Motown Records may be the most successful Black-owned record label of all time, but they were indeed not the first! Black Swan Records, which was started in Harlem, NYC in 1921 by entrepreneur Harry Pace, had a short but influential life in producing popular music for black audiences. From 1921 to 1923, the company released 180 records – a record in itself that would not be topped by any other black-owned record company for another 30 years.
How he did it
Harry Pace was a music publisher and former professor of Greek and Latin who named the company after the “Black Swan,” black opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. The company produced not only jazz and blues but classical music as well. A lot of their music became instant hits, and their musicians were known around the world.
The company remained black-owned until a business arrangement in 1922 with Olympic Disc Record Corporation, which was white-owned, took them into the mainstream music arena. Although their focus continued on black singers and musicians, the company also began to sell into white bands. In a short period, much larger white record companies also entered the black music industry and created fierce competition for Black Swan Records.
A lasting legacy
By 1923, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy, and Paramount eventually purchased them. Although the company was short-lived, it made a long-lasting impression in the history of black music. Anyone familiar with Black Swan Records will also remember some of their greatest hits, like Ethel Waters’ “Down Home Blues” and musicians like pianist James P. Johnson, Don Redman, Gus, and Bud Aikens, Garvin Bushell, Joe Smith, and Ralph Escudero. They will all be remembered with Black Swan Records as the ones who made it happen – the first-ever black-owned record label.