One of the most interesting stories about music publishing at the beginning of this century is that of the Gotham-Attucks Music Company. Not only one of the first black owned music publishing companies, it was also on the forefront that moved the focus of black written music from the "coon" song stereotypes that were so popular to a more realistic footing where black music could be enjoyed and sold as popular music that entertained without so much emphasis on color.
Gotham-Attucks came into being on July 15, 1905, as a result of a merger between Gotham Music Company and Attucks Music Publishing Company. These two smaller firms which are an integral part in the eventual success of Gotham-Attucks and the black entrance into the world of music publishing; as such they deserve to have their stories told.
On August 13, 1904, the black owned Attucks Music Publishing Company, located at 1255 Broadway in New York City, opened for business. The company's namesake was Crispus Attucks, the first African-American to die in the Revolutionary War. Staff writers included Tom Lemonier, Alex Rogers, William Tyers, Jesse Shipp and Bert Williams. Some of the songs had illustrations of Bert Williams and his partner George Walker. A few also feature Walker's wife, Ada Overton Walker. Many of these songsters had been involved in music and show business for some years. William Tyers was formerly staff arranger for the Joseph Stern Publishing Company. Alex Rogers and Jesse Shipp were involved with Bert Williams and George Walker's 1902 Broadway success, "In Dahomey." Tom Lemonier specialized in the harmonica. He also wrote songs for Bert Williams and another veteran African-American performer, Ernest Hogan. Lemonier also performed in vaudeville at that time.
Sheppard N. Edmonds was hired to manage Attucks. Edmonds, a fledgling songster, would eventually write "I'm Going To Live Anyhow Until I Die," "The Kissing Trust or Since Ma Linda Hinda's in the Syndicate"and "Ma Female Fancy." His songs, though, were never published by the Attucks company. While working for Attucks, Edmonds tried to get his own material published under the Attucks masthead and submitted Attuck's songs to the Copyright office under his own name. These actions may have caused him to be dismissed from Attucks. Eventually Edmonds formed his own publishing company which opened in New York in 1905.
The Gotham Music Company was formed early in 1905. There is much less known about this music company than the Attucks Publishing Company. The New York Age described R. C. McPherson (aka Cecil Mack), as "the organizer of the Gotham Music Company." Other African-American songsters associated with Gotham were James Reese Europe, Tom Lemonier and, most importantly, Will Marion Cook. The irascible Cook was already a veteran in producing music and plays and was possibly the true organizing force behind the Gotham Music Company. It is suspected that he brought McPherson on board to hold down the fort as well as learn more about the music business. Will Marion Cook had more of his music published by Gotham than any other songwriter. Gotham Publishing Company was only in business for less than six months and published less than ten songs during that time.
On June 6, 1905, the Gotham-Attucks Music Company was formed through the merger of the two lesser firms. More than a year later, The New York Age, on July 26, 1906, identified R. C. McPherson as the "secretary and treasurer and general business director" of Gotham-Attucks. Staff writers included Tom Lemonier, James `Tim' Brymn, Alex Rogers, Chris Smith, R.C. McPherson, Will Marion Cook, Henry Creamer, Bert Williams, J. Leubrie Hill, Ford Dabney and Jesse Shipp.
Some of the songs that Gotham-Attucks published Bert Williams was also recording for a new medium; the phonograph record. Pretty Desdemone, He's A Cousin of Mine, Let It Alone, Here It Comes Again, and Nobody were all recorded by Bert for Columbia Records.
Many of the songs that Gotham-Attucks published came from two of Williams and Walker's Broadway Shows, In Abyssinia and Bandanna Land. In 1908, Gotham-Attucks had its most successful year, with twelve songs deposited for copyright. Many of the black songsters who had originally been with the publishing company moved on to other companies after a few years. The reasons for this may be simple or may be hidden and lost because of the time that has elapsed. A simple explanation could be that the songwriters found better publishing deals elsewhere. Gotham-Attucks was not a large publishing company, especially compared with Joseph Stern, Remick or E.T. Paull and, as such, could not put out as many versions of a particular song in different formats (voice, guitar, dance orchestration, etc.). This fact alone may have greatly influenced the songsters.
One of the great accomplishments of this short lived music publishing company was its cover art, which changed the way America saw Black written music. Up to this time America had sold music that was supposed to portray the black experience through the use of hideous stereotypes. The "coon" songs portrayed everything black as bad and everything white as good. The themes of these songs revolved around chicken stealing, knife wielding, lazy, and inappropriately dressed black men and women. Gotham-Attucks softened that theme in their songs and did not use blatant stereotypes on their covers. Of course, this is not to suggest that these stereotypes disappeared after Gotham-Attucks's noble campaign or that other Black owned companies did not use similar stereotypical covers in the future. ( Notably, W. C. Handy's Publishing Company put out some very racist covers nearly ten years later.) Gotham-Attucks, it should be remembered published That's Why They Call Me Shine, a song that nowadays is rarely sung and is known only as Shine. Yet G-A made an attempt to free the world of these gross and powerful images and for that fact alone should be applauded. The words of their published songs bears this out even more than the cover art; It's Great To Be In Love, Just an Old Friend of the Family, and Welcome to Our City, are certainly words from titles that everyone can relate to regardless of race.
The demise of the Gotham-Attucks Publishing Company illuminates one of the darker sides of the publishing business. In 1911, Gotham-Attucks was sold to Ferdinand E. Mierisch. Mierisch was a song-shark, who after the sale, began to use the Gotham-Attucks masthead to lure in unsuspecting songwriters. Song-sharking, a process that is still in use, is the process by which a publisher advertises for material, by unknown and hopeful songsters. When it is submitted, the songwriter is informed that his song or lyric is promising and with a little luck, will become the next big hit. The person is then told that a fee will have to be paid to have the song arranged, Copyrighted and printed. Once the sizeable fee is paid, the publisher prints a few copies, mainly to satisfy the writer. The publisher has no further interest in the song since he makes his money from the fees that the unsuspecting songsters send to him. With the supposedly good name of Gotham-Attucks behind him, Mierisch used the Gotham-Attucks Company in this manner for a year before he disappeared from sight.