Henry C Speir opened a music store in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1925, selling musical instruments, records and sheet music. Significantly Speir also had recording equipment on his shop premises. He had previously worked in New Orleans at a Victrola plant. Wind up Victrola Phonographs were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company from 1906 through 1929 and were acoustic phonographs with an internal sound-reproducing horn within the cabinet. While the earliest phonographs used large external horns to amplify the sound, it was the invention of the internal horn Victrola in 1906 that launched the phonograph into millions of homes. During a 15 year period from 1925 Speir became one of the pivotal figures in ensuring that the legacy of country blues music survived. Acting as a talent scout, or 'talent-broker' as he described himself, across Mississippi and other southern States, and sometime producer, Speir was either directly or indirectly responsible for bringing some of the greatest of the early blues artists on to record. Artists he 'introduced' included Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, Kokomo Arnold, Bo Carter, The Mississippi Sheiks, Mississippi Jook Band, and Lucille Bogan. It is almost certain that the test recording that led to Robert Johnson's classic recording career was made at Speir's store. Speir certainly recommended Johnson to ARC and this resulted in Johnson recording his entire repertoire in two sessions in 1936 and 1937.


Often working on word of mouth, Speir would set out in search of artists and if he considered them good enough, he would invite them to his shop in Jackson where he would make a 'test' recording. He would then send these equivalents of modern day demo's to record companies. On occasions artists would turn up at the store with other artists as accompanists and these in turn might end up as recording in their own right. Speir's reputation became such that Record Companies such as Columbia, Okeh, Paramount and Vocalion would rarely question his judgment and often did not even require a demo, recording artists solely on Speir's recommendation. In 1942 a fire destroyed part of Speir's store in Jackson and with it was destroyed most of the paper records of the artists he had discovered and recorded. It was a tragedy that such an invaluable resource on the history of country blues was lost. After the fire Speir gave up his music interests and moved into the real estate business. His loss to the music industry was enormous, not only to the blues genre, but also to jazz and country music to which he had also made a great contribution. H C Speirs died in 1972 aged 76.


   Canned Heat Blues - Tommy Johnson