Piano, Gennett Records, one of the most important independent record labels of the early twentieth century. Starr Piano was a family business, headed by Fred Gennett's father, Henry Gennett, and also run with Fred's brothers Clarence Gennett and Harry Gennett in Richmond, IN. Like some other businesses whose primary concerns were the manufacture of other items, such as musical instruments or furniture, Starr Piano got into records as a sideline to reinforce sales of their main products. Like most labels from the early days of the record business, it had no particular aesthetic vision, but pressed almost everything, including vaudeville, opera, language records, speeches, and discs custom-pressed for the Ku Klux Klan.

From a historical viewpoint, Gennett Records is most renowned for its ventures into early jazz, blues, and hillbilly music. Although Fred Gennett was not himself a particular fan of such niche-interest sounds, he was willing to try out such styles. For instance, he was willing to take advice from Fred Wiggins, manager of Starr Piano's Chicago store, on musicians to record. This is how Gennett ended up recording Chicago jazz musicians, starting with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and then moving on to the more esteemed King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, whose lineup included Louis Armstrong. Gennett Records also recorded Jelly Roll Morton with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings on what is considered the first interracial recording date in history.

Gennett also started recording and releasing discs by blues musicians, including Cow Cow Davenport, Thomas Dorsey, and Big Bill Broonzy; hillbilly acts, the best known of which was Gene Autry; and Hoagy Carmichael. Fred Gennett was conscious enough of the possibilities of addressing particular markets that he actually took portable recording equipment to the Grand Canyon to record Hopi Indians. In doing so, he wasn't using Gennett Records as a vehicle for ethnomusicological documentation. His concerns were commercial ones; he had hopes of selling the recordings to tourists visiting the Grand Canyon.

Gennett Records, which had been renamed Electrobeam Gennett in the 1920s, discontinued at the end of 1930 as the Depression set in. Gennett did continue to put out some records on its Champion subsidiary, including releases by Roosevelt Sykes, Big Bill Broonzy, and Uncle Dave Macon, but that too was put to bed in 1934. Business problems afflicted Starr Piano in the late 1930s, resulting in Fred Gennett being removed from the company's day-to-day operations. He never re-entered the music business, although he lived until 1964.