Aletha Dickerson (a.k.a. Barrel House Annie)

Aletha Mae Dickerson, b. April 24, 1902 in Chicago, IL, d. March 30, 1994 in New York, NY.

Aletha Mae Dickerson-Robinson’s role in the Paramount 12000-13000 "Race" series has long been underestimated, not least by herself. Aletha worked for Paramount for almost a decade, mainly with her husband, Alexander Robinson (1894-1970), who was employed as pianist, arranger and songwriter.

Born in Chicago on April 24, 1902, she was the only child of Walter Dickerson and Garvinia Esters. She was brought up in a musical household - according to the 1910 Federal Census, when the family were living at 2248 Dearborn Street in Chicago’s South Side, her father was working as a "Musician in Caf`E9," while her mother worked as a "Music Teacher." With this background, and her thorough grounding in music theory and practice from both parents, it is not surprising that she chose a career in the music profession, and her involvement in Paramount’s historic recording enterprise began at a relatively young age.

In the early 1920s, shortly after J. Mayo "Ink" Williams had set up offices as an unofficial Paramount recording director in the Overton Hygienic Building, 3621 South State Street, Chicago, Aletha was employed as Williams’ secretary. Williams gathered a talented group of songwriters and arrangers around him—including Tiny Parham, Thomas A. Dorsey, "Kid" Austin and Alexander Robinson – with one important task to fulfil. In order to satisfy the huge demand from black record buyers for ‘Race Records’ it was essential to have enough material to supply the roster of female blues artists then working for Paramount in its early days, including Monette Moore, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter. Better still, if the material could be controlled by Williams, rather than using songs by established ‘blues’ writers and publishers such as Clarence Williams or W.C. Handy, then the fatter the profits. Paramount, with no permanent recording studio in Chicago at that time, made many of its records at the Marsh Recording Laboratories in the Lyon & Healy Building and the Rodeheaver studio in the Rodeheaver Building (now the Pakula building.)

Aletha worked for Williams’ publishing company, the Chicago Music Publishing Company, in effect Paramount’s music publishing business, where, among other duties, she typed out the song lyrics and deposited the songs, together with the music, at the Library of Congress in order to register them for copyright. She did so until 1928, when Williams left to join the Vocalion company.

Contemporary with her tenure as Williams’ secretary, Aletha and Alex Robinson also ran Dickerson’s Record Shop at 31st and State Street, a popular hangout for black and white Chicago musicians.

She and Robinson may have also worked behind Williams’ back - she gets composer credit on Jimmie Blythe’s Fat Meat and Greens and Jimmie Blues (Paramount 12304), with another recording of the first title by Jelly Roll Morton for Vocalion in 1926. According to the Library of Congress files she co-wrote it with one John Bishaw (shown as ‘Bishow’ on the label and copyright was deposited by Aletha Dickerson on June 27, 1925 with no specific publisher shown. Both she and Jimmie Blythe share the composer credits for Jimmie Blues, whilst she and husband Alexander Robinson share composer credits on Atlanta Black Bottom, the only recording of which was made by Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra for Vocalion in New York in November 1926. Again, on the latter title, no specific publisher is named in the Library of Congress files.

With Mayo Williams’ departure for Vocalion, and without ever being officially informed, Aletha had, by late 1928, become Paramount’s recording director. According to Thomas A. Dorsey in a letter to Max Vreede (February 26, 1961) "Alexander Robinson and his wife Aletha ran the race record department and managed the Hokum Boys." The Chicago Defender of June 22, 1929 ran the following item: "Lethia [sic] Dickerson, prominent businesswoman and musician, has charge of Paramount studios and fills the bill well." Three months later, the Defender reported that "Alethia [sic] Dickerson, the Paramount recording manager, is busy securing new talent for recordings to be made this month for Paramount. Several new artists have been added to Paramount’s list." As confirmation of her role, unofficial or otherwise, within Paramount’s recording department, the 1930 Federal Census lists her as "Manager of Music Co."

She continued to work for Paramount even after the company relocated its recording studios to Grafton, Wisconsin. Skip James remembered seeing an attractive black woman in Paramount’s studio during his late January, 1931 session—almost certainly this was Dickerson. Among the new artists she brought to Paramount were singer Laura Rucker, and brother and sister act Arnold and Irene Wiley. Irene Wiley’s diary notes that they went up to Grafton in March 1930 (not c. December 1929 as stated in Blues and Gospel Records), taking with them legendary guitar evangelist Blind Joe Taggart and his guide and accompanist, Josh White.

Although Aletha Dickerson said she never recorded for Paramount herself, she is listed in the Gennett recording ledgers as participating on an unissued 1929 session by Blind Blake. On Saturday, August 17, 1929, Blake recorded Blue Getaway, matrix 15467, in Gennett’s Richmond, Indiana studio. The files note that "Aletha" accompanied Blake on piano – almost without question this was Dickerson herself. She even accompanied a singer, Anthony Olinger, on a personal recording (mx L 503) commemorating Wisconsin Chair Company (WCC) President John Bostwick’s 93rd birthday. According to Janet Erickson, daughter of Paramount’s pressing foreman Alfred Schultz, Aletha (she recalled her name as "Althea") worked at Grafton as secretary to Arthur Laibly, Paramount’s Sales and Recording Manager. (1)

As the Depression deepened and Paramount was facing its grim final days, WCC Vice President Otto Moeser was desperate to slash wage bills and overheads. He offered Aletha, in lieu of salary, $20 for each artist she brought to the studio. She refused and quit, only to discover shortly afterwards just how badly the Depression had hit the country

What follows is mainly her own story from letters addressed to music publisher and promoter Harrison Smith and the late John R. T. Davies, which were found in the remaining archives of the late Max Vreede, author of the landmark study of Paramount’s Race Records "Paramount 12/13000 Series." With the help of Max’s widow, Elli Vreede and his brother in law Ralph van Vurth, the letters emerged from the dust. The letters were written by Aletha between April and November, 1972, two years after the death of her husband, Alex. At the time, she was living in New York, having moved there from Chicago in the 1950s, and where she continued to live until her death on March 30, 1994, just short of her 92nd birthday.
by Alex van der Tuuk