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J. Mayo “Ink” Williams: Pioneering Blues Record Producer from Pine Bluff

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

J. Mayo “Ink” Williams not only goes down in the annals of history as a great professional athlete, but as a better blues and jazz record producer.

Image Credit: Public Domain

J Mayo “Ink” Williams had no formal education in music but had an ear for popular music that was ahead of his time. Williams inherited his love of jazz and blues music from his mother, and it was this love of music that would propel him into becoming the greatest “race records” producer of his time.

Williams was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Millie and Daniel Williams on September 25, 1894. At seven years old, his father was murdered in a domestic dispute, leaving behind Mayo, his four siblings, and their mother. Following Daniel’s death, Millie returned to her hometown in Monmouth, Illinois to support her young family.

As Williams grew, he continually demonstrated his athletic prowess on the football field. One of his coaches went so far as to write, “All who have seen Williams play have simply gasped in astonishment and are still wondering how he does it. His equal in dodging, speed, straight-arming, goal-kicking, tackling, and grabbing forward passes cannot be found in the central states.”

It was this physical ability that allowed Williams to enroll at Brown University on an athletic scholarship in 1916. Here too, Williams excelled in athletics allowing him to parlay his football talents into a professional career. He became one of only three black players, including the legendary activist and athlete Paul Robeson, to join the newly minted National Football League in 1922.

During this time, the NFL football season only lasted three months, and players were paid only $150 per game. This arrangement drove Williams to seek alternative methods of employment. Williams sold bathtub gin to a Chicago nightclub and wrote a sports column for The Chicago Whip to make ends meet. Eventually, he became a collection agent for Black Swan records, the Chicago distributor of a Harlem-based jazz and blues record label.

Black Swan Records soon went bankrupt, and its master records were purchased by Paramount who was just entering the now lucrative “race records” market. Williams used his connections with Black Swan Records to convince the Paramount executives to give him a job as a talent scout. Paramount hired Williams, but he received no salary. Instead he worked on commission, gaining royalties, fees, and copyrights from the musicians he signed.

Williams later admitted to exaggerating his experience to get the position, but he was just the man for the job. He was promoted to manager of Paramount's Chicago Music “Race Division”, allowing him to set up shop as the first black executive of a white record label. According to Monmouth College historian Jeff Rankin, Williams utilized his Ivy League education and country upbringing to bridge the gap between black blues artists and the white-owned companies they recorded for.

What Williams lacked in musical training, he made up for in tenacity, his ear for music, and his talent for negotiation. At Paramount, Ink Williams signed a vast array of artists. According to Oxford American William’s artists ranged, “From hot New Orleans jazz transplants like King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, and Jelly Roll Morton, through the female “blues shouters” such as Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, who had cut their teeth on the black vaudeville (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit throughout the South and were now performing in South Side dives, to Paramount's first solo bluesman… minstrel-show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson.” His production of Ma Rainey’s blues standard of “See See Rider” even featured a young Louis Armstrong on trumpet. Williams also produced popular artists like Trixie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Thomas A. Dorsey (a.k.a. Georgia Tom), Jimmy Blythe, King Oliver, and Freddy Keppard.

In 1927, Williams started his own company, The Chicago Record Company, under the Black Patti label. The Chicago Record Company was only the second independent black record label in the United States, but the venture was short-lived because of fierce competition with major record labels.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, Williams took a break from music and became a football coach at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1931 to 1933. However, he was unable to stay away from music for too long, though. The very next year, Williams became the head of Decca Records “race records” division. At Decca, he produced, wrote for, and discovered a wide array of artists ranging from jazz to blues to gospel. These artists included Mahalia Jackson, Alberta Hunter, Blind Boy Fuller, Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, Bill Gaither, Bumble Bee Slim, Georgia White, Trixie Smith, Monette Moore, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marie Knight, and Tab Smith, among others.

Always on the cusp of change, Williams noticed that popular music was moving from a love for individual performers to ensembles. So, Williams began working with small blues/jazz groups like the Harlem Hamfats and Louis Jordan’s early bands, who laid the groundwork for what would later become rock and roll.

After retiring from Decca Records in 1946, Williams started the Chicago, Southern, and Ebony record labels, where he continued working with well-known artists like Muddy Waters, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bonnie Lee, and Oscar Brown.

Ink Williams spent more than 50 years in the record business, bringing the extraordinary works of black jazz and blues musicians to the rest of the world. In 2004 he was finally recognized for his contribution to blues music history and posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.


Written By: Ninfa O. Barnard

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