excerpt from Patrick Huber (“The New York Sound: Citybilly Recording Artists and the Creation of Hillbilly Music, 1924–1932”):
The studio system of hillbilly record production that flourished in New York in the mid- to late 1920s actually emerged from a long-standing industry practice. Since at least 1900, talking machine companies had employed a small roster of two dozen or so freelance studio singers to record the bulk of the selections for their popular catalogs.
In the 1920s, this production model fell out of favor in the pop music field as a result of rising public demand for recordings by vaudeville and radio stars, but the fledgling hillbilly recording industry embraced the studio singer system, particularly before 1927. After all, as Charles K. Wolfe reminds us, most of the singers and musicians discovered in the South, “were basically amateurs who, though often highly gifted and innovative folk artists,” had a limited repertoire of only four to six marketable songs and had little, if any, formal musical training.
Professional studio singers, on the other hand, offered talking machine companies several distinct advantages over supposedly more “authentic” and “traditional” southern singers and musicians. First, New York studio singers were experienced professionals who had proven themselves capable of successfully negotiating the rigorous, sometimes nerve-racking demands of making phonograph recordings. This was particularly true during the pre-1925 era of acoustic recording, when new artists facing the intimidating recording horn for the first time often suffered what industry insiders referred to as “horn fright”.
Second, these veteran recording artists were able to handle an array of musical material in a variety of musical styles, even to the point of being able to closely imitate the vocal nuances and phrasing of other hillbilly singing stars such as Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, and even Vernon Dalhart himself.
Third, unlike most southern hillbilly artists, many of these studio singers were formally and sometimes classically trained artists who could read a lead sheet and then, with little rehearsal, quickly master new material assigned to them by A&R men, sometimes in the studio on the very day of the recording itself. Such efficiency enabled record companies to finish studio sessions in a minimum amount of time and thereby reduce overhead costs such as having to pay musical accompanists for an additional session.
Studio singers’ high level of professionalism and musical literacy also allowed record companies, ever alert to shifting musical trends and changing public tastes, to rush onto the market both newly published songs and cover versions of competing companies’ hit records before such numbers peaked in popularity.
Finally, and most obviously, these New York-based studio veterans were easily accessible and available to work with minimal advance notice. As a result of these distinct advantages, studio singers served as the “workhorses” of this system of hillbilly record production, and their steady output, particularly prior to 1927, provided a significant percentage of the recordings in hillbilly catalogs.