BY JOSH BECKWORTH—
Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson’s initial recording sessions in 1923 set off a shockwave in popular music. Record producers, suddenly aware of an untapped demand for ‘authentic’ folk musicians, began scrambling to round up additional musicians to record. These New York based record producers had no contact with Southern folk musicians, and consequently, Henry Whitter and Polk Brockman (the man who had first advocated the recording of John Carson), suddenly became talent scouts shepherding new acts into New York recording studios. Because the musicians these men were most familiar with were their personal friends and neighbors, their native areas soon became hotbeds of recorded musicians. Whitter’s hometown of Fries and nearby Galax, were soon an outsized supplier of these new country recordings, and those musicians with a direct connection to Henry Whitter were in a unique position to benefit.
A local musician who was one of the biggest beneficiaries of regular contact with Whitter was local store owner John Rector. John William Rector was born in Grayson County April 10th, 1877. From the beginning, he was drawn towards the life of a merchant, and was operating a store near Steven’s Creek prior to the construction of the Washington cotton mill one mile away. With the mill’s construction, the booming new town of Fries was created and Rector’s Store became a hub for the growing community. Henry Whitter, a millhand from Fries, left the company house he had grown up in and moved to Steven’s Creek sometime prior to 1920. Rector was clawhammer banjo player and spent his free time at the store playing with musicians who happened to drop by. Like many other residents, Whitter spent idle hours jamming at Rector’s store. During one of these impromptu jam sessions, a traveling salesman stopped into the store. Impressed by the duo, the salesman suggested that Whitter and Rector travel to New York to make a record.
Henry Whitter, confident in his abilities and eager to escape the mill life leapt at the opportunity, and he had soon saved enough to purchase a train ticket. However, John Rector was hesitant to join Whitter, fearing that young Henry’s ambitious plan to make an unsolicited trip to New York City was foolish and likely to result in failure. However, Whitter’s unexpected success quickly changed Rector’s mind.
Whitter was soon called back to New York for several additional recordings. Record producers were attempting to shape these rough early performances into a marketable commodity, and by 1924, less than a year after Carson and Whitter’s first recordings, the country music genre was rapidly developing. In March of 1924, Carson, who was initially recorded as a solo artist, was accompanied on record for the first time with a full band, the Virginia Reelers. These records sold so well that record companies saw potential in similarly recording Whitter with a full ensemble. To form this band, Whitter sought out two local musicians from Fries, fiddler James Sutphin and John Rector. This new group, known as Henry Whitter’s Virginia Breakdowners, traveled to New York in July, driving in John Rector’s 1923 Ford. This trio recorded six songs for the Okeh label before returning to Fries.
When the records from this session were released, John Rector was disappointed. He felt that the band’s performance was lacking and was hesitant to make more records with Whitter. Sometime in the fall of 1924 he was walking down the street in downtown Galax when he heard music in a nearby barbershop. The musicians he heard, Joe Hopkins, who worked at the nearby hospital, and Elvis Alderman, who ran the barbershop, were having an informal jam session and Rector was impressed. According to Alderman, Rector said they sounded a lot better than “my boys.” Luckily, Rector by this time had his own connections. Because he had traveled a few months earlier to New York with Whitter, he now understood the recording process and was acquainted with the producers at OKeh records. He reached out to them about recording with a new band. Soon, Rector was once again driving his 1923 Ford to New York City, this time with Elvis Alderman, Joe Hopkins, and Joe’s older brother, Al.
This new band would adopt the name of the Hill Billies, the first country band to incorporate that previously insulting term to describe themselves and their music. In January of 1925, the group recorded six songs, all fast paced traditional fiddle tunes. They would become an immediate hit. A year later they were called back to New York for another session. Over the next two years they would record well over 50 sides. The Hopkins Brothers had lived in Washington D.C. for much of their lives, and this urban background gave them a special insight into the entertainment industry. They were soon adopting new instruments, incorporating ukuleles, pianos, musical saws and Hawaiian guitars into their records. By 1926, the Hillbillies joined the Keith-Albee Vaudeville Circuit, along with mainstream acts like shimmy dancer Gilda Gray and pop singer Nora Bayes.
However, by this point, John Rector was no longer a member of the group. Just as he had turned down Whitter’s initial trip to New York City in 1923 in order to run his general store, Rector was reluctant to join the fast paced life of a professional touring group and quit the band to return to the more relaxed life of retail. He would only be featured on the Hillbillies first 3 records, and was ultimately replaced by Jack Reedy, one of the first banjo players to incorporate a three finger style of playing. As the Hillbillies toured the country, Rector moved to East Radford, Virginia and opened a new store. However, this next chapter in his life was cut short and in 1927, John Rector died unexpectedly at the age of 50.
Rector did not leave a large recording legacy. He is featured on only 12 songs. However, these twelve songs are some of the most important in the development of the stringband ensemble, which would quickly become the dominant group form of early country acts. Had it not been for Henry Whitter’s unlikely success, Rector would no doubt have spent his life as an obscure general store owner. However, it is because of him that one of the most prolific and influential string bands of the 1920s was formed. Rector is a good example of the way an enormously influential musical form was built from a series of small contributions.