H.C. Speir

H.C. Speir - Jackson

Henry Columbus (H.C.) Speir (1895-1972) played a crucial role in the recording of dozens of blues, country and gospel artists in the 1920s and 30s. In his position as owner of Speir Phonograph Company, founded here at 225 N. Farish Street, he located, recommended or auditioned talent for various record labels and also supervised recording sessions in Jackson and Hattiesburg. Charley Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Bo Carter, and the Mississippi Sheiks all recorded under Speir’s auspices.

H.C. Speir did not own a record label or a music publishing company and his name did not appear on records, but he was responsible for facilitating a wealth of historic recordings by many legendary artists. At his store he made test recordings which he would send to Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Brunswick/ARC, Paramount or Gennett, and if a company approved the artists, Speir would sometimes accompany them to recording sessions in New Orleans, Birmingham, Grafton, Wisconsin, and other cities. During his travels he also scouted for talent in the South and Midwest and even in Mexico. At other times record companies called on Speir to organize sessions in Mississippi.

Speir’s entrée into the record business came in New Orleans where he worked assembling phonographs before he moved to Jackson. Born into a farming family on October 6, 1895, in Prospect, Mississippi, Speir lived in Sebastopol and Walnut Grove and served briefly in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in Harpersville. He studied agriculture at Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State). He dated his start in Jackson at 1920 although he said he did not open his own business until 1925. He first worked at several local stores, including Batte Furniture Co., where he was advertised as a “first class Talking Machine Mechanic.”

Notable artists who recorded under Speir’s auspices included Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks, Skip James, Ishmon (Ishman) Bracey, Robert Wilkins, the Mississippi Jook Band (featuring Blind Roosevelt Graves and Cooney Vaughn), and country performers Uncle Dave Macon and the Leake County Revelers. Speir set up recording sessions for OKeh Records at the King Edward Hotel in 1930 and for the Brunswick/American Record Corporation group at the Crystal Palace on Farish Street in 1935 and in Hattiesburg in 1936. Brunswick/ARC released records on Vocalion, Melotone and other labels. Robert Johnson’s iconic Vocalion records reportedly came about through a recommendation from Speir. Houston Stackhouse recalled that Johnson got a new set of guitar strings at Speir’s in preparation for a trip to record in Dallas. Son House remembered auditioning for Speir with Charley Patton and Willie Brown in a gospel group, the Locust Ridge Saints, and among the many others who showed up at Speir’s in hopes of recording were Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Big Walter Horton and Honeyboy Edwards.

Speir moved from 225 to 111 North Farish in December of 1931 and relocated to 205 West Capitol Street in 1936 and 206 West Capitol in 1938, finally selling the business in 1943 and establishing Speir’s Trading Post on Pocahontas Road. Speir placed ads for all his stores in the Clarion-Ledger, often with photos of himself. All along, he had been investing in real estate, and he made his living as a realtor during his final years. He was also an avid organic gardener, birdwatcher and Biblical scholar, and the Clarion-Ledger reported in 1971: “Speir is most known for his generosity, giving away vegetables and flower bouquets to the sick and to most everyone.” Speir died on April 22, 1972, and was buried at Lakewood Memorial Park, 6000 Clinton Boulevard in Jackson.

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