Race record (Race Music)

The cover of race records catalogue of Victor Talking Machine Company


Race records were 78 rpm phonograph records marketed toAfrican Americans during the early 20th century, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s. They primarily contained race music, comprising a variety of African American musical genres includingbluesjazz, and gospel music, though comedy recordings were also produced. These records were, at the time, the majority of commercial recordings of African American artists in the US (very few African American artists were marketed to the “general audience”). Race records were marketed by Okeh Records,photo Emerson Records,photo Vocalion Records,photo Victor Talking Machine Company,photo and several other companies.


Such records were labeled “race records” in reference to their marketing to African Americans, but white Americans gradually began to purchase such records as well. In the 16 October 1920 issue of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, an advertisement for Okeh records identified Mamie Smith as “Our Race Artist”.  Most of the major recording companies issued special “race” series of records between the mid 1920s and the 1940s. 

Although in hindsight the term “race record” may seem to be a derogatory one, in the early 20th century the African American press routinely used the term “the Race” to refer to African Americans as a whole, and used the terms “race man” or “race woman” to refer to African American individuals who showed pride and support for their people and culture;  compare the cognate term “La Raza” for Latin American cultural identity.

Transition to rhythm and blues

Billboard magazine published “Race Records” charts between 1945 and 1949, initially covering juke box plays and from 1948 also covering sales.  These were revised versions of the “Harlem Hit Parade” chart which it had introduced in 1942.

In June 1949, at the suggestion of Billboard journalist Jerry Wexler, the magazine renamed its chart again to “Rhythm & Blues Records”. Wexler wrote : “Race” was a common term then, a self-referral used by blacks…On the other hand, “Race Records” didn’t sit well…I came up with a handle I thought suited the music well – ‘rhythm and blues’… a label more appropriate to more enlightened times.”  The chart has since undergone further name changes, becoming the “Soul” chart in August 1969, then “Black” in June 1982.  It has been the “R&B” chart since October 1990.


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