RCA Victor-made ‘race records’ of ’20s infuse new musical premiering in Camden

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An original musical theater production about the historic Victor Records recording studio in Camden premieres in Camden this weekend.

 

“Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet,” at the Walter Gordon Theater on the Rutgers-Camden campus, features a live 12-piece band performing “race records” originally recorded in Camden in the early 20th century.

Since the dawn of the recording industry, African-Americans were behind the microphone, but at first their records were sold mainly to white audiences.

“It wasn’t until 1920 that Mamie Smith made ‘Crazy Blues’ for Okeh Records, marketed to African Americans in places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo,” said Kenneth Elliott, an associate professor of theater at Rutgers-Camden and creator of “Silver Trumpet.” “They had amazing sales. Record companies realized they were missing a major market.”

Victor Records was a little late to the game, not producing its first race records catalog until 1927. “Silver Trumpet” incorporates songs from that catalog, taking creative liberties by including additional songs from the 1930s.

Elliott was first inspired by “Sounds of Camden,” an exhibition of the history of the Victrola Talking Machine Company (later owned RCA), at the neighboring Stedman Gallery. Victrola made the hand-cranked record players and the records to be played on them in a massive campus near the Camden waterfront.

The company bought a church at Fifth and Cooper Streets to serve as a recording studio for some of the biggest talent in the country, including Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Alberta Hunter.

The songs in “Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet” are bound together by a time-traveling story, in which a young man is cleaning out his grandmother’s attic and discovers a cache of old 78s. On the records he hears, for the first time, the voice of his great-aunt Mamie, a diva of her time.

The production includes a medley of food-related songs, including “Rumsteak Serenade” and “All That Meat and No Potatoes.”

“There’s a third one called ‘Hold Tight (I Want Some Seafood Mama),’ which the Andrew Sisters did and made a huge hit,” said Elliott. “It was written by an African-American composer, and Fats Waller did a spectacular recording of it that is much more sensual than the Andrews Sisters. These food songs are metaphors for sex.”

Elliott may not have been able to pull off this musical without Dionne Grooms-Fields, a singer he discovered at a jazz concert. Grooms-Fields is a local gospel singer and Rutgers-Camden graduate with a clear, shouty voice that can vibrate and growl when she wants it to. As Aunt Mamie, dressed head to toe in flapper attire and long strings of pearls, she nails the classic blues diva.

She plays both the modern-day mother of the attic explorer, urging him to finish cleaning, and the 1927 Aunt Mamie, a part written for her.

“Mamie is very feisty, very with it,” said Grooms-Fields during a rehearsal. “She has Smithers wrapped around her finger — Smithers is the engineer. When she says go, he goes. When she says cut, he cuts.”

“Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet” plays just three times this weekend at Rutgers-Camden.

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